Wel-Com regularly features through its obituaries memories of priests, religious and laity and their service – jubilees likewise. May I single out for special collective tribute those religious sisters who played a special part in our post-Vatican II history?
Many of us were hugely privileged to be part of the spirit emanating from this remarkable Council. We also knew how reluctant some were to embrace it. For some parish priests it was too much of ‘throwing out’. Feelings of diminishment cut deep. A surge of laicisations didn’t help.
Vatican II enthusiasts relished the theology of ‘the priesthood of all the baptised’, the suggestion that the Church is a ‘Pilgrim People’ and that the Bible was much more than the pre-selections of the lectionary. Vernacular liturgy was a breath of fresh air.
In this early 1970s mix, religious congregations re-examined their own mission: Was school teaching their best form of service? Our ’70s university campuses saw many sisters in modernised dress and with re-instated baptismal names, darting from tutorial to lecture to library, lifting their professional qualifications, while also adding theological and pastoral wisdom to their CVs.
Srs Patricia, Joan, Pauline, Colleen, Mary, Catherine, Noelene, Connie, Barbara, Marie, Judith, Anne, Makareta, Cathy, Joan, Kathleen, Genevieve, Teresa, Elizabeth, Paula et al – you helped priests and parishes to trust in this ‘new church’. Your congregational leaders facilitated your overseas study to gain fresh expertise for adult education in faith to serve our bishops and dioceses. The group-dynamics industry flourished, if somewhat reliant on USA resources. I recall arriving at Forrestal House in Inglewood one Friday evening in the mid-’70s with three others for a seminar which two Sisters led on Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church. Such exciting new insights. Dioceses developed their own pastoral centres. Our Palmerston North facility was a jewel. Wellington had Futuna.
The 1970s merged into the ‘80s. Sisters facilitated new styles of prayer and reflection. Social justice issues were highlighted. Materials rolled off photocopy machines for seminars and retreats – some great music, too. People now in their 70s and 80s will attest that their own faith renewal was greatly helped by these adult formation outreaches. More lay people responded to serve in parish ministries. Our bishops brokered the Catholic schools’ system to integration with the State system. Nowadays our mostly lay-staffed schools are challenged to be leaders in evangelisation.
The new millennium saw Rome’s leadership entrench a mood of reining-in. But the will of God in God’s people ensures new spirit arises. Religious congregations discern that old models don’t fit; ‘first World’ Church has different needs from those of emerging entities. Structure for its own sake is self-serving and unworthy. Pope Francis speaks to us in a different way from that of his predecessors.
Lay leaders today serve alongside fewer vowed and ordained religious women and men. Supplanting the service of religious on a stipend with lay employees being paid a salary is a financial challenge.
I am grateful for those years of gospel-centred renewal and especially for the interfacing role of those generous Sisters who served our bishops and parishes so well. Some still do. You are, and were, visible treasures and you live on in many lives and memories. Deo Gratias.