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Nuns at the U.N.

United Nations, N.Y.

When Good Shepherd Sr. Clare Nolan stood before a U.N. panel not long ago, she had something the worldwide organization did not -- up-to-the-minute information from 67 countries, countries where 6,000 Good Shepherd sisters work with girls and young women.

The panel was discussing the plight of girls in the aftermath of the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women. Nolan, part of the Queens, N.Y.-based Good Shepherd Services, is globally connected -- by fax, e-mail and soon Web site -- to a congregation that is on every continent, one founded in France in 1835 specifically to work with at-risk girls, women and families.

When Franciscan Sr. Kathie Uhler attends a U.N. briefing, she can determine the crux issues, notify and, over time, influence almost a million Franciscans worldwide. (In 1990 the Franciscans International nongovernmental organization used the United Nations as a platform to launch a program that has resulted in 3 million trees planted worldwide.)

If the United Nations’ topic is Chiapas or Nicaragua or Guatemala, Maryknoll Sr. Mary Duffy can speak from personal experience -- or pick up the telephone to call colleagues working with those sometimes-besieged people for an immediate update.

All these sisters belong to congregations or federations of women religious with NGO -- nongovernmental organization -- status at the United Nations.

What’s new at the United Nations this decade is nuns -- and their potential for impact is impressive.

The idea of a Catholic lay presence at the United Nations is far from new. In 1945 in San Francisco, the day the United Nations was born, there were Catholic nongovernmental organizations present, particularly in the person of Catherine Schaeffer, who would open the first Catholic NGO office -- representing the U.S. Catholic bishops (see accompanying story).

In 1990 there were perhaps two U.N.-accredited women’s congregations; today there are more than a dozen. Congregations increasingly “see more clearly” that U.N. accreditation, in the words of Sister of Charity Marie Elena Dio, nongovernmental organization representative for the Elizabeth Seton Federation, “is a way we can have an impact on social justice issues as the world becomes smaller.”

Said NGO newcomer, Sister of St. Joseph Carolyn Zinn (the Sisters of St. Joseph have been at the United Nations since 1985), “We’re moving from a parochial sense of doing unity and reconciliation and changing systems to a much more global sense.”

There are about 3,500 nongovernmental organizations accredited in two ways (with some overlap): to either the Department of Public Information, noted mainly for its comprehensive Thursday briefings, or to the Economic and Social Committee, which allows NGOs to submit papers to U.N. committees and panels.

Nongovernmental organizations buzz like bees from a ring of hives that circle the queen bee United Nations. They’re not necessarily a harmonious swarm -- environmental, humanitarian and pacifist-focused NGOs are known in some circles as “greens,” anti-environmentalists as “grays” and quasi-corporate NGOs, like the nuclear power industry or the National Rifle Association, as “suits.”

The acronym-filled United Nations, the arcane bureaucracy of popular legend, while living up to its reputation for cumbersomeness, also generates an inordinate number of initiatives that attempt to pressure even the largest nations to act on behalf of the common good.

Nongovernmental organizations, cooperating with others on mutual concerns, not only enable the United Nations to exert that influence, the NGOs instigate much of it. It was NGOs, not the United Nations itself, that in practical terms set the agendas for the U.N. conferences in Beijing; Cairo, Egypt; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on topics ranging from women to global warming to banning land mines.

The NGOs function at major U.N. conferences by running parallel NGO activities. In Beijing, NGOs held a parallel conference. More often they function by holding panels, talks and workshops for persons attending the conferences, work that feeds into the discussions by government delegations to the United Nations.

As more and more organizations of women and men religious apply for NGO status with the United Nations, they bring the world to the U.N. doorstep in fresh, gospel- and spirituality-driven ways.

Simultaneously, Catholic religious congregation NGOs are learning how to transmit U.N.-identified world needs and programs back to their congregations, parishes, schools, colleges, lay associates and the local media.

Four years ago the Franciscans were the movers behind establishing the NGO Values Caucus. The caucus is a regular gathering that inserts ethical questions into the NGO debates behind every U.N. proposal. “When I first came [in 1993],” said Franciscan International NGO co-chair Sr. Kathie Uhler, “words like values, ethics, spirituality and religion were almost taboo. In just five short years, the U.N. has opened itself up to considerations of values, of global ethics, spirituality -- words that are even in the documents now.”

The NGO Values Caucus also organizes informal monthly coffees. The guest is always an ambassador, head of a U.N. delegation, who agrees to talk frankly about values. Everything’s off-the-record, “but they don’t tell us any secrets,” Dio said.

For ambassadors, the information women religious have at their fingertips is equally important.

Like others, Sr. Clare Nolan (the Good Shepherd Congregation is accredited to the U.N. Economic and Social Council) has a kaleidoscopic range. She can provide details on the current condition and numbers of uneducated, ethnic minority girls in Thailand (for whom tourist sex is the only way to earn their family’s living), or facts on places like Ghana and Egypt where genital mutilation is still being inflicted.

At U.N. and NGO gatherings, Nolan has summarized the situation of girls outside the developed world this way, “They leave school against their will, work in unskilled and underpaid jobs, are given to marriage without consultation or consent, in many instances bear children at ages 10 or 11, always according to the needs and desires of others.”

How Nolan works is a variation on all the sister-NGOs. She pulls in information particularly from Good Shepherd’s international justice and peace group members in India, Brazil, Peru and Australia. As a result, she can say with certainty that “every day, in the ordinary routines of life, girls are constantly threatened with one form of violence or another.”

How Nolan works the United Nations is by teaming up with representatives of any and all nongovernmental organizations focused on her issues. These Catholic religious communities of women and men -- the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinian, Columbans, Vincentians, Salesians, and Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers all have men active in U.N. settings -- are not and do not wish to be seen as a “Catholic NGO” bloc.

They pursue not Catholic group NGO agendas but the priorities set by their congregations and federations. The Seton Federation priorities, for example, are women, poverty and the environment, with emphasis on poverty. But Sr. Marie Elena Dio says not every Seton/Vincentian congregation has the same focus on poverty, so she must tailor her work to their needs.

Most NGO sisters know of each other informally, but in a world of 3,500 NGOs, not everyone yet knows the others by sight. Within Catholic U.N. circles, when a question arises, the first response usually is: “Ask Dorothy.” That’s Dominican Sr. Dorothy Farley, who has headed the half-century-old U.N.-focused International Catholic Organization information center office at 323 East 47th St. for four years (see accompany story).

If the question comes from a newly accredited NGO sister, the answer is likely to be: “Ask Kathie.” That’s Uhler who, with Franciscan Br. Ignatius Harding, co-directs the Franciscan International, one of the first Catholic religious order NGOs.

“Around 1980,” said Uhler, “[the late Franciscan Sr.] Elizabeth Cameron said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a great idea if the Franciscans could enter the U.N. and represent Franciscan values?’ ”

That germ of an idea took hold when it was passed to the U.S. Franciscan Federation. The board liked it, and a committee composed of all branches of the Franciscan family worked internationally throughout the 1980s refining the suggestion. They created an NGO vision statement focused on the Franciscan core values: peacemaking, care of creation and concern for the poor.

In 1995 Franciscan Br. Kevin Smith and Franciscan Sister of the Poor Jean Glisky opened shop -- and plant-a-tree became the first big Franciscan project.

Uhler explained how everything comes together -- being an NGO, influencing the United Nations and getting the word back out. “Three of us divide the work -- we’re really stretched,” said Uhler. “Franciscan Missionaries of Mary Sr. Mary Teresa Plante does sustainable development and the globalization of the economy. Iggie [Harding] handles human rights, freedom of religion and belief. Plus,” said Uhler, “he’s vice chair of the newly formed NGO committee on social development.”

“My issues, basically, are women and disarmament, and I’ve been secretary of both those NGO standing committees,” Uhler said. Throughout the 1990s, she said, Franciscans International, drawing on Franciscans around the world, had large delegations or working groups at major conferences such as the Rio Earth Summit, the Treaty on Simple Living and the People’s Treaty of the Earth.

The Franciscans were members of national delegations at major U.N. conferences -- 10 members at Beijing; 20 in Vienna, Austria, for human rights; 22 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on climate change; and 22 in Kyoto, Japan, on emissions targets. Franciscans also attend the regional meetings that lead up to these conferences, attempting to insert Franciscan values wherever they can, she said.

The other vital part, beyond influencing the world body and its members, is getting the word back out. The Franciscans have added a full-time North American regional contact. Circuit riding nationwide is Franciscan Sr. Michelle Balek.

The work doesn’t stop at the U.N. doorstep.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999