Sister Kate Kuenstler, longtime canonical advocate for the rights of laity in the Church, entered into eternal life on October 28, 2019 after an extended illness. I was privileged to represent the church reform community and countless parishioners at her wake and funeral on November 1 and 2.
The Gospel passage chosen by Kate’s Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ (PHJC) sisters well describes her influential yet unobtrusive leadership: “Jesus went on to say, What is the kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it? It is like yeast a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour till it was leavened all through” (Luke 13:18, 20-21).
Kate’s pastoral service was a powerful leaven to hundreds of faithful Catholics who successfully defended their parish homes.
I first met Sister Kate Kuenstler in May, 2007 as I sat in a pew at the Church of the Resurrection in Solon Ohio and listened to her speak about “Canon Law and the Rights of the Lay Christian Faithful.” Her passionate presentation sent shivers down my spine.
The FutureChurch Board had just approved a new Save Our Parish Communityproject to provide support and canonical resources to parishioners whose vital, solvent parishes were threatened with closure.
We had watched in horror as prelates in Boston—the epicenter of the clergy sex abuse crisis—summarily closed 65 vital parishes in that archdiocese, despite parishioner vigils and non-violent sit-ins that continued for years. As we suspected—and the Vatican later confirmed-- Boston churches had been closed and sold to help pay clergy sex abuse bills.
FutureChurch knew that if Boston succeeded in suppressing parishes and selling off churches it was only a matter of time before many (if not most) other US dioceses would follow suit. Parish downsizing solved two problems for US bishops: 1) There were not enough priests to staff their parishes. 2) Most dioceses desperately needed money to pay legal fees resulting from clergy sex abuse lawsuits.
FutureChurch’s Save Our Parish Community effort provided canonical resources to help Catholics resist unjust church closures. But we needed someone who knew canon law and who was passionate about the rights of the laity.
As I sat and listened to Sister Kate, I knew we had found that person.
Over the next 12 years, Sister Kate Kuenstler helped hundreds of parishioners file appeals to save their parish churches. When she began, we were told by national priest leaders that there was little to no chance of winning.
But Kate’s creative use of canon law courageously “made a way where there was no way.”
Her tireless defense of the canonical rights of the laity changed Vatican policy from automatically accepting US bishops’ decisions to close and sell vibrant churches to one that preserves those churches as worship sites instead. Thanks to her efforts with FutureChurch, at least 38 churches (to date) won their appeals and are still in existence after being threatened with closure.
She blazed a trail for other canon lawyers to follow. Her pioneering work is chronicled in the award winning 2017 documentary Foreclosing on Faith http://foreclosingonfaith.com detailing parish appeals in New York, Cleveland, and Boston.
Bob Kloos—pastor and administrator of Cleveland’s community of St. Peter—reflects on his experience of working with baker-woman Kate as she gently kneaded in the yeast so necessary for the rising of the People of God:
Kate was there for the little people. For all the baptized. She was a servant first and foremost. What else could a professed Poor Handmaid be? She listened to their heart and she understood. She was accustomed to their disillusionment when they wrote, called, or showed up at her door. She would help. She would hope. She would heal. And often, she would win.
She responded to the chaos by introducing order. She answered the desperate calls with unrelenting peace. She encouraged the disheartened while she researched the details, strategized a defense, and crafted a reply. It was always about the law, but she supplied equal amounts of compassion, consolation, and encouragement wherever it would serve.
Bishops she tangled with should have known better than to try to go around the law. She was patient with them, but firm. They should have known that bold is never a substitute for love, and she hoped that every decision rendered on behalf of the lowly would teach a valuable lesson to those who needed to learn.
Even when the bishop lost, the Church was served.
A great woman has earned her eternal rest. Others will have to step up now. But they will have to do so with precision, perseverance, and perfect clarity if Kate’s legacy is to endure. The poor will still need and deserve what Kate provided, willingly and without reserve.
There is no better way to honor Kate than to imitate her commitment to her calling – you to yours. There is still much work to be done.
“Jesus went on to say, What is the kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it? It is like yeast a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour till it was leavened all through” (Luke 13:18, 20-21).