Saturday, August 22, 2009

My Life with Nuns

The story of the Vatican making a visitation, an investigation, of the state of women religious life has been in the news lately. There have been stories on National Public Radio, and on one of their talk shows. The National Catholic Reporter has been covering this story, and has been publishing stories and essays on their Website.

All this has brought back memories of my life with nuns. It began with elementary school. My parents were determined to have me educated in a Catholic school, so when their first choice was filled, they put me and my brothers and sisters in the only other Catholic school in town. It was run by a congregation of Franciscan Sisters that originated from Poland. To hear my parents talk about it, the sisters had a hard life in the parish, the pastor was a bit of a tightwad, and at times the parents had to get together and bring food for the sisters. My experience with them was mixed. I remember that there were a few sisters who were nice and professional, but there were others who should never had been allowed in a classroom. If there was not physical abuse, there was definitely psychological abuse. After I and one brother graduated from the school, my parents pulled the rest of my siblings out and put them in public schools.

After elementary school, came high school. I entered a high school that was run by the Sisters of Notre Dame da Namur. The Second Vatican Council had ended; the religious orders and congregations were making some changes. The sisters at the high school all had change to “street” clothing, although a few did keep the veil. They all wore their distinctive cross. I enjoyed being taught by them, and they definitely improved my view of religious sisters.

My most intensive contact with nuns came when I entered the formation program for the Franciscan friars. I had contact with the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, who not only taught in the parish school, but were also involved in caring for the poor. There was a Poor Clare monastery, where the nuns wore modified habits, but still deeply involved with the contemplative life. I assisted a priest who celebrated Mass for a community of Missionaries of Charity. Then there were the sisters I met attending a summer school at St. Bonaventure University, joining with them in prayer, in classes, and socializing with them. Since leaving the Franciscan formation program, I have had a sister as a spiritual director.

There has been criticism that too many of the religious sisters are challenging the Church, its policies, its view of women. But if one looks at the history of religious life, one sees that many of the communities’ founders pushed the envelope. St. Clare of Assisi, founder of the Poor Clare nuns, was always challenging the Pope to allow her community to live evangelical poverty. Many congregations founded in this country, met with resistance from local bishops for various reasons, yet they prevailed. They did so because of persistence, respect and love for the Church, and divine grace. Now there are those individual sisters and communities who might push the envelope too far, and in such cases, they must be held accountable, but with charity and compassion.

Vatican II called on religious communities to reexamine their current lives in the light of their founding charism. A community should not be judged on whether they wear habits or not, but whether they are living the Gospel, serving the poor, showing compassion to the outcast, showing the power of God’s love by the example of their lives. We should not try to force religious communities into the same mold, but allow the Holy Spirit to guide them, inspire them, enflame them. And they in turn will inspire us.

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