Archaic, Expensive Habits, Rules for Sisters Sharply Criticized in Discussion on Religious Life

120th General Congregation
November 11, 1964

Archaic religious habits, the excessive cost of the clothing ceremonies of some religious orders, and the requirement that nuns be accompanied by a companion Sister when outside a convent were criticized as the ecumenical council discussed how to adapt religious orders and congregations to the needs of the modern world.

Seven cardinals and three superior generals of religious communities were among the 17 Fathers who spoke on the council propositions on Religious at the 120th general council meeting. In general, most of them agreed that the propositions could be acceptable but needed lots of revision. But one — Leo Cardinal Suenens of Malines-Brussels — declared that he did not like the schema at all and called for a new document.

It was Cardinal Suenens who raised objections to various religious habits. “These are a cause for ridicule for nuns in the street,” he said. Objecting particularly to various forms of garments devised in the last century, the cardinal asked that they be suppressed. He also suggested doing away with the Sister-companion requirement which, he said, is no longer needed.

Cardinal Suenens’ speech, however, was not restricted to specific points. He said that what he wants most of all is a schema that will foster training and community life in which Sisters and nuns will act as adult women capable of responding to the needs of today’s world. He stated that he wants a theology of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to be explicitly spelled out in positive terms.

The cardinal further warned against two dangers in some convents. One is a paternalism on the part of major superiors which permits little community participation or representation in the life of a convent. The other is a result of this first problem, namely, that subjects in a convent resign themselves to obedience in a completely passive way almost bordering on infantilism.

To counteract these tendencies, he urged that canon law experts be put to the task of restructuring constitutions and forms of government so that all members of a community can take part in community life in an adult and responsible way.

The clothing ceremonies of some congregations came under fire from Indian Archbishop Dominic Athaide of Agra, who said that they are often marred by undue pomp and expense. As a result, he said, some postulants remain in the convent even though they do not have a vocation because they feel so much has been expended on them.

In place of this, he proposed that such ceremonies be carried out with a solemn simplicity and with stress on the fact that the ceremony marks only a beginning, not a definitive accomplishment. The same, he said, applies to the ceremony at the making of a temporary profession.

Only when it is a case of making perpetual vows, he declared, should a ceremony take on splendor, and then it should be joyous rather than funereal, as it often is among various orders and congregations.

The day’s meeting began with Mass celebrated by Archbishop Louis Ferrand of Tours, France, on the feast of St. Martin of Tours. The Gospel was enthroned by Bishop Sandor Kovacs of Szombatheley, Hungary, the birthplace of St. Martin.

Archbishop Pericle Felici, council secretary general, asked for a vote on the commission’s handling of amendments on chapter two of the ecumenism schema. This was approved by a vote of 2,021 to 85.

Among the changes in the second chapter was a sentence which had previously placed responsibility for the implementation of ecumenical practices, such as reciting common prayers with non-Catholics, on local bishops. As approved on Nov. 11, the sentence says that this responsibility rests with local episcopal authority unless it is decided otherwise by a national episcopal conference or the Holy See.

During the debate, Father Joseph Buckley, S.M., Minnesota-born prepositor general of the Marist Fathers, objected that the mission proposition contained “no gesture of friendship toward the diocesan clergy.” He declared that it is time “we recognized that diocesan priests have their own sound spirituality. There is much in common between them and Religious.”

Among the common bonds, Father Buckley listed the facts that diocesan priests often live in common, have a duty of obedience to their bishop and pastor, share a poverty similar to that of Religious and engage in the same kind of apostolic ministry. “It is safe to say,” he stated, “that Religious priests in active life are closer to diocesan priests than they are to contemplative Religious.”

Father Buckley suggested removing the distinction between orders and congregations and said that the section dealing with religious obedience seems “to apply to everyone the religious concept of obedience, which may be all right for monks but is not what the apostolic Religious need today.”

He said that the crisis in obedience today seems to him to concern superiors rather than subjects, since “today’s young people do not swallow archaic formulas like ‘the will of the superior is exactly the same as the will of God.’”

Like Cardinal Suenens, Father Buckley held that many superiors “do not even understand proper and efficient procedure for running a … meeting” of a religious council and that superiors often do not consult their councils.

The day’s first speaker was Jaime Cardinal de Barros Camara of Rio de Janeiro, who spoke in the name of 103 Brazilian bishops. He said that the document can only treat of the general principles governing Religious and that details should be worked out by a post-council commission. There is need in the text for a statement of the importance of religious life in the structure of the Church, he said. He added that the text should show a great knowledge of the history of Religious and that an effort should be made to safeguard the variety of religious institutes.

He said he was also interested in some treatment of non-clerical Religious, such as Brothers and Sisters, and asked for encouragement for major superiors’ conferences and cooperation between them and national bishops’ conferences. In regard to the renovation of religious organizations, he asked that the text state clearly what authority is to be given competence in this matter so that anarchy may not reign in religious communities.

The same view was taken by Ernesto Cardinal Ruffini of Palermo, Italy, who specifically urged that this authority be lodged with the Holy See. He warned against unrestricted renovation which could give rise to a wild desire for excessive change and called for fidelity to the spirit of the founders of the various religious institutes.

Another Father who called for caution in the authorization of renovation was Father Anastasio Ballestrero, O.C.D., prepositor general of the Discalced Carmelite Fathers. He urged that renovation be based on a return to the first fervor of the community and to the intentions of its founder, thus avoiding “an itch for novelty.” He warned against the mentality that considers that everything old is bad and everything new is good. Speaking in the name of 185 Fathers, he asked for the addition of a doctrinal introduction.

Paul Cardinal Richaud of Bordeaux, France, suggested that the title of the schema be changed since it covers many dedicated people who are not Religious in the canonical sense. He said he would like to have it called “Christians Especially Dedicated to God and Souls.”

The French cardinal asked for a better treatment of the differences between contemplative and active Religious, noting that all contemplatives are active in some respects and that no amount of activity is effective without contemplative foundations. He said he found the text too juridical in spirit and said the cloister should not be regarded as a separation from the world but as a protection from it. He also suggested that permission to leave the cloister should be left up to the superior of the house rather than to the bishop.

Juan Cardinal Landazuri Ricketts, O.F.M., of Lima, Peru, called for a more ample treatment of the topic and said he wanted a clear statement on the role of contemplatives in the Church as well as consideration given to the question of perseverance in the religious life.

Too many Religious are leaving the religious life, many becoming diocesan priests unsuccessfully, the Franciscan cardinal said. This is due, he continued, to a superficial knowledge of what religious life is. Many in religion fail to understand that religious life is not only an organization but is a form of exercising the apostolate, he stated. He called for a statement of praise for the contribution Religious have made to the Church, noting that there are 1.2 million women and 800,000 priests and Brothers in religion. He was given warm applause at the conclusion of his speech.

Following Cardinal Suenens, Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J., rose to urge that inspiration for the religious life be drawn from the liturgy and Bible and also from a missionary and ecumenical spirit.

The Jesuit president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity stressed that Religious should realize that they are not only members of an institute but members of the Church, and that while it is necessary for a community to preserve the gifts of its founder, it must also cooperate with other religious institutes to live and feel with the Church.

Bishop Andre Charge of Namur, Belgium, said the document’s treatment of the renovation of religious life was too generic and not sufficiently specific. It lacks stress on the need for cooperation between Religious and bishops, he said.

Then speaking in the name of Belgium’s bishops, he said that the right of Religious to recruit vocations should be recognized, but that emphasis on priestly vocations as such should be insisted on. He said some exaggerations on religious vocations have been made in the past and that bishops’ rights in the field of vocations should be protected.

Father Aniceto Fernandez, O.P., master general of the Dominican Order, said he wanted more attention paid to the training of novice masters and mistresses and suggested an international school he established to train them. He called for more and better training of Religious women for the apostolate, saying that what the Council of Trent did for the clergy by establishing seminaries, the Second Vatican Council should do for Sisters.

Agreeing with Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, who had spoken the previous day on the generosity of Religious, Father Fernandez asked that a suggestion contained in the earlier draft of the document on Religious — that national conferences of religious superiors meet and work with national conferences of bishops — he returned to the text under discussion.

Dutch Bishop Petrus Moors of Roermond said he wanted stress on the fact that the adaptation of religious life should not be presented only in the light of modern needs but more in terms of the demands of the Gospel, and that adaptation should be a return to the Gospel counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.

A complaint that poverty and its spirit is almost negligible today in many orders was voiced by Coadjutor Bishop Andrea Sol of Amboina, Indonesia. Speaking in the name of Indonesia’s bishops, he expressed regret at the condensation of the document but said he accepted it because it was the Pope’s wish. He called, however, for a better theological foundation and for a section to point out that fidelity to one’s institute can mean not standing still but evolving. He also called for greater stress on the missionary spirit within religious institutes.

Archbishop Pacifico Perantoni, O.F.M., of Lanciano, Italy, former Franciscan minister general, speaking in the name of 370 Fathers, said the text was acceptable but that revision is needed to clarify the actuality and necessity of the religious life today in terms of its special contribution to the Church. The multiplicity of religious institutes should be regarded as a sign of special gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Church, he said. He also wanted specific praise of the role of Brothers and emphasis on vocation needs.

A French prelate, retired Archbishop Victor Sartre, S.J., of Tananarive, Malagasy Republic, speaking in the name of 265 Fathers and more than 200 mothers general, complained that too often diocesan priests harm vocations to the religious life by emphasizing to inquiring youngsters the values of the lay apostolate, of living in the world and of Catholic Action. He called this a downgrading of the religious life and harmful to the Church. He also said he wanted the document to reaffirm the primacy of the element of consecration in religious life.

Bishop Richard Guilly, S.J., of Georgetown, British Guiana, said he wanted to know why so little had been said about the contemplative life and its value. Contemplatives are eminently apostolic and they should avoid those forms of the apostolate that harm their essential structure, he said. He called for a declaration on contemplative life.

James C. O’Neill
NCWC News Rome Correspondent

* * * *

America’s nun auditor at the ecumenical council, Sister Mary Luke [Tobin], has stated that women Religious would like to have “some representation in the bodies which govern their lives.”

The Sister of Loreto, who is president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious in the U.S., spoke as a guest panelist of the U.S. bishops’ press panel here.

Such representation, she said on the day the council was debating the schema on Religious, is an example of what nuns hope for from aggiornamento — the updating of the Church launched by Pope John XXIII and being pursued by the council he convoked. She did not elaborate, but it seemed that she was referring to the Church’s central administration in Rome — the Roman curia — and the Congregation of Religious in particular.

Another hope of nuns, she said, is that the “theology of the council might in some way be integrated into their lives.”

Sister Mary Luke said that there is “more room than people think” within the present framework of canon law for updating religious communities of women.

“Most of the outmoded customs are not demanded by canon law,” she said.

“All of us in active communities have been alerted … to the possibility that we could enter more fully into the apostolate,” she continued. She cited the possibility that teaching nuns could also work with adult study groups or visit the families of their pupils, “especially in deprived areas.”

She also called for “some means of communication between women Religious and bishops on a national or regional level.” For this purpose she suggested the creation of liaison committees.

Patrick Riley
NCWC News Rome Correspondent

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