Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Coming up empty

My sister Mary emailed me today with a question about the upcoming Vatican Visitation of US religious communities. Since her colleagues in the surgery department were talking about it, Mary wanted something of an inside scoop. Her subject line ("Nuns vs. Vatican?") seems to sum up what is going through many people's minds.

Just yesterday I read an essay on the matter by the brilliant Sr. Sandra Schneiders. Rather than dealing with the substance of the Visitation (which can be at least deduced by a review of the questions) Schneiders focuses on the process, likening it to a grand jury or a "sting" operation. (To dismiss the appointed Visitor as "an unknown among U.S. women religious who include in their number a virtual "hall of fame" of outstanding, highly credible women .... [and who] belongs to a small order with one small province in the United States" was just cheap.)

Early in the essay, Schneiders hints that the key issues will be clothing and convents, and maybe some demographic problems. All of these she dismisses blithely. It bothers me that even now some of the women who made such rapid, almost frenzied changes in the externals of their life can't bring themselves to consider the possibility that it may not have proven all that prophetic in the end, or that some values that they did not fully recognize at the time really were compromised. Later in the essay, Schneiders dismisses the drastic drop in vocations with an appeal to increased opportunities for women and the decreased size of Catholic families. I was a teenager in the 70's. No way was I even tempted to throw in my lot with a group of women whose behavior at the time was so grotesquely immature. I could not have been the only Catholic girl who saw things that way. Could that possibly have had something to do with the precipitous decline in entrances? But that is all past, not issues of the present day, and certainly not something that would provoke a Visitation forty years too late to make a difference.

According to the New York Times, the Visitation is prompted by the witness of "nuns 'who have opted for ways that take them outside' the church" (quoting Cardinal Rodé, head of the Vatican office that oversees religious communities). As an example, I can cite the current issue of "New Theology Review": Fr. Robin Ryan, CP, writes of "some religious [who] no longer, or only on rare occasions, participate in the celebration of the Eucharist" because the presider is male. If you're the Vatican, that's a big problem, because the Eucharist is the heart of the Church's life, and religious life belongs essentially to the life and holiness of the Church. (Among the questions that form the basis of the Visitation, several concern the celebration of the Eucharist.)

It is more than possible that there are some communities or some individual religious who believe they are carrying out a prophetic role in the Church by protesting patriarchy or redefining religious life or going "beyond Christ." They may believe they are called to be instruments of change, leading the People of God into new, daring places. If so, they must have expected to put their necks on the line at some point. Or has it all been just a game, with the prophets of change hedging their bets the whole time, assuming that the Church would never ask the questions they didn't want to (or just couldn't) answer? Some reactions sure make it look that way.

All that said, part of the pique is that the questions seem mostly directed to the "progressive" side of religious life. There are many communities that would be considered "traditional" which have unique (and serious) troubles of their own, but those issues do not seem to be on the front burner. (It probably would have been wise for the Vatican to be more inclusive!)

Since religious life belongs by its nature to the life and holiness of the Church, and is not some sort of third-level decoration or option, the Church has every right to see to it that it is being lived as a witness to the truth of the Kingdom of God, the universal redemption of Jesus, and the transformation of our minds by the Holy Spirit, and not according to the spirit of the age we happen to be in.

Interestingly, today's liturgy has something of a connection overall. Gideon, called by God to rescue Israel from its enemies, looks at himself and sees the least significant member of the least significant family of the tribe of Manasseh. Peter looks on as the rich young man turns and walks away, taking all his advantages and connections with him. Gideon, with no strength of his own, finds his peace in God's promise to be with him. Peter and the others who "have given up everything" can count on Jesus to do what is impossible for human beings, but not for God. It's no different for the religious of the over 400 women's communities in the US. So please pray for the good outcome of the Visitation. There's also a Facebook page where you can commit to pray for this; you'll also get updates about the Visitation.


Lisa said...

As always, very wise insights and a practical reading of the complex dynamics.

~Joseph the Worker said...

Wonderful thoughts on the upcoming visitation. I'll be praying about it.

Ruth Ann said...

Thank you for this post, Sister Anne. I will include the visitation in my prayer intentions.

Anonymous said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. I'm not a religious, but some of my friends are.

Your point that not only 'liberal' excesses should be on the table is well taken.

I agree that I think that a good deal of this is about the Eucharist and the drift of some to a 'post Christian' stance.

This doesn't mean that lots of women in the same communities are living lives fully 'within the church'.

So, the big question is, what do they (the authorities) do about it? For example, can they force one segment of a community to disown another? What if some of the more 'edgy' sisters are in their late '70's? Do they get dismissed with no retirement provision?

These differences in approach have caused problems in many communities, but they have dealt with it within their own houses. I think that even the more conventional nuns, as well as the more edgy, resent that they are being investigated, as if they couldn't solve this as adults themselves.

I noticed that kind of resentment 30 years ago, when I taught with the Dominicans. That community had traditional convents, common prayer and a very distinguishable habit. (Tunic, scapular, veil.) There was something from some Roman office about how women religious should dress. I can remember one older sister talking about it, red in the face. "No man is going to tell me how to dress!" She was a responsible adult and a faithful religious. She didn't think she needed 'outside supervision.' I doubt that feeling has gone away.

Anonymous said...

This doesn't mean that lots of women in the same communities are living lives fully 'within the church'.

This should have read: However, there are lots of women in the same communities who are living lives fully 'within the church.'

Going fast, and getting interrupted, and I should read before I post!

xaipe said...

We talked at dinner about this situation. I remembered that in 1984 or so the document "Essential Elements of Religious Life" came out. 20 years after Vatican II, this was an attempt to rein in at least a few of the changes that were affecting religious life. Religious were asked to read the document and meet in dialogue groups in the various dioceses. I was in Seattle at the time (the year after my final vows, so I was very, very young!); I remember that some of the sisters were upset about the document; why was the Vatican telling them what the "essentials" of their life were... The Visitation is coming 25 years after that, and if you look at the questions, they cover the same "essential elements" as before. I guess that means that the presumably gentler "dialogue" model from 1984 didn't quite work.

"What do they (the authorities) do about it?" I think the effort in the 80's and this Visitation now are really an invitation (to those who will receive it as such) to a new kind of renewal. A more interior kind. I don't think it is a matter of "force," at all. What leverage is there beyond an appeal to the values intrinsic to the life itself?

The anger of some religious (and the haughtiness of the reactions) is the thing that seems to give it all away. It's such a clear sign that there is something unsettled within. Mostly I think the angry religious were and are still mad at the superiors, the structures and the very real hardships they suffered under in the 40's and 50's (when everything was supposedly so wonderful), but they have projected everything onto the Vatican. They "doth protest too much" about how capable they are, how many "years of unremunerated service" they have given, how great their "beleaguered effort to keep the spirit and substance of Vatican II from succumbing to the tides of restorationism" (Schneiders). They seem to be living in the past, with the ink on the pages of Perfectae Caritatis still wet. They desperately need our prayer, as does the appointed visitor whom (in a sadly revealing comment) Schneiders recommends be treated "as an uninvited guest."

Anonymous said...

Sister Anne,

You're right that people of a certain age are fighting phantom battles left over from their youth. Two examples: 1) When the new General Instruction to the Roman Missal stipulated that the priest receive communion before the communion ministers enter the sanctuary, in the parish of a colleague - general consternation and to quote him, "The feeling that we're being put in our place." In our parish of twenty somethings: "Just tell me where to stand and when."

A few summers ago, the young associate convinced the pastor to invest in a new fiddleback vestment for saying mass in our non-air conditioned church. To the folks of a 'certain age' it was "What else are they going to resurrect from the dead past?" To the twenty somethings, it was totally not an issue. "Whatever" best sums it up.

So, yes, they are fighting old battles. At the same time, I wonder if the politics of this - springing it on communities, etc. with no preliminary dialogue - just makes it so much worse.

Being called to integrity can only be a good thing. (And frankly, I think that those who feel that they are not really Catholic anymore - and articulate this! - should have the courage of their convictions and leave their communities.) But, if it feels punitive and coming from a (male) authority, I'm not sure how easily the goals will be reached.

xaipe said...

I'm not sure it is entirely accurate to say that this is being "sprung" on the communities; it was announced in January, and a CNBS article indicates that since that time Mother Clare Millea (the unknown visitor) "met, talked with or heard in writing from 72 percent of the country's superiors general during six months." So it's a thing that, yes, was "conceived" by the Vatican, but is being gestated through a process of dialogue--at least among those willing to participate.

"The conversations I had...have been very helpful in shaping the ... topic questions we've presented, to understand the reality before we set out to ask them specific information." So the questionnaire didn't spring, full-blown, from the Vatican, but was developed with the collaboration of 72% of the congregations' superiors.

In addition, "Mother Clare also is encouraging individual sisters to respond to issues... 'It's very important that each sister know that if she has anything she wants to tell me about her congregation she can do so freely and confidentially'." I can imagine that in some communities there are sisters whose voices and input have been marginalized. They also deserve a chance to be heard.

There will always be a reason to find fault with the process (especially when it originates from an unwelcome authority!); the challenge is to participate anyway, and with good will, without totally politicizing the matter.

John C. Hathaway said...

Sister, I came here through your Facebook link. Very interesting observations. If you can share without detraction, I would be interested to hear what you have to say about the issues in more "traditiona" orders (I am aware of some, just curious about your 2 cents).

I was struck by the point about not going to Communion. We had an Order at our parish when I was a teenager (whose name my mother parodied by calling them the Sisters of "No More"), and while the Sisters were always there to greet people before and after Mass, they never seemed to attend Communion-though the charitable assumption was "they went to another Mass".

I know that Sr. Schneiders and others have argued that their Orders should not be judged by the standards of traditional nuns, because they are trying to live a "new" apostolate in the Church. Insofar as we're talking about their apostolates and not their ideological or theological variances, perhaps that's fair enough.

But it always strikes me as odd when I see the vocations ads placed by the SSJ, Sisters of Mercy, etc.: "We don't wear habits anymore, so we look like regular people. We work regular jobs. You'd hardly know we were nuns! We're just a group of women who live together and pray together and then work regular jobs as professionals." And one really wonders what appeal there is in that description. I mean, my wife shared a townhouse with a bunch of Catholic friends from college before we were married. They lived together, didn't wear habits, worked professional jobs, prayed together, talked about religion together in the evenings (even had a long running debate with some Mormons), and they all had boyfriends or fiances and went on to get married.
Regnum Christi aside, there are a lot of new faithful associations that do that sort of thing (i.e., Opus Dei) and allow their members a certain flexibility of vocation while living in community, etc.
And there are traditional Third Orders.
Whereas, the ads for the St. Cecilia Dominicans, Mary Mother of the Eucharist Dominicans, PCPA, etc., emphasize that what they do is something special and set apart, that there's a reason to give up marriage and property and personal freedom to come join them.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sr. Anne,

You write well about this "hot" topic.

It seems to me that you are trying to be objective about this very polarizing issue.... Having been in religious life for almost 40 years, I've seen much, heard much, and learned much.

This Visitation may, or may not, be the best way to look into the lives of women religious in the US--time will tell.... It may, or may not, have been conceived with the highest motives--I don't know.... It may, or may not have been the best choice of persons, procedures, timing--nothing is perfect in this life.... It may, or may not, bring about qualitative and quantitave results--we'll see....

But now that it's happening, let's get through it with the graciousness and maturity that ought to be our "modus operandi", our ideal way of acting as Christians.

We may personally agree or disagree with the Visitation; we may experience negative feelings about it, but we'll face this experience with serenity and without coming unraveled.

When the visitors come, we receive them as we receive any visitor to our community: with open hospitality. We get through the visitation without rancor.
We listen to what is said and if, before God, we believe that what is being suggested will help me and my community live the call to holiness more intensely, then fine. If something does not seem to fit then we leave it in peace, without tearing the visitor or the process apart.

At this time in my life I am undergoing chemotherapy for cancer--not a pleasant experience! But it is giving me new eyes, a new understanding of our humanity, perhaps more emotional evenness, and a more reflective look into the fleeting nature of our lives. The realities of eternity are more frequently in my mind.

As I reflect on the visitation, I ask myself: Why should I get so worked up over something that will be over in a year or two? I will learn what I can from it, and what is untimely or unnecessary I'll let it rest.

May God give us serenity!

Thanks, Sr. Anne, for bringing up the topic.


Anonymous said...


One of the more intelligent blog discussions of which I've been a part.

John, I agree with you about the ads for some communities. I look at them and think, "Um, why?" And with Focolare, Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, etc, etc, why bother?

That being said, there might be a middle ground of a religious life lived in the modern world, without a habit, without a common apostolate, that is different from the aforementioned movements, but also a different flavor from more traditional orders. I grew up seeing the Sisters of Social Service in Los Angeles, who were founded sometime in the 1930's or 40's I think, and whose habit was a grey suit. (When I was a kid in the early 60's, the nuns at school made a point of reminding us that they WERE sisters.) The Daughters of the Heart of Mary never had a distinctive habit, and sometimes lived with their families. They were founded in the 18th century.

My hope is that what is good and valid and fruitful in the congregations being investigated gets held up. (It isn't all goofiness, after all.)

Mary F said...

Well said sister. I have seen several articles and a news piece on the visitation and also read the article you mentioned. I understood why there was a need for a visitation so I was somewhat puzzle that some sisters were confused. Religious life is and can continue to be a powerful witness in the heart of the church. Thanks again.

Sr Anne said...

What a great conversation! Thanks everyone. And today, Sr Helena sent me this link to an article in a UK Catholic paper: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/features/f0000457.shtml