Several journalists have recently weighed in on the status of women’s religious life in recent years: Ann Carey’s Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Life (1997); John Fialka’s Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America (2003); Cheryl L. Reed’s Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns (2004); and Kenneth Briggs’s "Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns" (2006). In these books, the authors mix themes of nostalgia with those of conspiracy and betrayal (whether by “feminist sisters” or by authoritarian bishops). These varied interpretations prompt the following questions: How do the sisters themselves understand the changes in their way of life over the last half century? And what gives them hope as they look to the future?
The Council’s Call for Renewal
In August 2006, 800 leaders of women’s religious congregations gathered in Atlanta to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The theme of the meeting, “Embracing the Dream,” climaxed a year of observances. One historian noted with humor the initial reluctance of their predecessors to form such a conference. But, she said, the decision was taken “because Rome wished it.” In the intervening years, however, the L.C.W.R. has steadfastly supported congregational leaders in their efforts to guide an unprecedented process of change and renewal. An anniversary prompts some reflections on that process and on the present moments with its challenges and opportunities.
The timing of the decision to form the conference in 1956 was fortunate. A decade later the conference was able to assist congregations in responding to the challenges of the Second Vatican Council. Because of this, plus the success of the sister formation movement launched in the early 1950’s, by 1965 a generation of women religious was uniquely poised to embrace the council’s mandates. The council’s instructions to all religious were clear: they were to renew their communities through a return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original inspiration behind a given community. Communities were also asked to adapt their manner of living, praying, working and governing themselves according to the physical and psychological conditions of the contemporary world and to the needs of the apostolate, the requirements of a given culture and the relevant social and economic circumstances. “The Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of Religious Life” (1965), also directed that constitutions, directories, custom books, books of prayer and ceremonies, and similar compilations were to be suitably revised and outmoded regulations suppressed.
The scope of the mandate was breathtaking. To note 40 years later that not every change led to the anticipated outcome is not to diminish the enormous generosity with which sisters in the United States embraced the challenge. No summary could do justice to the achievement, but it is worth acknowledging that the path of change was shaped by three overarching factors.
The first is that the Vatican’s vision of how change would occur was inadequate to the reality. According to the “Norms for the Implementation of the Council” given to religious congregations in 1966, we were to enter into a period of experimentation, which was to take approximately 12 years, depending on the scheduling of a congregation’s governing chapter. At that time the revised constitutions and custom books would be submitted for approval, and experimentation would be finished.
The problem was that “experimentation” connotes a scientific objectivity that was never possible, given that every member was to participate in the experiments and each one found herself changed in the process. After several years of new practices—such as driving cars, modifying our dress or attending evening functions—it was difficult to find the critical distance to evaluate whether or not we were, in fact, more apostolically available or psychologically mature as a result of the changes. Furthermore, adaptation of external norms and interior renewal were inexorably intertwined. To give just one example: modifying the traditional monastic schedule in apostolic communities allowed sisters to attend prayer groups, charismatic weekends, individually directed retreats and so on. The result was an individuation of spirituality that sometimes enriched the individual at the cost of a communal spirituality.
A second circumstance guiding the process of change was the theological vision of the church promulgated by Vatican II—the assertion that all Christians within the people of God enjoy fundamental equality eliminated any elitist interpretation of the religious state. And the assertion that all Christians share the call to mission means that it is not the sole prerogative of religious (or the clergy). As ennobling as these affirmations are, they did relativize the status or role of religious, especially the nonordained, in a way that some found disconcerting. As the years passed, sisters accompanied other lay people in the complicated passage to new pastoral roles in the church. Other concepts from the council that influenced the process of change within religious life were participation, collegiality and authority as service.
Finally, the change process mandated for religious was to be a response to the conditions of the contemporary world, with its myriad cultures and varied economic and social realities. These were the signs of the times that we were to consult as we crafted our adaptation and renewal. To say that we were aiming at a moving target is to under-estimate the challenge! Once we “threw open the windows” on the modern world, the signs were overwhelming and constantly changing. The civil rights movement, the war on poverty, liberation movements in Latin America, the women’s movement, globalization, changes in travel and communication, demographic changes on the national and worldwide scale, the AIDS pandemic—these and many other factors prompted changes in our way of life and new ministry initiatives.
In navigating the path since the council, the sisters’ efforts have not always been understood or supported by church leaders, the clergy or the laity. We have not told our story in ways that others could understand. Nor have we always been honest in our self-appraisal of how we were faring amid the changes. But on balance, sisters have achieved clear gains over the years, gains which create the foundation for the future. As Pope John Paul II said in his apostolic exhortation following the synod on consecrated life: The period of renewal has been “full of hopes, new experiments and proposals aimed at giving fresh vigor to the profession of the evangelical counsels, but it has also been a time of tension and struggle in which well-meaning endeavors have not always met with positive results.” Nevertheless, he said, the difficulties must not lead to discouragement but to fresh enthusiasm, “for the church needs the spiritual and apostolic contribution of a renewed and revitalized consecrated life.”
Toward Revitalized Religious Life
What are the signs that a renewed and revitalized consecrated life for American sisters is a dream worth embracing? Which gains make the vision capable of realization? After all, our numbers have dramatically decreased since their peak in the 1960’s, our median age has risen, and new members are too few to replace those lost to death. Here is a short list of signs demonstrating that the energies of women religious that enabled them to found Catholic educational, health care and social service systems from coast to coast and to give a decisive impetus to the pastoral mission of the church in this country are still alive.
• Sisters today have a newfound humility, born of external diminishment and rooted in a sober realism. We acknowledge that our status in the church is not one of superiority or privilege. And we are grateful for the gift of a religious vocation that enables us to serve others.
• Sisters today embrace their status as women in the church and in society. We are grateful for the bonds we have forged with other women and men who seek a more just and compassionate world.
• Sisters today are launching new and creative apostolic initiatives. Examples include the African Sisters Education Collaborative currently providing services to Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania; Cristo Rey high schools for inner-city students in several cities; N.G.O. presence at the United Nations; multiple AIDS ministries.
• Sisters today are organizing their ministries to ensure their long-term viability and to enable lay leaders to continue them into the future. Examples are the multiple Catholic health systems, the Sisters of Mercy Higher Education Colloquium and the Mercy Secondary Education Association.
• Sisters today are finding new ways to collaborate with one another across congregations. Mergers and other alliances provide ongoing vitality and effective use of limited resources.
• New congregations of sisters are being founded. In 1999 the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reported on 157 new or emerging religious communities in the United States. Most are very small, and not all will survive, but their existence testifies to the enduring attraction of a life lived in total dedication to Jesus Christ and his mission.
• Already established congregations are receiving new members. In 2005 the Center for the Study of Religious Life published interviews with 35 sisters born in 1965 or later. Their descriptions of their dreams and desires speak of being witnesses to God’s love and signs of hope, of being risk-takers and part of something communal and collective. Although they see themselves as living and working collaboratively, they do not see themselves as a church workforce.
Overall, the challenge of religious life still today is to forge a new integration of consecration and mission in contemporary culture, a witness that is transparent to the divine and in touch with the needs of suffering humanity. This is the gift that women’s religious life seeks to bring to the church and the world today.