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You've come a long way, Sister.


When it comes to women religious, Catholics have a hard time letting go of the past. Whether they yearn for the "good old days" or bemoan them, too many Catholics seem stuck in the 1950s in their impressions of nuns, and the mainstream media's obsession with habited caricatures certainly hasn't helped.

But the good sisters haven't let that stop them. Women religious were among the first to embrace the renewal of the Second Vatican Council, both in their own communities and in the wider church. One strong voice has been Mercy Sister Doris Gottemoeller, the first president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and a former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. While others sound the alarm about a crisis of vocations, Gottemoeller, who also has served as chair of the

Catholic Health Association, prefers to hold up the positive aspects of religious life, especially the value of living in community.

Religious life was humming along just fine in the 1950s, wasn't it? What happened?

I suspect that may be a somewhat distorted view of the `50s. If you take the long view, the numbers of people who entered religious life in the 1950s and `60s seem to be artificially inflated. When so many of these people left later, in a sense we were just returning to a situation more like what we had known in the past. But be that as it may, the need for reform was very real, and it had to be seen in the context of the need for reform in the church.

Many of the things that led up to Vatican II in the church also were present in religious life: a reluctance to embrace the new culture and an inability to embrace the fruits of scholarship, biblical renewal, or liturgical teachings.

The situation of women religious was exacerbated by the fact that the church was so dependent on us for ministry that we didn't pay enough attention to preparing and educating our religious. We've all heard stories of sisters who entered an order and were teaching months later, and who spent 25 years in summer school to get a bachelor's degree. It was an injustice to the children they taught, but also an injustice to them. Also our orders adhered to cultural practices that belonged to another era, which we had brought forward into the present day without questioning.

Such as?

Even in active communities, one couldn't go out without a companion, one couldn't eat in the presence of "seculars." What better way to share than to have a meal or cup of coffee with others? But we couldn't have so much as a sip of water in the presence of anybody else. Our vow of poverty was interpreted as never having a penny. If you needed to go to the dentist, you had to ask the superior for the car fare and she gave you the 25 cents. If you dropped a nickel down the grate, what would you do?

Walk home?

You either walked home or you begged, I don't know. It never happened to me, thank goodness.

When the church told us to update, we did so in obedience. The church told us to examine every element of our lives, our government, our spirituality. We were to go back to the vision of our founders and update with the needs of the times. No group in the church responded to these requests with more generosity than we religious.

We were well prepared for this because some of our congregations, back in the 1950s, had begun insisting on educating their members before they went into ministry. We had a generation of very prepared people at the onset of the Second Vatican Council.

How did your changes affect the church as a whole?

I think in hindsight one thing we could be faulted for is that we didn't take time to explain to others what we were doing and why. That left people saying. "What happened? Where did all the sisters go?"

What are the good fruits of the changes? What did your communities handle especially well?

We developed skills for participation and process. Sometimes we make fun of ourselves for pushing process to the nth degree just to make a decision, but this springs from a basic concern for the variety of girls among our members. We've also learned from and welcomed the insights of the laity, and we've moved into partnerships with laity that have, I hope, enriched everyone. It has given us a more real view of life and life's struggles and an appreciation of all the different kinds of vocations that life offers.

One other thing I think we've done well is to renew our institutions and prepare them for a future in which we will not be present the same way we have been. When history is written, I think we will be very proud of our health care and educational institutions. We have made that transition with incredible grace.

Can you give an example?

In health care, for instance, women religious were always a small number in terms of the workforce, but we were always in positions of influence, as supervisors and administrators. As we have not been able to replace ourselves in those positions and as health care has consolidated into larger systems, we've initiated something called mission awareness.

Within a large system you'll typically find a woman religious who is a vice president for mission, who is part of every decision and who is able to bring the insights of the religious tradition to bear as well as the church's ethical thinking. There's a lot of our creative thinking going into this right now. Similar things are happening in higher education.

Even if the mission is still being carried out, isn't it a loss that the sisters aren't there in the numbers they used to be?

I think the loss to the church, if there is a loss, is more that of a witness of a lifestyle and a life choice, not the loss of a workforce. In terms of education, Catholic schools are getting along quite well. In fact, enrollments are rising. What we do need to be concerned about is the loss of the witness of this way of life. That's more difficult to grapple with because it's less tangible.

What elements of your lifestyle today are such a witness?

I could tell you some amazing things that sisters are doing today. What's harder to talk about is what you find in so many wonderful novels and movies--where nothing much happens except that a relationship changes and deepens. Religious life is a relationship to God and a relationship to people in light of that relationship to God.

Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., for example, in the movie Dead Man Walking, has been such an effective witness to religious life because her struggle shows in that movie. She didn't always know what to say or what to do, but she was nourished by prayer. She went back to her community again and again, and they supported her.

What we have to show people is not just that religious share their goods in common, or that we don't get married, or that we pray and live in common. It's all of those things put together in a way that defines a lifestyle.

Some people say nuns are almost invisible today.

One problem is that we're not visible in parishes anymore. I regret the loss of the parish convent, for example. I never taught in a parish, but I had a wonderful experience for three years in the 1980s of living in a parish convent. People knew the convent was a door they could knock on.

Have you found anything to replace that kind of visibility?

I think we're now in a period where we've cast off symbols, like the habit, that are no longer relevant in some situations, but we haven't found new ones yet. You can't just hire an agency to do that. It has to come out of who we are. I think wearing something like a pin, as simple as it is, can be surprisingly effective.

I think our living in community is something that's more apt to be noticed than when we live singly. Presence in a parish church together is something that will attract notice.


When I moved to Silver Spring, Maryland in 1991, the sisters I lived with and I decided to start going to the local parish, even though by objective standards you'd probably say it had little to offer. The pastor was semiretired and ill, the place was dirty and gloomy--not much was happening. Instead of finding a parish in the suburbs where the liturgy was renewed and the music was wonderful, we just started going, and we've lived there long enough now to see the place transformed.

I think we played some little role in it; we were there every day and on Sunday, and people began to notice us. A new pastor came who appreciated religious life and never let an opportunity go by to affirm us and invite us to preach occasionally. I think people began to see that we add something valuable to the texture of life here, but we have to make the effort. Of course, a lot of it begins with living in community. I'm practically a one-woman crusade for that.

How did the idea of community living begin to fade?

We began to react against a certain rigidity in religious life, rising and going to bed at the same time, that kind of thing. Nobody expects that today, but some people fear that's what we mean by community.

Second, people needed us for ministries that required sisters to be at a distance from the rest of the community. A certain amount of that we can accommodate, if our members are generous enough and if the community will reach out and support them. But we also have to ask whether we need to respond to every need if in the end it destroys who we are and what we are.

Unfortunately there are some sisters who have been overtaken by a kind of individualism. Some of them choose a particular ministry because it puts them at a distance, so they have a reason to live apart. After a while that starts to become the norm, and then the ones who live in community are regarded as aberrant or weak or old-fashioned. The leading edge is to live alone. It's a subtle shift. We need to affirm the people who do create the welcoming communities.

What are some of the spiritual benefits of community?

First and most obvious is that you have a group to pray with. Communal prayer and communal spirituality have to be part of the rock-bottom foundation of who we are. We cultivate that by the very dailiness of praying together.

Celibacy is not about lonely deprivations but about creating adult relationships that are life-sustaining. Celibacy living alone is much different from celibacy in community, where a network of relationships that are of the gospel sustains us.

Poverty is not just living poorly or simply, it's sharing things in common and having my choices modified by the choices of other people. Together we decide how much is enough and how much is too much. It's the dailiness of those decisions that creates the texture of the life.

Religious obedience today means that the key choices in my life are discerned in the context of community. The ministry I'm in is made more effective by the people who send me forth. The community I live in is made more authentic by the concerns of ministry that we bring to the dinner table.

Why do you think numbers are down in religious life?

To some extent we've gotten bad press. Worse than being ignored is being caricatured.

But I also think the permanency of the commitment is a huge obstacle. For that reason I think religious life will always be the choice of a few. We have to expect that. In the end it's a call, an attraction that is not able to be explained.

Has religious life always been for the few?

I'm not a historian, but I do know that, while religious life has endured, it has taken many forms. The element that has endured has been the permanency--it's a life gift. It almost died out in some eras, and then there have been times of resurgence. So we take the long view. It would be amazing if there weren't another resurgence at some time in the future.

I think religious life has been so resilient because it meets a human need. It's a gift of the Spirit that is given again and again.


Religious life tends to go through cycles of growth, decline, and rebirth, and the U.S. church may be on the threshold of another cycle of rebirth, according to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.

A 1999 study of emerging religious communities found that more than 100 new communities have been founded within the past 20 years, with an average of five members.

Analysis of statements about the communities' charisms found an emphasis on prayer, contemplation, and evangelization, and decreased activity in the traditional institutional ministries of the church, such as health care and education.

The researchers concluded that more "conservative" communities were neither more nor less likely to have large numbers of new entrants than those not coded as "traditional."

Elements that appeared to attract comparatively more new entrants included working with youth, a spiritual focus, and Marian devotion.


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Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2000
Previous Article:How to crack open a hardened heart.

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