This is not an easy time to be a nun or a Roman Catholic sister. Inside sisters’ communities, vocations and finances are at a dangerous low and, outside, nun-bashing is at a dangerous high. Conservatives, liberals, and average Catholics alike do not seem particularly sympathetic to what is happening today within female religious orders. More common is cynicism about their future, nostalgic and overly-romantic (“flying nun”) mythology about their past, and an essential indifference to their present.
I say this with sympathy, as one who, for the most part, admires nuns and as one who feels that there needs to be a real wake-up among virtually all Catholics regarding the contribution, past and present, of Roman Catholic nuns.
Let me submit a little thesis here: During the past thirty years, the years between Vatican II and today, within Roman Catholicism in the Western world, nuns, as a group in comparison to other groups, have done the following:
1) Taken the teachings of Vatican II the most seriously.
2) Risked the most in terms of money and institutional security in the types of commitments they have chosen to make on the basis of gospel principle.
3) Taken the most seriously the gospel demand to make a preferential option for the poor.
4) Sustained a life of prayer and private morality as well, or better than, any other group.
5) Given more to the Catholic community and received less in return.
In short, in the last thirty years, among all large religious groups (as distinct from simple individuals) I see Roman Catholic nuns as the group that has taken the gospel the most seriously, some faults notwithstanding. Yet, and this is the irony that needs explication, today, among all groups within the church they are, visibly, the most in trouble. Short on vocations, short on money, short on sympathy, and short on being understood by the secular world, the very future of many sisters’ orders appears uncertain.
And this is not being seen, and assessed, without a definite glee in some circles. Among certain conservative groups, this “demise” is seen as fitting retribution. Had the nuns kept to their traditional ways (habits, convents, proper respect, proper propriety) God would be rewarding them with vocations, but, given their last thirty years, what else do you expect? Among certain liberals, the view is that this type of religious life has run its cycle, a new reality has rendered it obsolete. All that is left for nuns to do is to die honourably.
But all this can be viewed differently.. The state of most female religious congregations in the West today is not a sign that they have failed or been unfaithful. To the contrary. Gospel fidelity rarely leads to the kind of success that is measured in terms of numbers and financial security. The gospel asks that we die for others, that we pour ourselves out selflessly without being too concerned about our own living and dying in this world, that we remain faithful even if everything seems to be crumpling.
This nuns have done. They have poured themselves out. One looks to the past and sees the countless nuns who worked in our Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages, and parishes, doing the thankless things, the anonymous things, the quiet things that were so essential to the building up and educating of the Catholic community. One looks at the present and sees sisters’ communities at the cutting edges of so much of what is the still unfinished agenda of Vatican II. To offer just one example, among all religious groups in the West, Catholic and Protestant, women’s orders are, proportionately more than anyone else, at considerable cost to themselves, putting their financial portfolios to work for the poor.
When Archbishop Romero was threatened with death by the Salvadorean military, he said: “If you kill me, I will rise in the Salvadorean people!” I do not know what the future is for active women’s religious orders in the West, but I do know this: They have already risen in the lives of Catholics in the West. The effect of their leaven and their silent martyrdom is everywhere.
In 1875, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote the poem, The Wreck of The Deutschland, in memory of five Franciscan nuns who drowned when a ship sank. Seeing this dying within the larger mystery of God he wrote: “His mystery must be instressed, stressed; for I greet him on the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.”