London symposium looks at Vatican II impact on Catholic sisters

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

by Dan Stockman

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Read the other articles about this symposium here.

More than 100 people will gather in London this week to study the intersection of recent history and current events for women religious.

Starting Thursday, “The Nun in the World: Catholic Sisters and Vatican II” will bring together women religious, historians and scholars for a three-day international symposium at the University of Notre Dame’s London Global Gateway campus.

Hosted by Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, the keynotes and panel discussions center around three topics: the history of the implementation of Vatican II reforms; the church’s role in transnationalism; and efforts to understand women religious through their history in recent decades.

“It’s not explicitly tied to the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council . . . but after 50 years we do see how an event moves from living memory to historic memory,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center and an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame. “I think the program reflects that. We have some sisters who have a very personal stake – with a lot of emotions tied in it – because they were there when it happened. But we also have professional historians who happen to study women religious and their roles in this significant time period.”

Panel discussions during the conference include one on how Vatican II challenged religious to serve by correcting the imbalance between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, and about how women religious in South Africa put that challenge into action, helping spur the fight against extreme racial segregation known as apartheid.

The University of Scranton’s Congregation of Notre Dame Sr. Mary Anne Foley examines the call to the prophetic side of religious life and the ways it has changed congregations’ views of their ministry, with her presentation, “Prophets on the Bus?”

Other panels will look at the formation of the National Black Sisters’ Conference and how women religious challenged U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s policy in Central America.

Saturday, the last day of the symposium, will feature the final presentation of the Religious Life Vitality Project, which studies the contemporary landscape of consecrated female apostolic life in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States. The study is a project of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University, the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology at Cambridge, and the Religious Life Institute at Heythrop College, supported by a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which also funds Global Sisters Report.

Cummings said the Religious Life Vitality Project is a perfect partner for the symposium because it symbolically links the past and the present.

“To understand what’s happening with women religious today, it’s really tied up in the history and the recent past,” she said. “You can’t separate the two.”

That’s especially true in these five decades since Vatican II, she said, when there is still debate over what Vatican II means and how to live it out.

“That’s where professional trained historians can play a role in this,” Cummings said. “They help in assessing the meaning and how did we get where we are today.”

Online registration for the conference is closed, but a limited number of registrations are available by contacting or 574-631-5441. See the Cushwa Center’s website for details.

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