Thoughts on Vatican II

In October 2012, Sr. Margaret Hoffman, SND, was on an NDNU panel with Archbishop John Quinn and James Bagget discussing “The Effect and Consequences of Vatican II.”

Following are Sr. Margaret’s thoughts:

I am speaking from the perspective of someone who entered religious life in the 40s just after WWII. I have experienced both the before and the after in this time of deeply significant transformation in our Church and in our congregations.

It was 1963. We were still wearing the habit. I was crossing a street in downtown Carmel when a woman stopped me in the middle of the street to say, “I am so sorry!”  I had no idea what she was talking about–and we were in the middle of the street.

Back at the Carmel Villa I learned that Pope John XXIII had died that day. That woman might have been Catholic, maybe not. But what is important to me is that so many people around the world, not just Catholics, were impressed by Pope John’s gracious personality, his authenticity, and his affirmation that all peoples of all faiths were loved and cherished by God.

I remember the story the Pope is said to have told on himself. Shortly after his election, he was losing sleep trying to grasp the enormity of the task, when prompted by the Spirit, he felt the words: “Go to sleep, John. I’m in charge!”  And he did.

Letting in Fresh Air

Not too long after, the Pope opened the windows and let in fresh air to a church much in need of reform by proclaiming the calling of Vatican II–and that was the beginning of much-needed changes in our church.

As we have heard, significant movement came in the wake of the Council. Sisters’ congregations were deeply affected in ways that we could not have anticipated. We were called to return to our origins, our founders’ initial vision for the congregation, in order to renew ourselves. And that we began to do with energy and enthusiasm, though not without some conflict.

What made profound change in religious congregations was above all the Council’s view that we are to be in and of this world, that the “secular” world is sacred and that we have work to do here in company with Christ. The Council affirmed that We together ARE the people of God. All Christians by virtue of Baptism and Confirmation are charged with the same responsibility to continue the work of Jesus in the world. All are called to the universal vocation to holiness here and now in this world.

The wisdom of the Council was to see the entire Church as one body and that everyone has a common call as well as an individual call–to marriage, to priesthood, to religious life, to the single life.

Mid-Century Religious Life

In the 40s and 50s there was a great surge of vocations to religious life during the years after the war. That was partly because of the realities that wars bring, partly because most of us came from good-sized solidly Catholic families. Most of us were educated in a Catholic elementary and high school system that let us see the dedication to service and the happiness of Sisters in classroom and community. Most of us had entered young, after high school, only a few with some college.

In the 40s and 50s women’s choices were limited: early marriage, positions as teachers or nurses or secretaries. It was not as it is today with all the professional opportunities open to women. Also now we have a better understanding of the stages of maturity that ideally should be navigated before making a life decision of this magnitude.  Now we require a much more rigorous and realistic examination of prospective members who now are entering as more mature than many of us.

Before Vatican II we were not in full possession of the true nature of our apostolic vocation. Going back to our founders’ time we saw that St. Julie embodied a call much more related to her post-French Revolutionary world and its serious needs. After her remarkable healing, she trudged the roads of France and Belgium alone setting up houses and beginning schools, because education had been so neglected during the wars. If she needed a ride from one town to another, she made do with who came along. One time it was with soldiers.

In retrospect it is amazing that in the mid-20th century we were still cloistered. That meant we had a fixed horarium, lived in convents with a Superior whose voice we understood as the voice of God for us. We went out only in twos. One good prelate designated that Sisters were not to be seen on the street after 7 p.m. We were subject to practices that were monastic rather than appropriate for active congregations engaged in education or health care, or other works of mercy. We were wearing the dress of another century–with a certain romantic quality (if you didn’t have to wear it!)–which made us stand out, but all too frequently frightened small children. We were pedestaled as much for the strangeness of our dress as for our skill and care in teaching. We could not visit our families. And most importantly, our spirituality was focused more on personal holiness looking toward eternal life–with a few too many negatives along the way.

1960s – New Winds Blowing

Sr. Margaret Hoffman teaching art at the College of Notre Dame. Circa 1970s.

New winds, however, were blowing. We felt it in the teaching profession where new knowledge, greater demands at all levels were challenging us to train our Sisters to higher professional standards from elementary to college and postgraduate levels. We here at Belmont were preparing to move from a 2-year to a 4-year college [College of Notre Dame, now Notre Dame de Namur University]. I was sent to study for a master’s degree in order to direct a college Art Department. This meant more interaction with colleagues, gaining skills in university settings and going to summer programs in different places. Young Sisters were given better preparation in the formation programs that sprang up.

The 60s were a time of change also in the numbers of Sisters who left congregations, some realizing that it was not their call. And we had fewer new vocations. At the same time new blood was coming into our schools with the hiring of educated lay people, who continue to bring enthusiasm, new skills and  their dedication into our ministries Through our efforts to pass on to them the Charism of St. Julie we feel have a glimpse of the future.

All congregations after WWII were still wearing traditional habits.  The Mass was still being celebrated in Latin, but that changed with the Council. By the 60’s there was much turbulence in the Church and culture. Women were beginning to find their voices in the secular world; there was the struggle for civil rights, the sexual revolution and the Vietnam War. The cultural and religious landscapes were radically changing around us.

Vatican II changed our relationship to the world. Religious were asked by the Council to review their mission and ministries in the light of their founding gift or charism and in the light of the signs of the times. Over the last 50-plus years this renewal has been taking place as we have eagerly embraced the changes of the Council, yet not without conflict along the way.

We have linked the signs of our times with St. Julie Billiart’s prophetic founding insight of the goodness of God. Like Pope John XXIII, Julie had an upbeat spirituality despite her illnesses, the conflicts of a country at war, and misunderstandings with clerics. She had a firm and prophetic vision showing her that her Sisters were to go global–despite the smaller parochial views of some prelates of her time. Through much conflict she prevailed. Today our congregation serves on five continents.

What Will Happen to Religious Life?

We are aging in America and Europe. People ask use what will happen to religious life? I don’t waste time wondering about this question. The Holy Spirit can take that on. In Asia, Africa and South America we do have many young vocations. Who knows how the Good God will choose to use the charism of St. Julie in future times? Or the charisms of other congregations? It is in God’s hands. Providentially we have many Associates throughout our congregation who in a way have sought us out, not the other way around. Our Associates, who love our charism, bring their energy and gifts to support us. They are a fruit of the new winds blowing in our Church.

We work and pray with these dedicated, spiritual women who teach us so much, cherish our spirituality, and add their energy to the widened range of ministries we support. Our mission has deepened, not changed; our ministries range from traditional formal education at all levels with the professional lay people who are taking over, to service in parishes, to teaching ESL for immigrants, to services for the elderly.  We have nurses, professional graphics artists, campus ministers, spiritual directors. We run shelters for abused and homeless women, work in food pantries, are hospital and police chaplains. We have NGO status at the United Nations and are part of the staffs of many non-profits. We enthusiastically responded to the Vatican call for dialogue with other Christian denominations and non-Christians as well. What the future holds is in God’s hands.

And our structures of government have been significantly changed by the Council to be less hierarchical. Currently we have an international governmental structure that is a circle of five women. Every six years our General Chapter meeting somewhere in the congregation and elects a new leadership group. Women from every continent have served us in this capacity. Now we understand leadership to reside in the community. Cloister is gone, but not fidelity to spirituality, ministry and community. Occasionally I pine for the old days when I didn’t have to offer an opinion on so many things, but not for long!

Tired of Negativity

When Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council at a Mass of the Holy Spirit in Latin and Greek to honor Eastern and Western Christians, he shocked the assemblage in his blunt homily. Saying he was tired of negativity. “Divine Providence is leading us to a new order in human relations . . . using the medicine of mercy rather than of severity.”  His hope was to restore visible unity to the entire Christian family and to embrace not only Christians, but “those who follow non-Christian religions” with the fullness of charity. The Pope wanted us to be open to new avenues to the Christian apostolate, to use the riches of our faith in ways that fit our times.

Ongoing Prayer, Contemplation and Action

The Second Vatican Council has laid down a new and hopeful path for Christians today that respects tradition but acknowledges the signs of the times, the need for ongoing prayer, contemplation and action.

A Scripture passage which has been central for me is Luke 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….

Such a glorious challenge!