Five nuns locked in a spiritual battle over the intrusion of the modern world into their cloistered lives approached the end of their second week barricaded in their monastery's infirmary.
Their diocesan leader, Bishop Frank Rodimer, is calling the increasingly tense standoff within the Roman Catholic Church a scandal and says it stems mainly from personal differences. The dispute has even involved the Vatican, 1979 Nobel Prize winner Mother Teresa of Calcutta and, indirectly, Walt Disney and Julie Andrews.The Carmelite nuns at the Monastery of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel are cloistered, ordinarily having no contact with the outside world.
But the five rebels have a spokeswoman, 28-year-old Sister John of the Cross, who has handled the media with a touch of savvy while explaining that the five are fighting the introduction of modern conveniences into the monastery.
Four of the nuns locked themselves in the infirmary Oct. 4 because they feared they would be thrown out of the monastery. A fifth joined them shortly afterward. They say they are trying to remain in the monastery despite a notice of dismissal they received in June from their relatively new prioress, Mother Teresa Hewitt.
Rodimer said the case stems from a personality conflict between the nuns, ranging in age from 28 to 71, and their new prioress, who replaced a woman the five became emotionally attached to.
"I believe the bishop is simply clouding the issue when he brings up personality conflicts," Sister John told The Associated Press in an interview last week. "He's trying to make it something it is not."
Sister John says the dismissal notice was issued after she and the other four protesters objected to the liberalization of the monastery with the introduction of newspapers, sweets and television, along with videotapes of the "The Sound of Music," the 1960s hit musical in which Andrews played a woman who left a convent, and the Disney classic "Babes In Toyland."
An appeal of the pending dismissal has been filed with the Vatican and the nuns intend to stay in the infirmary until they hear from Rome, Sister John said.
She argues that their struggle has been misunderstood by the media, which she says have simplified the conflict down to five nuns who don't want television and sweets in their monastery vs. a bishop, prioress and eight other nuns who do.
"The candy and television in themselves are not the issue," Sister John says. "We are to live a life of penance, of austerity. We are not to be distracted by anything. The candy represents a lack of mortification."
Rodimer disagrees, saying the five are rebelling against the new prioress. In a news conference Wednesday, Rodimer referred with a touch of sarcasm to the television and sweets as "very profound issues."
No comment from the prioress was available Saturday; the telephone at the monastery was busy. But Mother Hewitt told The Star-Ledger of Newark earlier that the schism was between nuns who were loyal to the former prioress and those who accept the new authority, not between conservative and liberal sisters.
She also said the changes introduced in the monastery were allowed under Vatican II's reforms. Television, magazines and newspapers had been available for several years, she said, but she agreed that she had broadened their use to "balance what I thought had been too small a recognition of human needs."
Rodimer warned the nuns they could be relieved of their vows.
"They've broken the vow of obedience, and I suppose it's a scandal in that sense," he said.
Rodimer says the Vatican asked the Rev. Kevin Culligan of Milwaukee to help resolve the dispute.
But the nuns turned Culligan away Thursday, saying they wanted written proof that he represented the Vatican.
Sister John said she will eventually talk to Culligan, even though he is known for his liberal views and is a friend of the new prioress.
The sister says she doesn't want to cause trouble within the church. She says she realizes that some people think it's hypocritical of the nuns to be espousing their conservative beliefs to television reporters.
"What happened to us, we hadn't planned," she said. "We can't wait until it's all over with. (The protest) does appear as a contradiction. We don't like it, but it's the only way we can obtain help at this moment."
Supporters in the town have been donating fruit baskets to the nuns. And Mother Teresa of Calcutta has agreed to talk with Pope John Paul II about the dispute this week, Sister John says.
Sister John says she will continue fighting for the values for which she has sacrificed her secular life.
"I love rock 'n' roll and I love the Yankees. I'm a normal person," she says. "But I've sacrificed those things to obtain something better. I know God has called me here to Morris Township. I was not called to any other monastery on earth."