October 22, 1979 12:00 PM

Her words delivered the sharp surprise of a thorn in a bouquet of roses. After a week among adoring crowds and effusive officials, Pope John Paul II met a woman with something on her mind—and the courage to say it. “The church must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our church,” Sister Theresa Kane said in clear, measured tones at a prayer service attended by 4,000 nuns at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. The Pope listened without expression. Only three days before, he had specifically reaffirmed his opposition to the ordination of woman—and if the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was hoping to convert him, she was disappointed.

After lightly touching the sister’s head as she knelt before him for the traditional blessing, John Paul once again called on women “to serve as the needs of the church require.” In a soft rebuke to the 53 nuns who wore blue armbands and lay clothing and stood during his speech to protest women’s exclusion from the priesthood, the Pope repeated his belief that nuns should dress in “suitable religious garb.”

Sporting a Mercy Cross pin on her two-piece brown tailored suit, Sister Theresa said, as she left the shrine: “It was my heart and truth and I had to speak it. I don’t speak for every woman. I merely hoped to offer a challenge to him to hear the suffering and pain of women.” Although John Paul was unable to schedule a private meeting with her in the U.S., she has an appointment to see him in Rome next month.

Sister Theresa, 43, has long been a social activist. One week after graduating from Cathedral High School in New York, she entered the Sisters of Mercy, an order devoted to work with the poor. After graduation from Manhattanville College and service running a New York hospital, she became regional administrator of her order. Two years ago she moved to Potomac, Md. to become administrator general. At first she lived in the palatial mother house, surrounded by 346 acres of prime real estate. But soon she moved to a modest apartment in Silver Spring, and she has since led a successful campaign to sell the property so the sisters can be closer to the poor.

A committed feminist, Sister Theresa favors the Equal Rights Amendment and is a leader of Catholics Act for ERA. One sister who knows her well says “she feels she has a vocation” to be a priest. She reminds others of St. Catherine of Siena, who was the patron saint of the founder of the Sisters of Mercy. In 1376, St. Catherine walked from Sienna, Italy, to Avignon, France, to exhort Pope Gregory XI in person to return to Rome and reunify the church. The friends of Sister Theresa hope the antecedent will prove prophetic: In 1377, Gregory returned to the Vatican.

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