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East meets West

Melbourne, Ky.

At a gathering of women religious from the United States and Central and Eastern Europe, St. Joseph Sr. Mary Savioe recalled an evening she spent with sisters in Eastern Europe several years ago. Savoie, who like many U.S. sisters stopped wearing a religious habit in the 1960s, asked the Europeans there why they chose to wear a veil after more than 40 years in which it and other obvious manifestations of religiosity were forbidden. As Savioe recalls the moment, the Eastern European sisters sat a little taller in their seats and said proudly of the veils they wore, “This is a sign of our freedom.”

It was a moment to give pause to American women religious. After all, many American sisters had found it liberating to shed their habits. Now many Central and Eastern European sisters were finding it liberating to don them.

The incident speaks to the different perspectives of nuns from East and West today. Many Central and Eastern Europeans sisters are triumphantly reclaiming traditions that some American sisters see as anachronistic and superfluous. But the revitalization of religious life in Central and Eastern Europe is also giving American sisters fresh hope in the future, even as many of them struggle to cope with aging populations and dwindling numbers in the religious communities they belong to.

Conversation between the two groups of sisters intensified this summer when they met to discuss the effects on religious life of freedom and oppression, affluence and poverty in a month-long intercultural retreat for religious women from the United States and Central and Eastern Europe. Participants in the gathering, called “Forum for Sisters,” met in four retreat centers around the United States to discuss their vocations, traditions and journeys in religious life before coming together for a final week in Melbourne, Ky.

For many, the intercultural retreat in the United States confirmed that the similarities between the sisters went far deeper than their cultural differences. “We have discovered our common unity,” said Sister of Divine Providence Mary Christine Morkovsky, from San Antonio, Texas.

Others agreed, yet it was the differences rather than the similarities that sparked most comment.

“It’s an eye-opener to see these women talking about their spiritual life so openly,” said St. Joseph Sr. Kathleen Foley, one of the organizers of the conference. “We are having experiences that are truly Christian in a biblical sense.”

The European sisters take their prayer life very seriously, said Foley, who added that they are far more articulate than Americans in talking about their faith. “The American way of talking about faith is not to talk,” Foley observed.

Dominican Sr. Lucienne Siers agreed. “We as U.S. religious have stripped our language of the faith experience. That was a gift we received from the Central and Eastern European sisters.”

U.S. sisters help in Eastern Europe

The backdrop to the conversation among the participants in “Forum for Sisters” was the reality that religious communities in Central and Eastern European are experiencing something of a renaissance and attracting young women to them while most U.S. communities are not. The material hardships some sisters in Central and Eastern Europe face also emerged in conversation. Twenty-three-year-old Orésta Pastúkh, a member of the Greek Catholic Sisters of the Holy Family from Ukraine, mentioned that many young Ukrainian sisters are dependent for money on the old-age pensions of older nuns in their communities and are forced to rely on their families to furnish them such basic necessities as shoes or a winter coat.

Sisters from several Eastern European countries said priests and bishops commonly expect them to work for free. What will happen to these women when they get old, they asked.

For their part, American sisters discussed the dangers to religious life posed by affluence. “It is a challenge to live a religious life in an affluent society because it is oppressive. There are so many options for us, and in a way it clutters the mind and the soul,” said St. Joseph Sr. Margaret Nacke of Kansas City, Mo.

Consumerism, the busyness of American life, the challenge of living simply in a culture that bombards people with messages to buy, buy, buy were mentioned as distractions to spirituality. But despite the general affluence of American culture, it became clear in conversation that American sisters were struggling with their own forms of want and limitation.

“I’m just not challenged by affluence. I’m challenged by diminishment, by the age of our sisters. They are all getting so old. We’re letting go of all of our institutions,” said Sr. Patricia Kolas from Naperville, Ill., a member of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ. American religious women spoke of the difficulty of paying for a motherhouse with fewer sisters earning salaries, decreasing government payments to Catholic hospitals, the loss of Catholic institutions that employ the talents of U.S. sisters, and the growing tendency of U.S. women religious to determine their location on the basis of work, not proximity to their community.

St. Joseph Sr. Genevieve Schillo gave voice to the fears of American sisters most starkly. “Is our future simply to die?”

Sr. Irén Tari, a member of the Sisters of Social Service from Hungary, reflected that the superabundance of choices in American life make it more unlikely that any one individual will choose religious life.

“If you have too many choices, there will be just a few people who choose religious life. I don’t know how young people get to know the religious life. Just sending out a brochure is not enough. You have to be touched by the sisters. It has to be personal contact,” Tari said.

Individualism and community

The changing identity of American religious women and their European sisters is the subject weaving in and out of their discussion. For an outsider, what is interesting is how the conversation evolves elliptically and more in private than in public. Controversy is minimal. Hot button issues like the ordination of women, homosexuality, inclusive language, allegiance to the pope - issues that would tend to divide the group along cultural lines, with U.S. nuns more likely to be at odds with official church teachings than the Central and Eastern European nuns - don’t arise in conversation.

Tari said she thinks that is for the best. “Our time together is really not for that, to bring up heavy topics and have arguments. We have to be bridges, not walls that separate us,” she said.

Religious life in Central and Eastern Europe is generally more structured than in the United States, where many American women sisters live on their own rather than in communities. Foley mentioned that most congregations in the United States really don’t have a traditional “mother superior,” whose permission must be sought by nuns for matters both major and minor.

“In our country, each congregation has a prioress and we live in communities,” explained Slovakian Sr. Katerína Simalciková, an Ursuline. “In this country, there are sisters who live alone, or two or three, without prioress. We are more dependent on our prioress and our understanding of obedience and poverty is different.”

Indeed, even when American sisters talk about their ministry to the poor, the European sisters tend to see them as expressing a materialistic understanding of the vow of poverty.

“Our reach is God. This is our reach, not how money is spent,” said Sr. Teresa Murányi of Romania.

Murányi believes deep-rooted differences in European and American social structure shape the faith experiences of Americans and Europeans. Despite the more individualistic lifestyle of many American sisters, Murányi’s impression is that Europeans approach God more personally and Americans more communally.

“In U.S. culture, faith is approached somehow through society, through the society’s side or the human side,” Murányi said. “In European experience, God is mostly ‘the Holy One’ who always is and will be a mystery, who is the governor, the Lord. I am a human being, a server. In the United States, the society is so strongly engaged in this atmosphere of equality that somehow it’s very hard to understand we are not equal with God.”

Like Irén Tari of Hungary, Murányi and fellow Romanian Sr. Brigitta Klein are members of the Sisters of Social Service, an order founded in 1923 by a Hungarian who became the first woman to take a seat in the Parliament in Budapest. The Sisters of Social Service do not wear habits and part of the mission of the order is to press for political and social change that will benefit women and families. But Murányi and Klein believe the equal dignity of women does not necessarily translate into women and men always doing the same job. And like many Europeans, Murányi and Klein think that American women have lost some of their femininity.

“When sisters from the United States are struggling for their place in the church, they are struggling for equality between men and women on a worldly level. As Europeans thinking on our place in the church, we feel ourselves very feminine women in the church, as the heart of the church,” said Murányi.

Culture and community

To an onlooker, the intercultural retreat underscores the not unsurprising fact that while many American sisters see themselves as countercultural they also very much reflect the values and experience of the larger society they belong to. Their mobile, independent lifestyles, their individualism, their professionalism - the European sisters noted that American sisters always introduced themselves in terms of the job or the ministry they held - seem typically American. The U.S. sisters were more affected by advertising and more concerned with “image” than the European sisters, the group decided. In conversation, the European sisters appeared to assign greater value to both tradition and community. While reluctant to say anything that could be construed as criticism, the Central and Eastern European sisters said that common prayer is very important to them; they felt it appeared to be less so for American religious.

“Individualism is very dangerous for us because really we are invited to live in community, in real community with our struggles and with our joys together,” said Simalciková. “And I think that in our culture, the witness of community is very strong. In a society where family is destroyed, where people are more individual, they need that we are a real community and live together. So it is a witness because it isn’t easy.”

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe all have their own history and traditions. Sisters from one Eastern European country mentioned tensions between older nuns who joined the underground church during the communist era and younger women who became nuns after the collapse of communism.

In conversations among themselves, the Americans brought up concerns related to so many American sisters living independently.

Humility of Mary Sr. Veronica Ternovacz, an American from Pennsylvania, voiced concerns about passing on the values of a religious community. “You have to be there for a significant period of time to learn the love of the heritage, to learn the spirit,” she said.

“We have to set up viable communities for the young people coming in,” remarked Sr. Karen Kappell, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration from LaCrosse, Wis. “They really want that.”

Morkovsky hypothesized that the future of U.S. sisters may be to address a different set of needs than those that preoccupied American sisters in the past. Whereas active religious orders for women developed out of the needs of an emigrant community in 19th century America, those needs have largely been met today by a well-educated laity, one American sister observed.

“Maybe our ministry is to be relationship builders, not institution-builders,” said Morkovsky.

Schillo brought the conversation full circle. “We have not been able to attract young women to our congregations. My future rests on my ability to say we need to look to our European roots,” Schillo said.

Passion and pragmatism

Intercultural dialogue can highlight not only the differences between cultures but the paradoxes within each culture as well. The Central and Eastern European nuns commented not only on the kindness and openness of the American sisters but on their practicality as well. “They try to always realize a problem and at the same time to find a proper decision,” said Pastúkh. “We are more concentrated on our problems.”

But in other areas, the Central and Eastern Europeans sisters appeared every bit as practical - less polemical and more down to earth than American nuns when discussing poverty and injustice.

“Social justice is a big word here. It is not yet a big word in Hungary,” observed Tari. “The question in Hungary is not what we could do for social justice but what needs to be done right now.”

One young nun from an Eastern European country said she felt her community could learn something from the individualism of American sisters. “We can be too disciplined. We lose our personality. I don’t think it’s God will to break personality.”

Ironically, for all the permissiveness of American life, the U.S. sisters seemed burdened by inhibitions the sisters from Central and Eastern Europeans lacked.

Foley remarked that U.S. sisters don’t mention God often. “In a religious community, you ought to be quite free to talk about God,” she said.

Spiritual freedom always comes from a person’s inner self and always faces obstacles, noted Murányi. “In a repressive regime such as communism was, spiritual freedom means to be faithful to your own inside, to church, to your culture. In a consumerist society, the obstacles of spiritual freedom are those material values offered by society which come from every side, from TV, from shops, from society’s libertine way of thinking,” she said.

Sharing their call

The women in Melbourne, a core group of about 22 culled from the larger number that met in separate retreats, have decided to plan a book on the sisters’ experiences. It will be organized around the themes of call, journey and transformation/regeneration, the topics that dominated their discussions in the four retreats.

The theme of call was especially important. By all reports, the American women were mesmerized by the accounts sisters from Central and Eastern Europe gave of their call to consecrated life and the risks they took in responding to it, many of them joining the underground church on pain of imprisonment or death.

Klein, for instance, joined the underground Sisters of Social Service in 1958, nine years after all the religious communities disappeared in Romania. “The mother superior was courageous enough to accept me. It was dangerous for her and for me,” Klein said.

Murányi, who also joined the underground church in Romania, said she knew of only one sister in Romania who left the order during the communist era. “Those sisters who were already sisters remained. They were very faithful.”

She and other Central and Eastern European nuns were clearly mystified why so many sisters in the United States left their religious communities during the 1960s.

The American sisters described the stories of the Central and Eastern European nuns as not only moving but transformative, prompting them to reflect more deeply on their own spiritual journey.

“It’s been overwhelming to hear what they have gone through. They had no role models. They didn’t even know other sisters in some cases,” Foley said.

For their part, the Central and Eastern European sisters expressed admiration for the open and easy way American sisters communicated with each other and surmounted disagreements. In their communities in Europe, there is too often an unpleasant spirit of domination and mistrust, several said.

The Europeans said they were struck by the happiness of American life.

Klein noted, “All the people here in the United States are smiling, and in our country nobody is smiling.”

But for almost all the women, the cultural differences they detected seemed less important than the commonalities they shared as religious. Even in the very different historical experiences of American and Central and Eastern European sisters during the past half-century, the women found surprising parallels.

“In Europe, the sisters lost members because of communism, and in the United States they lost members because of Vatican II . ... The U.S. sisters unknowingly did what the Europeans consciously did. The U.S. sisters did not foresee the long-term consequences of their decisions. Today U.S. women are looking for a community that they don’t see,” wrote a European sister on the last day of the meeting in Kentucky.

“Is my task in Europe to be a bridge-builder between our sisters before and after communism and the new generations of sisters? Is bridge-building our real mission on both sides of the Atlantic?” she asked.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002