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Religious Life

A woman stands at Mount Nebo


The view is breathtaking. On a clear day from the terrace outside the church, you can look down upon the whole Jordan valley, Samaria and the southern end of Galilee to the north, and the top of the Dead Sea to the south. Straight across, there are small Jordanian villages just below, then the strip of green that marks the course of the Jordan River, then the rising hills that contain the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. At the top of the hill, you can just make out the towers and tall buildings astride the Mount of Olives, and you know that just on the other side lies East Jerusalem.

Mount Nebo is, of course, according to Deuteronomy 34, the place from which God showed Moses the Promised Land. Moses had toiled for 40 years to bring the people of Israel there, but once he had seen it, he was told that he was not to enter it. I frequently have occasion to bring groups of people there, groups composed largely of loyal and dedicated laborers in the church: lay ministers, priests, women and men religious. It is a teachable moment, and so after recalling the story of Moses, I ask them if they are willing to do the same: to spend the best years of their life working for a vision that probably they themselves will never enjoy, but only glimpse from a distance.

Invariably, most of the women religious “get it” (as do many of the men, too). It puts them in touch with the experience of memory and grieving for hope lost. Those of us who are “baby boomers” and pre-baby boomers, who remember Vatican II, Good Pope John and where we were when John F. Kennedy was shot, thought we had arrived in the Promised Land when the aura of Vatican II broke through what was seen to be the remnants of the long, dry desert of the Counter Reformation church.

That church was still holding on during the first half of the last century, until the springs of water suddenly began to flow, the windows were opened (to use Pope John’s image) and a breath of fresh air began to flow through the old building. The church began to notice the signs of the times and to try to make sense of them, even to respond to them. The exuberance and optimism were overwhelming. There was hope and even assurance that everything could be different: structures of authority and justice, the grip of patriarchy, patterns of exclusion.

There were hopeful beginning signs: the liturgical reform, the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Declaration on Religious Liberty. Priest and altar turned around to face a congregation now addressed in its own language. There was a new fervor of ecumenism, a willingness to speak of Protestants as “our separated brethren” rather than heretics. There was the promise of reform of canon law. The laity began to feel as if perhaps they had a real place in the church after all. There was an over-idealization of Vatican II. Its legacy would heal all wounds and bring about all desired changes. Anything that seemed like a good idea was ascribed to Vatican II, whether or not it was really there. “But Vatican II says ...” or “in the spirit of Vatican II” were catchwords for whatever we wanted to see happen.

In women’s religious congregations, the call was to return to the original spirit of our foundation. That agenda required serious reflection and experimentation. Already before Vatican II, something of this had begun, for example, with simplification of the religious habit. But after the council, we entered into it with gusto, re-examining original documents, trying new forms of community life and relationships, new structures. Eventually the habits mostly disappeared, the inhabitants of convents emptied out into small groupings and individuals in apartments. Exciting new forms of inclusive government were inaugurated. New forms of ministry were more effective in reaching people where the need was. Sisters appeared on the picket line, in law courts and even in political office. Laity and religious alike, we stood at Mount Nebo glimpsing the Promised Land and were confident that just down the hill we would enter into it. We had forgotten what happened to Moses.

Moses saw it and died. In this exciting new vision of a renewed church that we thought we had created, something had to die. Old forms gave way to the new. The familiar presence of habited sisters in schools and hospitals disappeared, to the dismay and disorientation of many, both lay and religious. There were other kinds of death, too. Some found that they could no longer cope with this brave new world and abandoned it. Some left the church, and sisters left religious life in droves. At the same time, vocations that had boomed in the ’50s suddenly vanished in the late ’60s, as many more options were opened for young people who wanted to serve, and those in religious life seemed no longer capable of knowing, much less saying, what they stood for.

Slowly but surely, other experiences of dying set in. The new church did not live up to expectations. The ecumenical movement went about as far as it could go without introducing radical change, then cooled. The expanding role of the laity was carefully curbed at important junctures.

When women religious took seriously the church’s mandate to experimentation and reform, they were often greeted with a cloud of suspicion on the part of hierarchical authority. Patriarchal entrenchment in church structures did not budge noticeably, in spite of a few cosmetic changes. The church simply did not change in the ways that in the late ’60s we were so sure it would.

But the problems for women religious did not all come from outside religious life, and they could not all be blamed on ecclesiastical structures or persons and the lack of change in them. We found to our dismay that more democratic structures and egalitarian relationships in religious life did not change us as people. Community life actually became harder, because two or three sisters living together in an apartment could not hide their relational difficulties, as they had been able to do in a larger, more structured group. Without the support of that larger group and the religious habit, it was now up to us as individuals to maintain prayer and religious identity.

In the rigid authority structures of the past, many had suffered hurts that had lain buried for years because it would have been “disloyal” even to admit them. Now without the withholding structure, they surfaced and brought new levels of suffering that many of us have not known how to heal. The disillusionment with community life has led to a general movement, of the majority in some congregations, to live alone because it is simply easier and forestalls the possibility of more hurt. (I recognize that there are many complex reasons for living alone and do not intend to oversimplify.) However, young women and men today enter because of community. They are attracted by the radical possibility of adults trying to live together and so witness to reconciliation and peace. Celibacy they can practice on their own, ministry they are doing. It is community they are looking for.

Many of us now seem entrenched in our patterns of life that are based not on the embrace of the future but on the rejection of the past. We seem to be oblivious to what the next generation wants in religious life if it conflicts with what we have come to settle into as a comfortable pattern. In some ways we are stuck between letting go of the past and living for the future, in a kind of bitterness, angry with the church for not changing as we had hoped, angry with God for getting us into this situation, angry with each other for not being the perfect community members we had wanted and angry with the next generation because they often want forms and ways of thinking that we have rejected from past experience. They seem “conservative,” a bad word anathematized at Vatican II. We have stood on Mount Nebo, we have glimpsed the Promised Land, but we did not realize that entrance into it would be delayed beyond our lifetime. Sometimes we have not accepted our dying experiences as gracefully as did Moses.

Though it meant death for Moses, it meant new life for a new generation that would indeed enter the Promised Land. Heirs of the desert generation, they could listen to the stories of the past but had to create their own future in entirely different circumstances. They had to rely on the wisdom of their elders and continue to share life with them, yet they must have known that the future would not be at all the same. Young religious and those entering religious life today rely on the wisdom of the elders, yet must create their own new ways. The elders can only continue to stand on the mountain and cheer them on, but that role is essential.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000