When IHM leadership decided that 10 of the congregation’s sisters who already had earned master’s degrees should pursue doctorates in theology, Sister Sharon Holland was one of those tapped. Sister Sharon and the others were real pathfinders since, prior to the 1970s, Women Religious were strongly discouraged from doctoral studies in theology. She had entered the order with a degree in music and a teaching certificate from Marygrove. Following formation studies, she earned a master’s at the University of Detroit. Next stop Rome. Sister Sharon was more than a bit dismayed to discover all classes in Canon Law at Gregorian University were taught in Latin—a real challenge considering she had only two years of high school Latin behind her.
After receiving her hard-won doctorate in Canon Law, Sister Sharon taught that subject at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan and Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Sister Carol Quigley (then head of the IHM order) remembers presenting a letter from the Vatican to Sister Sharon on April 1, 1988. “The church was calling her to leave the teaching she so loved at Catholic University, in order to serve all Religious through what is now known as the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The prospect was challenging and required her usual thoughtful, prayerful consideration. Despite the date and her initial doubt, this was no gesture in jest.” According to Sister Carol, Sister Sharon knew that accepting this invitation would put her squarely on the two-edged sword between Religious called to be prophetic (especially since Vatican II) and the Vatican Offices called to preserve the best of traditions. Sister Sharon accepted the challenge. For most of the past 20 years she has been one of the highest ranking female Vatican officials to be head of the office.
All changes to the constitutions of pontifical religious congregations required Vatican approval before their implementation. Sister Marie Andre Walsh, IHM, who was Vicar for Religious in Austin, Texas, says “It was Sister Sharon’s responsibility to study their revised constitutions to be sure they were in agreement with the Code of Canon Law and to suggest changes that needed to be made so they were in accord with the mandates (of Vatican II). When Religious in my diocese called me for help, I immediately referred them to Sister Sharon for consultation. The Religious in my diocese who are served by Sister Sharon are most grateful to me for securing her assistance. Sister Sharon, drawing from her experience with Religious throughout the world, often expresses her concern for those who are “falling through the cracks.”
Recently, the Catholic Health Association (CHA) presented an award for outstanding service to Sister Sharon. At a ceremony in Rome, CHA president and CEO, Sister Carol Keehan, whom Sister Sharon refers to as CHA’s “greatest asset in Rome,” cited Sister Sharon’s ability to negotiate and explain very complex legal issues regarding lay participation in Catholic hospital leadership to all involved parties including the Vatican.
Two years earlier, St. John’s University in Rome awarded its International Medal to Sister Sharon saying that “she models what is best about religious life.” Senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, John J. Allen wrote, “Aside from being an accomplished canon lawyer and trailblazer for women at the Vatican, Holland is also a legend in religious life.”
Last June, Sister Sharon was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross for service to the Church at the Vatican. It marked the end of her work in Rome. Sister Sharon retired from her Vatican ministry and returned to the IHM Motherhouse in Monroe where she will have more time to enjoy walking the beautiful paths on the award-winning restored campus.
“It has been a privilege to serve at the level of the Universal Church in Rome. I consider it an important accomplishment to enable people to feel that they have been welcomed, heard and assisted in some way,” says Sister Sharon of her ministry.