Thursday, February 11, 2010

Back To The Nunnery: Life After Oprah

Our recent piece “Oprah: Get Me To A Nunnery” has generated considerable interest. We were only able at the time to give you a taste of the actual broadcast. Marcel of Aggie Catholics found the clips of the entire segment in four parts, so we stole them. Besides introducing you to a fellow-parishioner at Saint Blog's -- we never miss a chance to share the love here at mwbh -- this gives us an opportunity to focus on some of the critical issues facing Sisters today.

There are misconceptions about the story of women Religious, in particular the USA, that beg for correction. The conventional wisdom is that for centuries, there was this underpaid, undereducated class of chattel that was weaned from a very early age in convent schools, to give up any notion of happiness, for a life of miserable servitude, all under the thumb of equally sexually repressed old men, who dictated their fates from positions of unlimited power and authority. Then one day, these same old men convened the Second Vatican Council, and declared that all bets were off, liberating these poor suffering women from bondage, leaving them to pursue their true mission in life and actually accomplish something.

Well, that's entirely bogus, to such an extent that one hardly knows where to begin. But we'll give it a shot.

Before the 20th century, hospitals were dark and forbidding places, and medical and surgical care was horribly crude by today's standards. Catholic hospitals were not founded by committees of pious Catholic businessmen, but by orders of Sisters dedicated to such work. The foundresses of these orders recognized the care of the sick as a genuine work of mercy, and brought this awareness to their apostolate. Combined with the surge of development in medicine as the 20th century progressed, the Catholic hospital system as we knew it up to mid-century flourished, as one-fourth of the hospitals in the USA were Catholic. (At present, according to the Catholic Health Association, one in six Americans receives health care in a Catholic health institution each year.) What's more, since most Catholic hospitals were also teaching hospitals, they were instrumental in the birth of nursing education in this country.

From the colonial period up until the end of the 19th century, the Church in America continued to be confronted by anti-Catholic bigotry. This extended even to the education of children. The American bishops saw a critical need for the Church to maintain its own system of education, not only to form children correctly in the Faith, but to bring that Truth to bear on all manner of subjects. At one point, they even required parents to send their children to Catholic schools if at all possible. (To learn more, click here.)

The Second Vatican Council called for religious orders to re-examine their missions in light of their original charisms. What re-examining ended up being done, was less in light of their founders, and more in conformity with the world. With the sudden loss of identity, and being shaken at the roots, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the momentous decline of numbers of women in Religious life. Hospitals were no longer maintained by religious orders, but were taken over by independent lay boards, and later giant health conglomerates, even as they maintained an ostensibly Catholic identity. The parochial school system gradually saw fewer Sisters among their teaching ranks.

This depletion of numbers had another collateral effect. Religious orders did not have retirement funds, but older Sisters were supported by the work of the younger ones. With their numbers down and very few aspirants joining them, the situation became desperate enough, that by the 1980s the American bishops established a retirement fund for their aging Religious. But it has not been enough, and many orders have found it necessary to liquidate their real property assets, as there is no need for such large facilities to accommodate their dwindling numbers.

Without a distinctive way of life and purpose, young women are not likely to be attracted to the Sisterhood. They would just as soon join any lay association devoted to charitable works, one which makes no demands on their lifestyle. Thus it is no surprise, that the orders which DO provide such distinction are thriving, and (duh!) the ones which don't, DON'T.

Beyond that, we leave it to the good Sisters and their candidates, to explain their purpose for themselves.

If you know of a young woman who might be attracted to the Religious life, but who doesn't normally watch The Oprah Show -- hey, it could happen -- please show her this piece. Each of the four clips can be seen in full view by clicking on the "four-arrow" symbol in the lower right hand corner. To return to the page, simply hit the "ESC" (escape) key.

As for the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, their next Discernment Weekend is the 20th and 21st of February. Check out their website to learn more:

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