Pratt, RSCJ, lives and works out of a 1950s three-story stucco building
in the Roman suburb of Monteverde Nuovo with a view of the sometimes
snowcapped Alban Hills. It's a view that she will periodically have
to forsake as the new superior general of her order, the Society
of the Sacred Heart. Last summer she became the 15th woman -- and the
first American -- to lead the Society since its beginnings in France
more than two centuries ago.
Formerly the order's secretary general, Pratt inherits responsibility
for an institution whose reputation for educating the elite now
contrasts with its aims, updated in the wake of Vatican II. "Saint
Madeleine Sophie Barat, who founded the Society after the French
Revolution, had a vision of social transformation which excluded
no one," says Pratt. With the Society's decision to abandon semicloistered
status in response to Vatican II, its members have been better able
to follow "the pull of the poor" into inner cities, prisons, and
refugee camps. Pratt, even with her heavy administrative commitments,
has followed too. For the past five years, this daughter of a U.S.
federal judge has spent weekends in Regina Coeli prison, preparing
liturgy, directing the choir, and entertaining inmates with "You
Are My Sunshine" and "Kumbaya" on her accordion.
The 1970s saw the shutdown or merger of some of the Society's long-held
schools. Pratt's alma mater, Newton College of the Sacred Heart,
for example, was absorbed into Boston College in 1975. Like many
other religious orders, "the Society has slimmed down," says Pratt.
Its numbers have dropped from just over 6,000 in the mid-'60s to
3,400 today. Even so, membership is growing in some Asian countries
(Korea, India, and Indonesia) and in the Southern Hemisphere (Congo,
Uganda, Kenya, Mexico, Peru). The order has operations in 45 countries,
and Pratt intends to visit them all.
Although her new title may suggest a quasimilitary authority, Pratt
sees herself more simply as an instrument of support and unity,
a servant of her order's members. In the Society, she says, "we
believe power means servant leadership." After her election, in
the flurry of congratulations, she received one message that she
especially appreciated. Eight novices in the order's Uganda-Kenya
province, citing a Christian metaphor for humility, sent her an
e-mail thanking her for "being willing to wash our feet."
O'Grady is a journalist based in Rome. His most recent book is Rome
Reshaped (Continuum, 1999).
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