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Religious Life

Another woman religious breaks camp


I do not stand as Moses did on Mount Nebo, having brought the people of God so far. He was the seed whose death compelled others to go forward. I have never been fond of “seed theology,” as a novitiate classmate called it. It is the theology that roots itself in John’s Gospel, where Jesus announced that unless a seed dies, it does not bring forth new life.

The agrarian imagery doesn’t bother me so much as the rootedness of the action. Plants don’t move. I prefer the image of tapestry, weaving or even quilting. Such an image implies a group effort, a sewing together of pieces to make a whole. A whole that when stretched out, pushed up and pegged down can become the broad tabernacle of a wandering people, as Isaiah wrote: Enlarge the space for your tent, spread out your tent cloths unsparingly; lengthen your ropes and make firm your stakes (Isaiah 54:2). A tent is portable, easily set up and taken down, a perfect shelter for a traveling people. If those like me and I are to venture into the Promised Land we will need the tools of travelers.

The tent for ancient Israel witnessed to the people’s journeying in the wilderness -- their time of total dependency on God. What mattered most was not their route (for surely there is a quicker way from Egypt to Israel) but their journey. Not so much where they were going -- the parameters of the Promised Land would be delineated in later books -- but that in the process of the journey they were becoming a people. So it is the image of a spacious, hospitable temporary abode that captures my imagination when I think of religious life today and tomorrow. I think we women religious are going somewhere, but we can only go there together.

That we are compelled to be wandering in the desert doesn’t concern me. That we interpret the experience so radically differently does. And the difference most often has to do with the church. Call me impetuous, call me naïve, call me an early member of Generation X. All are true. But I believe there is a future for religious life, and its future is within the Roman Catholic church. Now some would call me traditional. And it is the name-calling, mostly under our breaths, that tears at our seams and threatens to rip down our tent. When it comes to discussing matters of the church or most especially Eucharist, our well-educated, well-trained tongues fall silent. And I fear it is a silence that will kill us.

I don’t think we are unwilling to talk together. I think we don’t know how.

I often feel uncomfortable talking about church issues with some of our sisters who are in their 50s and early 60s. It’s not simply an age difference but a cultural generation difference. Sean Sammon, a Marist brother and psychologist, wrote an insightful and helpful article, “Last Call for Religious Life” in Human Development (Spring 1999). He speaks of the Generation X adults born between 1961-1981 who have entered religious life.

According to Sammon, the 80 million members of Generation X are more tolerant of diversity than the previous generations; are the first generation of Americans whom other people took pills not to have; are the grown-up “latchkey kids” who are delaying life commitments and looking for a world and church that is stable; took on adult responsibilities at an early age because of absent parents; define family without relying on blood ties because of their high experience of divorce; trust friendship over all other relationships; are slow to commit; long for institutions to live up to their claims; are the clean-up crew for the century.

We are the generation who has no memory of the church before Vatican II. I have never heard a Latin Mass, nor can I imagine why the priest would not face the people in liturgy. In my lifetime, the church has been guided by Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II. My religious education spanned the awkward years when the Baltimore Catechism was out and nothing had yet taken its place. I wasn’t taught the rosary or the stations of the cross, but I read comic books about St. Francis and colored endless pictures of Jesus in various cardboard settings. As a teenager, I was introduced to social justice and those modern day saints Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Archbishop Oscar Romero and the four churchwomen martyred in El Salvador. My spirituality sprang out of the soil of catchy tunes sung at the Saturday evening Masses and quick-fix opportunities to help the poor.

As Sammon has suggested, this generation of which I am a member longs for a church that lives up to its claims, for all we have now is the chaos in the wake of Vatican II, the breath of fresh air, the force of which left little still standing.

I can only imagine the power and energy many of my religious sisters must have felt in the ’60s and ’70s. Hope and possibility freed them from arcane rules and imbued them with a spirit of adventure. I have sat at their feet and listened with awe and wondered what it would have been like to be so hopeful; to believe the “seed theology” -- the old was dying, the new springing forth; to trust that the spirit of Vatican II had the power to unsettle centuries of encrusted hierarchy. Sisters responded to new challenges and needs of the people of God, leaving the parochial classrooms to capable lay people. They became pastoral workers and social workers, ministering to the very needy, the anawim who oftentimes were their congregation’s original inspiration.

But these sisters who have so inspired my vocation are the very ones with whom I cannot talk. A recent encounter will illustrate. A group of us were having dinner and attempting to discuss church issues. I said I didn’t understand why some of our sisters were estranged from the church, sometimes choosing not to attend the local parish. A sister in her late 50s who has spent much of her religious life working in a parish responded, “You’re not honoring my anger.” I said it wasn’t a matter of honor or respect. I simply did not understand it and felt overwhelmed by it.

As Sammon pointed out, “Xers are not angry with the Catholic church, though -- just strangely indifferent toward it. ... As a consequence, the fury that some men and women religious direct at the church perplexes them.”

We could not continue the conversation. On other occasions, my peers and I in religious life have felt uncomfortable because we happily participate in our local parish. Some sisters have encouraged me to participate in more inclusive liturgies elsewhere. When we respond that we like our parish, we are often left to feel somehow less a feminist.

I have felt less than a good member because I do not possess the righteous anger, the zealousness many of our “movers and shakers” exude. And if the measure of my membership is based on such zealousness, then I and many of my generation will fall short, for our experience of church is so very different. I only know the church in turmoil and change. I only know a congregation committed to collaboration and inclusivity. I did not earn my stripes on the battlefield of change and therefore I do not feel betrayed.

But I do feel stymied -- not by the church but by my very sisters who expect of me the same passion for the issues that inspired them to work for justice in the church, a passion now riddled with disappointment and anger. It is a passion that has motivated and inspired change. I reap the benefits of it, certainly, but it is not my inspiration. It is yours. This is not to say I lack a passion or do not see the real need for the dismantling of strangling structures within our church. My motivation is filled with a cautious hopefulness. I don’t expect sweeping changes. But I do expect change.

Mount Nebo stands as an icon for us religious. Some of you in the generation before mine have been Moses, leading the way, urging us on through the arid desert of dead ritual and ossifying hierarchy. We would not be here without your passion, yes, even your anger. But I’m no Moses. I doubt that I am a very good Joshua, but I am a good tent-maker. And while the Promised Land is not what you imagined, it is more than I could hope for.

Because of your commitment to inclusivity and your continual challenges to the hierarchy, I could be an altar server as a little girl. I grew up believing myself as capable as my brother. I have stood in the pulpit and preached, and believed authority resides in the people of God inspired by the Holy Spirit. Because of your leadership I have made tentative steps into the Promised Land, and now others and I are cautiously setting up our tents, knowing that to secure more than just a foothold will be our life’s work.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000