AN OPEN LETTER TO WOMEN RELIGIOUS
AN OPEN LETTER TO WOMEN RELIGIOUS
It is with no small amount of trepidation that I address this article to those who like myself are members of a women’s religious congregation in Ireland. I am puzzled. Perhaps I have missed letters or articles, but it seems to me that in relation to the introduction of the new text of the Missal the voice of women religious to date has remained strangely silent. And I am wondering why. Does this silence mean consent?
Lest my silence be interpreted as consent, I am writing this article, wondering if there are others who share my different thoughts and feelings on this topic.
Probably for many religious, silence does mean consent. The Vatican and our own Conference of Bishops have made it clear that the introduction of the new text is to go ahead. The fact of the text being introduced by the Bishops means that many will accept it. Therefore it is likely that these religious would have little difficulty with words like those of Bp. John McAreavey who in an Irish Independent article in April, wrote: ‘Instead of saying: “And also with you”, the congregation will say: “And with your spirit.” (What a pity he did not say: “the congregation will be invited to say”.) They will be among those who give the desired new responses. So I am wondering if perhaps their silence is because they see no need to voice their acceptance of the new text, being happy to receive copies of it and instructions on its hoped-for advantages and benefits for the People of God.
From speaking with others, I know there are other religious who are disillusioned with the hierarchical part of our Church. Mentally and spiritually, even if not physically, they are walking away from it. For them, the introduction or imposition of the new Missal is merely another symptom of how those in leadership in our Church are out of touch with the reality of life as it is lived by the majority of people. How can our leadership justify putting such time, energy and finance into ‘mending what is not broken’ (to quote Fr. Brendan Hoban)? Is this offered as a distraction from the more serious issue of structural reform of our church? For these religious it seems, there is no point in trying to speak out as there is no evidence of being either consulted or truly listened to.
Certainly there are at least some religious women who experience these thoughts and feelings. But, the question is, are there many? And what are the consequences for our Church in this country, if women religious silently drift away?
For myself, I am not yet at that point of disillusion although it is with diminishing hope that I await the ‘beginnings of a dialogue at every level’ mentioned in Bishop Freeman’s response to the three thousand or so comments sent in 2010 to the hierarchy. Unfortunately in the matter of the imposition of the new Missal, as far as I am aware the dialogue has been one-way. It has been described as ‘playing handball against a haystack’, to use an evocative expression (the original author of which I cannot remember). If our Church is to have any future, far more than a bland acknowledgement of communications is needed from the hierarchy. Issues raised, for example at the meeting of the Association of Catholic Priests in Portlaoise on 2nd June, need to be responded to. A game of handball against a haystack cannot go on indefinitely. It takes too much energy.
Returning to the silence of women religious, is it because – many? – some? – are saying that they will decide themselves what part of the new text, if any, they will adopt? I expect and indeed hope that many will simply refuse to use exclusive language in the parts where it occurs. Given the average age of religious women in this country, it really is rather ridiculous to expect us at this stage in our lives to be willing to say for example in the Creed: ‘for us men and our salvation’! For my part, I do not intend to adopt the new texts at all, as I object to what can well be called their ‘flawed pedigree’ (the interference by Vox Clara in their final edition), their use of exclusive language and the manner in which they are being imposed.
The Conference of Religious of Ireland also to date has remained silent in the public realm. Readers of the CORI newsletter will be aware that they sent a letter to Cardinal Brady and also to the Bishops’ Conference expressing misgivings in relation to the new text and requesting a deferral of its introduction. However, this letter was not made public. Nor has CORI made a public response to the Bishops’ Conference confirmation of their decision to go ahead with the introduction of the text. The AGM this year was only for one day, one half of which was taken up with input from (and hopefully dialogue with) the Apostolic Visitors appointed by the Vatican. So there was little or no opportunity to address the topic of the new Missal and thus to get a sense of the thoughts and feelings of religious in relation to it.
I do not wish in any way to lay blame at the door of the CORI Executive for this public silence. The Report of the Secretary General to the AGM in June outlines the tremendous amount of work being done by CORI in many complex fields. The members and the Executive are provincial leaders caught up in the administrative, legal and personnel pressures of their ministry. Many are at or beyond retirement age and yet are carrying their heavy responsibilities with an extraordinary level of dedication and commitment. Obviously these responsibilities leave them with little time or energy to follow-up on other matters. I simply want to draw attention to the fact that this raises the question: what channels are open to religious women who are not in leadership and who wish to discuss or express opinions on any of the current issues in our Church?
Age, disillusion, lack of energy, preoccupation with different and urgent matters – all these are possible reasons for the silence of women religious in Ireland in relation to current issues in our Church. But let us remember Anna the prophetess. She was eighty-four. She was graced with a special understanding of God’s action in the life of the Jewish people and recognised the longed-for Messiah in a small baby. And ‘she spoke….’ (Luke Ch.2 vs. 36 – 38) She did not keep silent.
One can imagine the response of the Jewish Temple authorities, which presumably included hesitation, ridicule, criticism, an exhortation that she return to her prayer and fasting, and perhaps, cautious acceptance!
I suspect that each of our religious congregations at some time or other or in some General Chapter document, will have expounded on our prophetic role in the Church. The most recent UISG Conference was entitled: ‘ Prophets and Mystics’. Sr. Elizabeth Cotter IBVM in an explanation of Apostolic Visitation which is found on the CORI web-site, has this to say: “Religious are a splendid sign in the Church as they foretell Christ’s heavenly glory. Eminent writers have written about this prophetic dimension. It is about recognising the situation in which we find ourselves, speaking out, pointing beyond and being prepared to pay the price.”
Are we now being asked to be other Annas? I think we are.