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Photo of Clare Pratt

Clare 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."

Desmond O'Grady

Desmond O'Grady is a journalist based in Rome. His most recent book is Rome Reshaped (Continuum, 1999).

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