Seminar: Remembering, Reclaiming, Proclaiming.
50 Years after Vatican II.
Bringing it Back Home
Genevieve Mooney, O.P.
We’ve been looking at what was happening at Vatican II in such areas as liturgy, scripture, etc. This paper will be a change of pace and a change of place. I’m going to talk a bit about some of the things that happened in religious life ‘on the ground’ here at home.
Around the time of Vatican II, change certainly impacted on us in a big way. Part of the reason for that was that we had been in a kind of time warp; nothing had changed for so long and it seemed to be believed that nothing ever would. . Recently Maire Kealy sent me novitiate photos of my two great aunts who entered in Sion Hill in 1900 – and the list of ‘trouseaux’ they brought with them. It was practically identical with the list we were given when I entered fifty years later. I suspect it may have been seriously out-of-date in 1900! I lived with one of those aunts in the 1950’s. She had seen little or no change in convent life in her lifetime. Anyone entering in 1900 or even in 1880 would have been instantly at home in any of our communities in 1960, but would have suffered severe shock in the mid-80’s
We could spend until next week simply listing all the changes that took place comparatively fast. I’m going to mention only a few. I have to rely on my experience and on my (probably increasingly faulty) memory.
I have a feeling many will find it unsatisfactory and frustrating because I don’t include what was memorable or significant for you. If this leads to your sharing your thoughts and memories- great! Many of the changes were obvious, external, and are well known now to those who came long after they were well-established, and even to those seeing us from the outside.. Some changes were a bit more subtle and I’ll look mainly at some of these – not necessarily the most important. Maybe just some that are interesting.
It is worth noting that ‘after Vatican II’ does not necessarily mean ‘because of Vatican II’. Many of the changes, interior and exterior, would have happened anyway. We had ignored socio-cultural changes for a long time, but now these were so great and so rapid that we could not go one ignoring them. Change was in the air. When we were beginning to deal with renewal, changing constitutions, etc. I saw a document coming from the Board of Directors of a bank I was astonished to find that they were using exactly the same language as we were, dealing with the same problems, reaching the same solutions and making the same kinds of change. We thought it was all about religious life and theology but actually it was all happening everywhere. Businesses and corporations were doing from their perspective what we thought we were doing for theological or spiritual reasons.
In fact, many of the changes were already happening before the Council – in some spheres and in some places – though not much here in Ireland, exteriorly at least. In many things, Vatican II endorsed what was already being said and what had already been happening One small example: I remember a beautiful very ‘post-Vatican II’ liturgy in a French Dominican convent in 1954!
There were changes decided by authority – Generalate or Chapter – but sometimes the more important were the unintended and unforeseen consequences which flowed from these., When a thread was snipped, a whole seam came apart! Many of the most important changes came slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly. These mostly ‘just happened’ rather than being decreed from on high. By far the most important were interior – in the minds and hearts of sisters individually and in communities. For this reason they were (and are) uneven and never universal or complete. They might include, for example, changing from a very dualistic mind-set and spirituality to a more wholistic and inclusive. This could potentially be pervasive and all-encompassing and it was and is by no means uniform so that today we can see in interpretation of faith, in spirituality, in attitudes to prayer, Church, world and life – the widest spectrum of views, approaches and practices.. This in itself is a very significant change. In the past we were almost monolithic.
Looking at the changes which I was focussing on I saw three resulting achievements: broadening; humanizing; and involving. Obviously these are not separable but overlapping.
With enclosure and ‘egress’ as the order of the day, of course we led confined and narrow lives, mentally as well as physically. Chapters show this. Each dealt with an enormous report from the Directress General of Studies on every detail of our schools and colleges, then there were details of ‘ceremonial’ ( a lot about when precisely to don the cappa!), and petty regulations about ‘decorum’ (especially behaviour outside the convent). . All this dealing with a little world unto itself. But already in 1968 this is beginning to change . We have a reference to ‘ meeting religious problems in ways suited to the mentality and environment of our time’. Now we are ‘encouraging young sisters to express their views and develop their potentiality’. They should not just have conferences where they are passive spectators. The sisters are to have lectures on the fundamental norms for renewal in religious life and there should be discussion in community on these And even: ‘ we need to be vitally aware of the needs of the Church, the world and the poor’ .Wow!
This opening up to a wider world is completely different from what came from Chapters earlier
The earliest document coming from the Council – that on the Sacred Liturgy – clearly led to notable changes in our convents. Our chapels were adapted for the new liturgy, new breviaries with divine office in the vernacular was for many a particularly welcome change, and, for better or worse, there was a broadening of uses and styles of music. Documents such as those on ecumenism may not initially have made much impact on behaviour but what they did do was broaden our mental world. We became more conscious of and respectful of other Christian denominations, and, later, of other religions. We ceased to live mentally in a totally and exclusively Roman Catholic world. Books by other than catholic authors might appear in our libraries. Later, sisters would become involved in local ecumenical activities and in major ecumenical projects, such as the Irish School of Ecumenics and the Currach Community in Belfast.
In view of thinking and concern today one aspect of this ‘broadening’ is somewhat amusing. Up to the ‘60’s at least, most of us lived in a totally female world and saw nothing odd about it. We worked in schools where the pupils were all girls, the staff were all women – unmarried women, in the Republic at least, because of the marriage ban. The only male in our ordinary lives was the chaplain, who said Mass in Latin with his back to us – and occasional Dominican friars whom we ‘entertained’ (?) in the parlour. There are a few scandals in our history of sisters (most often the prioress!) eloping with the chaplain. If you were going to elope it would have to be with the chaplain – there wasn’t anyone else! As we began to engage with the world outside and work in settings other than our schools, we began to live in a more real, normal and balanced world. It might be interesting to audit the effects of this!
Humanizing Which largely means de-institutionalizing –our lives were extremely institutionalised.
We had often been told that feelings don’t matter. Now it began to be acknowledged that we are human beings and, while not allowed to dominate, feelings do matter. A significant event at the 1968 Chapter was the intervention, right at the very start, by the Prioress General asking for an immediate decision, before any other business, on the question of permission to go home in case of the terminal illness or death of a parent because there were sisters right then waiting and hoping for such a permission. It was decided right away and announced at once.
Good example would be around ‘assignations’ and in particular the manner of giving them. In 1966 I got an assignation – unexpected and particularly difficult. I can only say that the manner in which I received it was cruelly insensitive and hurtful – quite inexcusable. In 1968, I got a phone-call from the Generalate telling me there was question of sending me to Belfast and asking would I mind giving up what I was doing (studying for a Ph.D. which I never did). I truthfully said I wouldn’t. Another call a week later asked was I still sure I wouldn’t mind. (I wasn’t asked would I mind going to Belfast!) Changes like this do not take place definitively in two years so, of course there were backslidings.. But I think the ‘new’ is pretty well established by now!.
A good example of unexpected ramifications came from one of the very first changes – the choice of resuming our baptismal names. This was a theological decision underlining the pre-eminence of our identity as baptised Christians over our identity as professed religious. When you come to think of it, the change at reception was strange. The identity of the baptised person who entered the convent had to be replaced by a new ‘religious’ identity. A sister of my vintage recently found at home letters she had written to her parents from Kerdiffstown. They were, of course, embarrassingly pious and holy, as seen now, but also they were signed: ’your loving child, (let’s say) Sister Mary Aurelius’ What must her unfortunate parents have thought and felt about this stranger who had replaced their daughter?
Many sisters joyfully changed their names at once. I am not at all sure that they did so for theological reasons! I think the alacrity with which they shed their religious identity meant they had never owned it.
What was it like psychologically and spiritually to live with an outward identity which one did not inwardly own.? Later, with feminine consciousness came the awareness of the inappropriateness of having male names.
Of course , now there was duplication, so some sisters had to add their surnames. Before this, we didn’t have surnames! I lived for 20 years in communities where I didn’t know the surnames of the majority of the sisters. I remember the giggles and whispering in class in Cabra as girls shared the ‘occult’ knowledge that they knew my name ! (I was local)
As a digression here – I think this apparent rootlessness was part of the promotion of the mystique and ‘aura’ around nuns. This was not accidental, it was deliberately created and encouraged. Many of the regulations about ‘decorum’ had this aim (like never being seen eating!) This may have come in part from the belief that religious life was higher, better, more perfect Perhaps it also came from a kind of vanity. That idea of superiority was firmly scotched by Vatican II which came as a shock to many sisters. and may have contributed to a few sisters leaving religious life.
Once the ‘duplicates’ and ‘triplicates’ had taken surnames, in no time we all used surnames! Now we had backgrounds; we belonged to families and places and had not just appeared from nowhere!
Another change around names.. For about 25 years in community, I was never called ‘Genevieve’. I, and every other sister in the community, was called ‘Sister’ or ‘Sister Mary’. We never addressed each other by name but by title. ‘Sister’ is a very nice title, but it is a title. Using personal names and then shortened versions or affectionate ‘pet’ names brings about and expresses a totally different relationship – more normal, human, warmer– which makes an enormous difference in living community.
The third result of change I noted was the new and increasing involvement of all the sisters in the affairs of the Congregation and in decision-making, with responsibility. The way things were in this sphere in the past is perhaps the area that is hardest for post-Vatican II generations to understand. Actually it’s hard for any of us to understand!
When we look back we may wonder how we ever accepted things which were manifestly wrong as we see them now. We just accepted unquestioningly. Thinking about the practicalities of our lives, evaluating arrangements, structures, decisions, was none of our business – it wasn’t even on our horizon. We knew what we had ‘signed up for’ and did not think about it.
Before the 1954 and 1960 General chapters a letter went out to all capitulars (mostly prioresses). from the Prioress General. giving the Agenda. It was conspicuously marked ‘Confidential’ and contained a strong admonition that the contents must not be divulged to any non-capitular. What was to be discussed at the Chapter was top secret – the sisters were not to know! This is all the more astonishing when you consider what was to be discussed –not: proposing a new apostolate , a new house or a new mission overseas, not closing a house or school but
the report on our schools and colleges, matters of ceremonial and decorum, a possible change in headdress!
Before the 1967/68 Chapters by contrast, questionnaires had gone out to all the sisters, several commissions composed of ‘ordinary’ sisters were working on different areas of the Constitutions, communities were having meetings and discussions. Suddenly we were expected to look, listen think about and evaluate our way of life – to have opinions and express them. This particular cultural change, rather than any changes it led to, is probably the source of the enthusiasm and excitement that marked this transition time and the good memories sisters have. Perhaps it was the most important change of all and, as we know, it is ongoing and growing.
Some questions and comments:
I have a few questions: Did the changes in our way of life, especially those that ‘happened’ rather than being decreed, come directly from the documents of the Council and theological reflection on them, or from the mass of writings on renewal that followed? These came almost entirely from the USA – a notable exception was a French Dominican,
Sr. Jeanne d’Arc, whom we read avidly, Recently a group of us read Sandra Sneiders’ ‘Prophets in their own country’. And came back together to discuss it. Each had come to the same conclusion: that on religious life in general it was very good but that the model she describes ‘ministerial religious life’ is not ours, which made us ask: what is our model? What for us as apostolic Dominicans are the non-negotiables? In eagerly grasping at everything written at the post-Vatican II renewal, I wonder did we ask that question? In the whole preparations for and the proceedings of the 1967/68 Chapter and especially in the reports from the various commissions working on areas of the constitutions, I was surprised that there is no quote from or reference to any Council document. This does not mean they did not use them in their deliberations But the language is the language of this ‘renewal’ literature. Did we skip a step?.
Sandra Sneiders also remarks in that recent book that there is a difference between those congregations which renewed only or mainly
in the light of Perfectae Caritatis, on renewal in religious life, and those which renewed in the light of the major Church documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes Certainly in the early stages at least, and in the changes coming from the top, I think we belong to the former. It was quite a while before we officially got to Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes
A final question we may not have asked. Every rule, custom, etc. was originally established to express or hold a value. Before discarding something did we ask what value did or does it hold? Is that value still valid? If not, discard, no problem. If it is still valid, what are we now putting in place to retain that value? Sometimes we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
A symbolic action
To end I want to look at one simple symbolic event which expressed dawning spiritual/psychological change and may have triggered or hastened a flood of external changes. It (unknown to its creators)was a spectacular example of the sociological concept of ‘intervention’ i.e. an action designed to achieve the maximum of desired change with a minimum of effort.
It was Christmas 1972 and in everyday life practically nothing had changed. The fuss and the fluster – and the spiritual ‘high’ – of the beautiful sung office and midnight Mass was over. Most of the sisters filed to the monastic refectory to enjoy their once-a-year meat supper in peaceful silence. They did not know it but that meal was historic. It marked the end of a very long and revered tradition embodying a whole mind-set, a world view, a spirituality and a view of religious life.
Now, a dawning new vision of life and of religious life, a much less institutional view of community, a new valuing of the human in our lives, an incipient acknowledgement that new pressures were bringing new needs on the personal level and that the personal level mattered, the feeling that the old structures were cracking if not crumbling – all this and more was about to find expression in one apparently simple action.
We will never know to what extent this small move in one community (eventually watched and discussed by all our communities) disturbed a whole delicate equilibrium and was a flashpoint setting off an avalanche.
When the sisters had retired and the house was quiet and sleep-filled, five sisters, including the prioress, re-appeared and got to work transforming the monastic refectory into a dining-room. Resisting the move in their own way the heavy long monastic tables were carried with due reverence out of the convent. They were replaced with an odd assortment of round, square and rectangular tables, snitched from various places in the house. These were somehow covered with cloths, set, adorned with centrepieces, candles and flowers. The service areas were re-arranged and the whole room decorated for Christmas. When the work was finished, at about 4.30 a.m. the five sat down for a much-needed cup of tea – at a circular table ..This, too, was historic – the first round-table conversation ever to take place in any of our refectories! First of how many to date? We sat talking into the dawn, reflecting on the significance and possible effects of what we were doing. We took it very seriously – but we didn’t know the half of it.
The idea of making some changes in the refectory (like painting it a colour other than white!)had been discussed in the community and permission sought but not given from higher authority, From that quarter there was strong disapproval and quite severe reprimand.
For the community next morning the shock of the change was softened because this was seen as being ‘for the holidays’ This was true but we five and many others knew that the change would be permanent – the old would never be restored. Such concern as was expressed centred on the value of silence. And indeed the change did bring talking. During that Christmas season we talked at two meals a day – a momentous change which quickly became ‘normal’. Eventually the decorations disappeared but the refectory did not re-appear. For a small number of sisters, of course there was disquiet, anxiety and even anger
A community meeting discussed and decided. The shape would stay but silence would be reinstated. It was, but with the new set-up it became much more difficult and unnatural. Cead cainnte became easier and much more frequent. Sitting face-to-face with others not only facilitates but demands communication. We had taken an irrevocable step from ‘vertical’ to ‘horizontal’ values
The even more fundamental and truly world-shattering
(our-world shattering) change was never mentioned or discussed, though it was deeply felt by some people. Hierarchy was gone. Rank was no more. Seniority was not evident. Authority was no longer separated and exalted at a top table but down in the ranks anywhere. In melting the rigid structures we were taking a giant step from medieval to modern. It is strange that it should have taken us so long since Dominic had already taken steps in that direction in his day.!