Becoming the Body of Christ

Part Two of Sr Michael RSM’s guest post on her experience before and after Vatican II. You can read Part One here:

In 1954, I entered a pre-Vatican 2  religious community though at the time neither I nor anyone else knew that it was pre-Vatican2! That was the only way we knew. I was ready and willing to give my all- very zealous, very pious. I embraced all the religious exercises (even added to them); I accepted without question all the traditions and customs of the community ( and did not then think that many of them were ridiculous, demeaning and infantile); I absorbed the spirit of the congregation  – Mercy – and longed for opportunities to put it into practice.

But first came postulancy (a trial period), and then novitiate, (a time of testing, training and purification) – all a steep learning curve. We were a novitiate of 22 Irish and English late teenagers – probably too much of a handful for our Novice Mistress. I was a bit older and more mature than most, so never suffered the rigours of discipline and sometimes harsh treatment meted out to some poor souls. We laughed and cried together. Many left, most stayed. The prevailing attitude was ‘grin and bear it’ until we were professed and then things would be different! Many were studying for ‘O’ levels , some for ‘A’ levels and because I had all my exams, I was put to helping others and being portress until it was time for University. I was told to apply for History (though my desire was for English) because our Grammar School would soon need a History teacher. I didn’t mind too much because I loved History too but when I left for University, I did not know who the Prime Minister was -we did not have newspapers, radio or TV in those days – or that we were in the midst of the Suez Crisis which I was asked about at my interview!

I can’t say I enjoyed my University years because we (two of us) were bound by the rule of silence and unable to mix with other students. We never joined any social or extra-mural activities, simply attended lectures and tutorials and then returned to the convent where we were staying. Gradually, the strain told: I found myself ‘enduring’ life, frustrated and joyless.  Spiritually, I was starved. The annual 8-day Retreats left me anxious and unfulfilled. There was no opportunity for spiritual development and I found less and less satisfaction in the usual devotions and rigid life-style which once was so meaningful. I knew I was ‘stuck’ and yet I made final vows, assuring myself that this is what God wanted of me and I was prepared to live a life of obedience which would eventually be blessed.  So I thought!  I must say I was more than tinged with Pelagianism – thinking everything depended on me, so I was prepared to show God I could take it and possibly become a saint!  What arrogance! What stupidity!  

My first release was when I began to teach in a Grammar School. This was 1960. I found I had a natural aptitude for teaching and keeping the interest of older pupils with whom I had a natural affinity. This fulfilled me and led to many friendships which have lasted and have brought much joy. Of course it was hard work but very rewarding,  especially getting involved in the cultural, artistic and dramatic life of the school plus all the projects I initiated and threw myself into under the aegis of Justice and Peace, Cafod, YCS and Youth Impact activities. These early years also saw a beginning of my interest in pastoral work in a neighbouring parish which I loved, especially involvement in adult formation.

Meanwhile religious life became increasingly stultifying. The two parts of my life were clearly in conflict and for the first time, I began to experience real doubts about persevering in religious life when it had become empty, arid, a real endurance test. I was still faithful to all the religious exercises and spent more and more time in prayer but felt ‘caged’ and un-free.

It was at this point that Vatican 2 burst upon the church and religious life like a tornado and thus came about my second release and real saviour. I can’t express the excitement when I heard that the Bishops had thrown out the agenda and prepared texts!  There were no computers then but daily and weekly reports somehow got through – it was like awakening a sleeping giant!  Gradually, we saw the dismemberment of the pre-Vat 2 church: most immediate were the Liturgical reforms which impacted every Catholic. To ‘see’ the priest face to face, to dialogue in what were called initially Dialogue Masses until we got used to the English and learned the words of the responses, to pull people out of their comfort zones of Rosary and familiar prayer books – this was hard work for both priests and people. This was bad enough but to see the removal of statues, altar rails, pulpits and the re-ordering of sanctuaries and churches grieved so many and caused not a little anger.  Many hankered after the old ways of attendance with nothing required except presence. Now we had to participate actively in plain churches –almost Protestant. What on earth was the church coming to?

Gradually, as other documents emerged – Lumen Gentium with its view that the hierarchy was at the service of the people, us the people of God; Dei Verbum on the central role of Scripture, the Bible as such, having been a closed book to Catholics; the Decree on Ecumenism stressing the unity of the church and above all, Gaudium et Spes on the whole new vision and thrust of the church in 20th Century – we realised that this was not just a tinkering with externals but a revolution, making the church fit for purpose and relevant to the needs of the faithful in 20th Century. It was heady stuff. I was teaching Sixth Form RE at the time and every week shared the excitement with eager teenagers. Then imagine my surprise when the then Headmistress told me to teach ‘A’ level Biblical Studies of which at the time, I knew no more than Old Testament stories and the Life of Christ studied for ‘O’ level. It was the best thing that ever happened to me and opened up a new world of scholarship and spirituality that quenched my thirsting spirit and gave me a life-long love of scripture which it has been my delight to impart to generations of Sixth Formers and parish groups. So many riches that the faithful had been deprived of for so many years!.

As the years went on and the church settled into the ‘new ways’, new riches unfolded. While still immersed in education, I involved myself more and more in parish work through programmes like Alpha, RCIA, Liturgy groups, catechist training etc until I was asked to work in the diocese full-time, so left a headship to be the Co-ordinator of Evangelisation in the diocese – a most enriching and ground-breaking experience.

Meanwhile, how did Vatican 2 impact religious life? For a few years there was little change except slight adaptation of the 19th Century habit and more freedom for family visits and even a holiday at home but gradually, ‘liberal’ ideas made further inroads and the sacred, time-worn hierarchical structure and customs were quietly dismantled. Rigid rules of silence disappeared; we no longer had to process to chapel and refectory in strict order of seniority while chanting Latin psalms or sit in the same place at meals and recreation till death. During this time I spent a year’s study in London and was exposed to the wonderful contribution made by Hubert Richards and Peter de Rosa in the sadly short-lived Corpus Christi Institute. It was such a liberating year for me that I found it difficult to return to the strictures of community life.  However, one great unexpected development was a move towards voluntary missionary activity in the 70’s and I was in the first group of volunteers to go to Africa for four years. Eventually, more spiritual freedom came with freedom to choose one’s confessor and spiritual director, freedom to go elsewhere to make a retreat, to buy reading material etc. More lenient and understanding superiors eased the road for me and needless to say, I was further released and found purpose and satisfaction in all the new developments. The Charismatic Movement came and went, affecting some very deeply. We had freedom to pursue our own interests (within reason and always with permission) but the heavy weight of oppression had lifted and as time went on and things eventually settled, I was in a different and more life-giving spiritual place. On the way, many sisters had left but I was never tempted once I had found my forte in teaching and achieved some sort of spiritual equilibrium, punctuated of course by many challenges but also blessings.

Do I hanker after the old ways? Definitely not – neither in the church nor in religious life. As I look at the church today and while regretting  the many abuses of authority and freedom especially in sexual matters, I stand solidly with Pope Francis, God’s gift to the church, and move forward with him in hope  through the synodal process and journey (envisaged by Vatican 2 but sadly repressed)  towards renewal and maturity. I fully share his vision of a church at the service of the world. For those who wish to return to a non-existent Golden Age of mystery and majesty, pomp and incense, clericalism and privilege, I would wish for a more realistic appraisal and realisation that the church does not exist for itself but to serve the people of God near and far, worthy and unworthy, rich and poor, Christian and non-Christian.

And my hope for religious life?  Numbers have dwindled dramatically, apostolates have been overtaken by the state, missionary work (old style) is no longer fashionable.  It would be easy to think we have passed our ‘sell-by dates’. But the core of consecration and commitment remains, however expressed, and prayer especially sacramental and scriptural is the fuel that gives energy to new forms of service as we move into unchartered waters towards a future known only to God.