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The lives of post-conciliar women religious between steps forward and backward: the testimony of a mercedarian

The change of change

 Il cambiamento  del cambiamento  DCM-010
04 November 2023

From an all-encompassing viewpoint, I can see four stages in Women’s Religious Life since Vatican Council II: Update, Stasis and Regress, Refoundation, Realism and Historical Awareness.

Perfectae Caritatis. This is a conciliar document dedicated to Religious Life, which recommended that congregations undertake a process of updating with respect to the world and the surrounding reality. Most congregations have taken this challenge seriously. With prophetic enthusiasm, and involving multiple conflicts, the general rethinking has affected all areas of this way of life. We women religious have changed our attire, which, far from being a merely aesthetic change, has had far-reaching significance and repercussions. From asexual, homogeneous and interchangeable beings, we became individual women, different from each other and similar to our fellow women. In the beginning, dress became simpler and lighter, and in a few years adopted a secular style. Dressing like other women challenged our identity, our sense of belonging, poverty and chastity, among other aspects. Dressing like other women shattered the congregation’s sense of witness in the world, recognition in mission, the idea of being chosen by God and, therefore, different (superior) from laywomen. For a large part of Catholicism, the change in dress caused a scandal, the echoes of which can still be heard today. Resistance to this aspect of “updating” has been and continues to be very strong.

In addition to clothing, where we reside has changed too. Many women religious left large convent buildings, which were sometimes isolated from the general population, at times in affluent areas, to settle in apartments in poor neighborhoods or areas of towns and cities, living amongst the general public. From living in large communities, the women religious started to live in small or even very small groups, thus changing the pattern of living together and breaking the rigid hourly routine. Instead of working in the mission of their own institutions (for example, schools, clinics, centers for minors), religious women sought work in factories, hotels, schools and public hospitals to earn a living like everyone else. This change enabled women religious to become more familiar with everyday life and ways of living and its mechanisms, and aroused in the majority a keen sense of justice. They were able to participate in everyday life, join in the pursuit of justice, develop a political sense and participate individually and communally in difficult causes, even risking their own lives at times. There are incidents of women religious who have been kidnapped and murdered in the struggle for the rights of the poorest. The number of victims is far higher than the media reports. Theology, spiritual life, and prayer have been greatly affected.

Congregations have changed, as have initial formation plans, and cycles of continuing education for professed women religious have been initiated, in both work (the mission) and theology. A good number began theological studies that later enabled them to devote themselves to teaching, formation, research and writing. This change endowed women religious with soundness, critical capacity, and freedom of thought, and many exercised it exposing themselves to the censure that soon came. Others militated in feminist causes, which involved adding risk to risk, as they did so.

Additional formation promoted serious and progressive reflection on the overall structure of Religious Life, its meaning in a changing and newly discovered world, and its own history. General and provincial chapters fermented when it came to making decisions, some of which were drastic, driven by prophetic impulse (e.g., economic decapitalization). The change in constitutions and rules encountered difficulties in gaining approval from the corresponding Vatican dicastery, but in practice, all orders and congregations changed their regulations following this process of updating.

I consider this post-conciliar stage to have been the richest, most creative and prophetic in the recent history of Religious Life.

Internal and external conflicts, especially with respect to obedience and even chastity, as well as questions about the meaning of Religious Life in the world (theology) were not without consequences. Many women left. Some did so because they found it was not their path. Others, most in fact, because of conflicts with their superiors (obedience). There are some who left for love (chastity), for the immobility of internal frameworks, for the control exerted, and many other reasons besides. These defections began to take their toll on congregations, on conservative sectors of the Church and the Vatican Curia. Thereafter, Religious Life began its gradual demographic decline.

Stasis and regression
John Paul II’s pontificate marked the second stage. Religious Life initially underwent a stasis and then a regression. Conflicts, defections, the gradual decline in vocations, and the rise of lay groups and movements, many of which were conservative, gave rise to questions and suspicions about the current state of women's Religious Life. There has been widespread suspicion, fear, denunciation, scrutiny and reprisals, especially in theological teaching and publication, but also in avant-garde venues and political engagement for justice. Some congregations were not intimidated, but they were in the minority and most enjoyed enough prestige and money to mitigate censure and condemnation. I can testify to this firsthand. The retrogression affected both the initial and the ongoing formation; it conditioned the freedom to think theologically about Religious Life, freedom of speech and teaching, and eventually led to self-censorship for many intelligent and prepared religious women. There was a return to supposedly outdated concepts of choice and consecration, external signs of identity and belonging were revalued, as were the missions proper to each congregation and a certain separation from the world.

With this process already underway, the third stage began. Although the re-foundation appeared to be a forward and creative step in Religious Life, it was nothing more than an attempt -in my opinion a failed one-, to return to the founding charism. After all, this stage was intended to be a positive reaction to the stagnation and regress, but lost time could not be recovered and the world was changing fast. The consequences of the previous phase persisted, and the already existing problems were compounded by the advanced age of many women religious in Western-cultured settings. Some orders and congregations agreed to mergers, which was brought about for almost always practical reasons. Most improvised solutions to problems as they arose. Young women religious from other continents and cultures were integrated into larger communities, which in many cases proved unsuccessful. The lack of women religious in their centers forced many missions to be left in the hands of lay people, some more trained in the charism, others less so. Educational, social and health centers were handed over to civil, and especially ecclesiastical, institutions. Many congregations managed the transition process well, but many others simply improvised.

In my view, this stage has been characterized by a certain ambivalence. The evidence of declining demographics and life forces coexists with the hope that the situation can be reversed, although there are few signs that this way of life, such as it is, will interest new generations of women. It is also characterized by an absence of a critical and courageous look at the medium- and long-term. Many women religious in non-mission ad gentes contexts had paid jobs, made contributions to social security, and were thus entitled to pensions. When this came about, however, congregations that had prepared their members for this stage of life were rare. There are those who volunteered in different places, others were sent to strengthen specific communities, and those with health problems stayed at home. Those women religious who were still active took advantage of that time for their formation.

Realism and historical awareness
The current situation, which constitutes the fourth phase, is characterized by realism and, to a certain extent, historical awareness of the state of life that the Church calls Consecrated Life. There is little talk about its term (in the current style), but there is awareness of it. In the global Western context, attention to the elderly, and to the very elderly, is immense. Religious women are well taken care of both physically and psychologically; they have means and resources, companionship, affection, and spiritual attention that may be sufficient for them, since one cannot improvise what should have been done decades ago. I am sorry that we have not been able to turn this moment to life, which we share with a good part of the population, into a prophetic sign, since we have all the opportunities before us.

We cannot live on nostalgia, it is true. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel anger at the rupture that the regression stage has produced in post-conciliar nascent Religious Life. It has not given us time to consolidate the great changes of “updating”. History cannot go backwards, but it is always susceptible to critical reading. We religious have missed the real opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to experiment and learn from mistakes, to reap the benefits of recovering the (reduced) dimension we should never have lost. This prophetic way of life is neither better nor worse than others, but its distinctiveness has been part of the life of the Church from the beginning. Historical forms will continue to change. Let them, therefore, continue to evolve.

by Mercedes Navarro Puerto
Mercedarian Sister of Charity, and biblical scholar.