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Rice may see her actions as inspired by her faith, but she has had little support from within the Church establishment. Retired Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a renowned peace activist, laments the Church's tepid stance on Rice's detention and nuclear weapons. Citing official doctrine that explicitly condemns the use of weapons of mass destruction as "a crime against God and man himself," he calls on colleagues to take up her cause as an exemplar of someone who stood up for what is right.
"They're supposed to be leaders on something like this. There hasn't been any kind of statement from Catholic bishops on what Megan has done," he said. To be frank, Gumbleton added, "in the official church, I have to say most people don't even know about her. And that's really sad."
Rice doesn't expect much from the establishment — not even from the new pope, whose recent pronouncements have raised many eyebrows. She isn't interested in institutions but swears instead by a grass-roots church. "The church is where the people are," she said. The church matters only "on a local level." She is skeptical of Pope Francis but feels encouraged by his choice of a less extravagant lifestyle than those of his predecessors, who she said had been living like "princes in their palaces."
Her order, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, offered the lone voice of support from within the Catholic establishment.
"While we do not condone criminal activity, we would like to point out that Sister Megan has dedicated her life to ending nuclear proliferation. With the Catholic Church, she believes nuclear weapons are incompatible with the peace so desperately needed throughout the world and therefore cannot be justified," Mary Ann Buckley wrote in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera.
Pope Francis certainly seems inclined to rebrand the Church as an institution that fights for social justice and is not afraid of protesting. "I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined," Francis wrote in the mission statement for his papacy issued last month. That's a message that has resonated with many young people in different parts of the world who have taken to the streets to protest austerity and vast economic inequalities.
"American Christians have been far too polite, too quiet and too accommodating of both the injustice and the blasphemous use of Jesus' name in committing atrocities in our nation and our world," wrote a group styling itself Protest Chaplains in a manifesto that coincided with the Occupy movement of which they formed a part. "That's why we want to protest with all those who, like us, know in the deepest places of our souls that another world is indeed possible."
Rice met with Occupy activists discussing nuclear issues in New York City, "when it began in September." She described their work as "religion doing what it's meant to be doing."
"The church is where the people are," she said. "It is the people."
A similar message has been echoed in Barcelona, where street activists known as Indignados took their cues from Sister Theresa Forcades, a Roman Catholic nun and activist who believes the current economic policy consensus among governments of industrialized nations perpetuates inequality. And like Rice, Forcades has been skeptical of Francis' pronouncements, arguing that the new pope should be judged by his attention to women's rights, which so far has been lacking.
Still, Rice is confidence that "it will come," referring to the ordination of women. Last year she attended the unofficial ordination — not recognized by the Vatican — of Diane Dougherty in Atlanta. "They are preparing the way and are receiving great acceptance from lay Catholics."
Her supporters say Rice's life exemplifies the social activism needed to revive the church's appeal among young people. Still, she's reluctant to be cast as a hero. Her heroes, she said, are ordinary people who act "according to our conscience."
As she awaits sentencing on Jan. 28 — facing a possible maximum term of 30 years — she borrowed phrases from Dr. Martin Luther King in a letter she sent to Al Jazeera. In it she reflected on her life, which may very well end in prison.
"On some positions, cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' And vanity comes along and asks, 'Is it popular?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?'" she wrote.
"And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but one must do it because conscience tells one it is right."
At a court hearing in May, she told the public prosecutor her only guilt is that she waited 70 years to break into the facility "to be able to speak what I knew in my conscience." Seven months later she said, "This is a very positive experience. It's getting better and better."
She remains uncomfortable being in the spotlight, looking to deflect attention to others. She settles on her fellow inmates in this prison, the ones she is helping prepare for a life outside prison bars — a life to which she herself might not return.
With them in mind, she smiled, noting simply, "I'm not alone in being misjudged."