I read a piece today in the NYT about the death of active religious orders in the US.
Some of it is pretty poignant with this standing out:
Sister Mary Jean’s order has dwindled to about 100 from a peak of more than 500. Most moved out of their convent last year and into a retirement and nursing home. There has not been an initiate for 25 years, and several years ago the sisters reluctantly stopped looking.
“It was painful,” Sister Mary Jean said in an interview in her modest apartment, “but I think it was also courageous to say we’re just not going to recruit any more. Let’s just live out the rest of our lives to the fullest that we possibly can and thank God for what we’ve been able to do. And when the time comes, as they say, the last person turn the lights out.”
But the thought occured, why haven't they had a vocation in 25 years? What could it be? Sunspots?
Well, here they are, in all their reformed glory. And we've got to love their courageous stand "that bottled water, however convenient to tote around, is environmentally, economically and politically wrong".
We commit ourselves to:
* promote the sacredness of life through all its stages and expressions
* support legislation to curtail the availability of weapons
* oppose military aggression and the continued build-up of nuclear weapons and promote economic conversion
* support legislation and other advocacy efforts which provide protection, safety, financial assistance to survivors of domestic violence and child abuse
* speak out against the use and glorification of violence in our media and culture
* work for just and human solutions in criminal justice and oppose the death penalty
* reverse the waste and destruction of our natural environment
Any more questions?
Well, yes, actually. I have a couple.
The NYT solemnly rings the bell for religious orders administering Catholic health care in the US, asking "Why did they disappear?"
But I have a slightly different question: "Why were they in administration in the first place? Is that what they were founded for?"
I have spent a few years studying the history and development of the active religious life in the US and Canada (almost wrote a book) and came to a few unorthodox conclusions.
When they came to the US in the 1870s, these ladies, pictured at the top, took care of the sick in their own homes, "sheltered single mothers-to-be, protected young working women and embraced the care of orphans".
Then comes the slide. "As years passed, the sisters increased their knowledge and skills, developed technology and established institutions."
This was the same story with nearly all the active religious I looked at. They started with a few saintly pioneers who braved nearly everything the 19th century had to throw at them, from cholera to Wild Indians to Know-nothing anti-Catholic bigotry to lawless gunmen. They always started small and ended up after 70 or 80 years with huge establishments with hundreds of lay employees in gigantic hospitals around the country. It was argued in one book I read that the entire establishment of institutionalised health care in the US was the result of the work of Catholic sisters.
And that was when it all fell apart for them. The sisters, even when they were still in the habits, had turned to the work of maintaining this institutionalised health system, leading them inexorably into administrative work that became the sole focus of the communities' efforts.
But I ask, aren't nuns supposed to be religious specialists? Isn't it their focus in life to be religious? We all know the story of how the communities started focusing too much on the works and not enough on their own religious lives. The un-reformed constitutions of more than one of these groups stated that the first purpose of the community was the sanctification of its members in prayer, penance and the practice of the sacramental life. Only secondarily was it to perform (mainly corporal) works of mercy. We all know by now that the downfall of these orders was to abandon this primary purpose, to invert and eventually completely pervert the reason for their existence.
And of course, in these times, as the "progressive" sisters will always tell you, no woman in our modern enlightened world needs to join a religious community in order to get an education or enter a profession. So the question that should have been asked, "What do we have to offer as religious experts within the modern, secularised health care institutions?" was replaced with "How can we become 'relevant' in this world in which religion is getting squeezed out of health care?"
But what if instead of abandoning religion, the sisters had instead said, "It's OK that we can't keep up with the secularisation of the institutions because that really wasn't our main purpose anyway. Why don't we go back to the founding charism of our commmunity and start offering our religious, our spiritual expertise to the sick and needy?"
When I was in the hospital for the first chemo, I was expertly cared for physically by a team of highly trained professionals and I felt quite safe and looked-after. But everyone who was doing the medical work was far too busy to sit with me, to stop and pray a Rosary with me for 20 minutes. That work was left largely to my little band of friends (and a fine job they did). I asked for a visit from the chaplaincy and in due course, was visited by three Franciscan priests (in habits) who blessed me, heard my confession and brought me Holy Communion.
People in hospital are often frightened and depressed, or confused or simply bored and lonely. Wouldn't it have been lovely if there were someone there whose job it was to offer spiritual solace? To just sit and chat, pray the Rosary, listen to fears and lift depression. Sisters in habit who would come to see you each day, when friends couldn't be there, to wheel you into the chapel for a visit or a Rosary.
Wouldn't it have been lovely if these sisters above, instead of focusing on gathering professional credentials, on going to conferences, on establishing themselves as big-time professional players (with seven digit salaries) in the American Health Care Industry, had focused instead on their religious contribution.
What would the world have looked like then, I wonder.