Five distinct generations of sisters

This story appears in the #nunintheworld feature series. View the full series.

Read the other articles about this symposium here.

Sometimes, no matter how fascinating the conference, the most illuminating things are those said during the breaks, over coffee or lunch, or even out later.

The Nun in the World conference is no exception.

May 7-9, “The Nun in the World: Catholic Sisters and Vatican II” brings together women religious, historians and scholars for an international symposium at the University of Notre Dame’s London Global Gateway campus. The conference is hosted by Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.

Even at a symposium studying the effect of the Second Vatican Council on women religious, it is difficult to overstate the effect the council had. Fifty years later, Catholics are still discovering – and often arguing over – those effects, how the council documents should be interpreted and what the whole business means. For those who are not Catholic, it must be even more bewildering.

But I’ve learned over the years that sometimes the best way to tell a very large story is by focusing on something very small. And that’s what I heard today as I sat with a group of sisters enjoying lunch.

The four, all different ages and from different communities in different parts of the country, were talking about how differently Vatican II is viewed by different members of their community.

And it’s a lot more complicated than just those who entered religious life pre-Vatican II and those who entered after.

Because there are those sisters who entered Pre-Vatican II and learned a way of religious life that later changed dramatically after the council. There are those who contemplated religious life in the Pre-Vatican II era but joined after, only to discover the life they thought they were joining had become something very different.

Then there are those who were in formation during the changes themselves – one sister described it as “utter chaos” – who have yet another view of that period.

Then there are sisters who had considered religious life but did not join until the changes brought by Vatican II made consecration what they were looking for. They see the council as something that made religious life possible for them.

Finally, there are sisters who joined after Vatican II who knew nothing of religious life beforehand – and who wondered what all the fuss was about.

“I realized there are five distinct generations of sisters,” one sister said, “and yet they’re all just a few years apart in age.”

One small statement, yet it encapsulated the whole, gigantic issue.

The crux of the matter, of course, is that it’s not really Vatican II that’s at issue at all – the council was only the fulcrum. What they’re really talking about is religious life and what it means, because at least for Catholic sisters in the United States, Vatican II – rightly or wrongly – fundamentally changed what it means to be women religious.

Were those changes good? Were they bad? What do they mean for the future? Fifty years later, the vast majority of Catholics – consecrated or not – would say the changes for the church were good, and the vast majority of Catholic sisters would say the changes for women religious were very good.

But we’re still trying to figure out what those changes – the ones embraced universally, the ones embraced only by some, and the ones that have fallen by the wayside – will mean to for the future.

What we know so far – and this finally came into full focus for me today over tiny sandwiches and goat-cheese tarts – is just how big and how complex it all is. And maybe what we’ve learned most of all is how little we really know: Usually the first step toward true understanding.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]