"To guide towards a concerted effort the immense potential of one million dedicated religious throughout the world, to adapt the active religious life to a more effective apostolate in this world, is a task calling for renewal rather than revolution."
WHEN Cardinal Suenens was sent by Pope John as his special envoy to present a copy of the encyclical Pacenz in Terris to U Thant, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, his mission was headlined as a mission of peace.
The day after he had fulfilled this task he said in an address to a meeting of over four thousand nuns in New York:
"I have not come here to preach peace, hut to call for a revolution. a revolution in the life of active nuns, the nuns in the world, so that they may be able to fulfil as perfectly as possihle their mission of bringing Christ to the world of the twentieth century"
In spite of this, the Cardinal is not, of course, a wild-eyed revolutionary.
His book, The Nun in the World, is no subversive manifesto seeking to cause disastrous upheavals, to undermine authority and to be responsible for the destruction of much that is good, which is the unfortunate role, generally speaking, of even the most well-meaning rebel.
Unlike most revolutionaries he is filled with admiration and affection for what he wishes to change, for the life of nuns as they live it.
This, as he says, often amounts to heroism; and saying it he is but echoing the thoughts and feelings of millions of priests and people throughout the world.
Here then is no hostile critic wishing to find fault for the sake of doing so, or a writer influenced by the spirit of the world, which caricatures what it does not understand, He is one of the most important men in the Church today, one who has given much study to this question and consulted many people, all with the simple intention of finding out what is the role of the nun in the world today and how her present conditions may be improved in order that she should fulfil that role.
He certainly proposes changes, far-reaching ones, though not in the essence of the religious life. This is of course the dedication to the service of God and of one's neighbour in a spirit of love and detachment.
But he wishes the accidentals, which nevertheless may play a great part in the daily life of the nun, and which can help — or sometimes hinder — this essential work to move with the times. Some of these changes may he indeed regarded as revolutionary. But "revolutionary" is a loaded word.
To guide towards a concerted effort the immense potential of one million dedicated religious throughout the world, to adapt the active religious life to a more effective apostolate in this world with its rapidly-changing ways of life and its exploding non-Christian populations is a task calling for renewal rather than revolution.
It is not to be wondered at that there should be this call for renewal, as part of the general renewal of the life of the Church to face up to modern problems.
This transformation was initially the vision of Pope John, but it has been embraced visibly by the whole Church and is being actually carried out under the inspired direction of his successor.
in the Vatican Council everything is being examined and tested to see whether it is part of the essentials of the life of the Church and whether it is adapted to bringing the Christian message to the modern world.
It would be strange and indeed a matter for resentment among nuns if nothing were suggested for them, one of the main forces which the Church has at its disposal.
Wholesome change is not merely good or desirable; it is a condition of life. If the acorn resisted change it would never grow into a sturdy oak; if deadwood were not cut from the tree the tree would eventually be stifled and die.
The Nun in the World has just been issued in a new revised edition. This will supplant the first hurried edition, the translation of which hardly did justice to the Cardinal's words. still less to his thought. It may be a good time, then, to try and give an impressionistic summing up of some aspects of the reception which it has received.
On the whole the reviews in England and in America and in Ireland have been overwhelmingly in favour of it. The letters the Cardinal has received from high and low in the Church have even more enthusiastically praised a work which obviously filled a long-felt want.
It has been a best seller in Ireland; and in America thousands had to wait for the new edition to get their copies, so rapidly was the first edition exhausted. The great praise it has had from reviewers has not been merely sterile eulogy.
The book has already inspired A number of changes and it has been discussed at conversions of religious superiors as well as within the General Chapters of religious orders.
One Mother General told me that quite a number of suggestions in the General Chapter of her order this year were easily recognisable as being from The Nun in the World. Another order that I know in Ireland has assigned one nun to the full-time study of how its recommendations can be applied to her order.
Everywhere it has been discussed, commented upon, criticised as well as praised. One nun told me that at a meeting of religious superiors every shade of opinion about it was represented. from enthusiastic approval to almost complete disapproval.
It would be fair, I think, to say, however, that approval has very largely predominated. But just as in the Council, there have been misgivings on the part of some—good, honest, devoted servants of the Church—so it is not to be wondered at that such a book as this, proposing momentous changes in the life of nuns, should also arouse opposition or at least suspicion, even though it is couched in prudent terms and is motivated, on the part of the Cardinal, so obviously by the sole desire to help active nuns to serve Our Lord and souls and the Church more effectively.
Some of these misgivings are the fruit of misunderstanding. This is a book which needs to he read and re-read—every word— with great care, not to be hurriedly scanned so that it can be passed on quickly to the next in the queue for it in the community.
Those young nuns, for example, who have quoted it to their superiors to justify courses of action which they wish to pursue, are only in the right if they keep in mind the words of the Cardinal: "It goes without saying, too, that these modifications are not the responsibility of individual nuns but must be made by competent authority if we are not to have disorder and anarchy or warp the religious spirit or just scratch the surface of the problem."
In spite of the Cardinal's assertions, even repeated on the cover of the book, that he has no intention of adding to an already overcrowded timetable or advocating that nuns should do more than they arc already doing when they are already working at a pressure often bordering on the heroic, many nuns I have spoken to have completely missed this point. Hence comes one of the chief criticisms of the book: that it is not practical.
It certainly is not practical if the changes proposed by the Cardinal are to be achieved without modifications in the timetable according to a scale of real values in the convent's way of life. in the customs of the order laid down years ago for an earlier age, and (dare one say it?) even in the constitutions themselves, if one or two of them are no longer adapted to the work of bringing souls to Christ and Christ to souls in this day and age.
The Gospel is superior even to the Rule which was intentioned by the foundresses to be a help to the fulfilling of the Gospel, not a substitute for it.
Those nuns who claim that the Pope said "they need not change" or quote triumphantly Pius XII in Sponsa Christi (1950), who said that changes should be introduced "cautiously and prudently , and with due respect for tradition and without contravening prescriptions which the constitutions regard as inviotable" do not always consider the fact that the changes that he envisaged, even if carried out prudently and cauti
misty, were intended to be very considerable, as quotations in The Nun in the World show.
On the whole, it will be found that the absolutely essential and inviolable prescriptions of the constitutions are fully in keeping with the Gospel and, properly understood and applied in modern times, accord perfectly with the ideas of the Cardinal.
With regard to the point of practicability, there are several communities who are already "living" the book; it must *therefore be possible to do so, given goodwill and ingenuity.
But most of us are allergic to change and it is easy to mention the points which do not seem to us to have relevance for our own country in order to gloss over the points which have a very direct bearing on conditions in Ireland or England or the U.S.A.
For instance, this surely does not excuse from the duty of considering if the habit could not be made more suitable for modern times.
Because conditions in Belgium may seem to some to differ from those in Ireland, this certainly does not absolve religious superiors from considering, for example, if customs and rules of their own order take into account sufficiently the words of the Cardinal on periodic visits to the family.
Some customs in this regard in Ireland are so harsh that they arouse distaste and disedification rather than the hoped-for edification. Those Catholics who say this openly are sometimes regarded as not appreciating the value of "sacrifice" in the life of a nun, whereas they are really only showing a modern and wholly good appreciation of the claims of filial piety.
Another reason which is given for not taking the Cardinal's book too seriously is the suggestion that he is not aware of the great changes which have already taken place.
This was mentioned to me by a nun whose habit formerly had been almost impossible, with its heavy "blinkers", to wear in the street. She was smugly sitting in the new stream-lined modern habit—which had been changed this year, a year after the Cardinal wrote!
There is also the temptation to apply the implied criticisms in the book to orders other than one's own. There have been changes, indeed, in outlook and, to a lesser extent. in externals.
I was struck by the number and the intelligent interest of the nuns at the Sociology Congress in Dublin last summer. But I was also struck by the old-fashioned habits of some of .the nuns. If they have indeed heeded the Pope's exhortations the mind becomes dizzy imagining what the habits must have been like before the change. One very progressive order of nuns (not in this country), which prides itself on being so much in the van of advance that it did not really need the admonitions of the Cardinal's writings, according to its members recently spent a considerable amount of time in the General Chapter debating whether a wrist-watch was in keeping with the vow of poverty as a pocketwatch apparently is.
No decision was reached. This hardly seems the spirit of the great renewal nor does one feel that this order has yet geared all its thinking to the realities of the space age and the nuclear age, or to the clarion calls towards the agglornamento to which Pope John and Pope Paul invited the Church.
In another order a very skilled nun, made late for a meal by a lengthy and brilliant operation, had to do a "penance" for her "fault". I would imagine that such custom would be more likely to induce hypocrisy than humility.
Such examples could be multiplied even in orders which have made much progress. Some may seem trivial and perhaps unkind to quote. But I quote them, not to criticise, but to show that perhaps even the best orders may learn much from this book.
If there is any order indeed which feels that it has already carried out the revolution the Cardinal desires, I am sure that the Cardinal would be delighted to hear from them, and to use their example as a model for other nuns.
I would suggest with all deference that the hook should be studied in a positive spirit, with a view to seeing how it could be helpful and put into practice by a particular order, rather than with an eye to what has already been done or what does not need doing.
The changes which the Cardinal suggests do not touch the essentials of the religious life, but they will need hard thought and considerable sacrifice to bring about. For older nuns (and superiors are often older nuns) it will be very difficult to contemplate radical changes in a familiar pattern of life which they view with religious veneration.
All the more so as they may be honestly afraid of losing some of the spirit of the order, some of the dedication of their lives by seeming to come closer to the world. A keener study of The Nun in the World (especially of page 127) would allay these fears.
The Cardinal is not advocating more wordliness, but more apostolic contact with the world, a very different thing. He is not asking for change out of spirit of novelty, but for the sake of the apostolate. Adaptation is not relaxation according to his intentions. Nor does he seek to lessen the interior life in the interests of the active life.
What he is pleading for, in the name of our Lord. is a better understanding of apostolic duty, the abandonment of the old monastic idea that the less contact there is with the world the better for the interior life.
He shows that the dilemma between ,he active life and the spiritual life is only insoluble if a division or a conflict is forced between the life of prayer and the actual bringing of souls to Christ. The "heresy of activity" is no temptation for those who go out to work for souls, not for their own satisfaction. It is perhaps a salutary thought that Our Lord did not blame the Samaritan for this heresy, nor did he praise the priest and Levite for being so concerned with their interior life and with their journey towards Jerusalem to worship God that they disregarded the distress of a fellow human being who had fallen among robbers.
A spirituality of the active life is needed, not a monastic spirituality almost impossibly tacked on to an active life. Surely it is spiritual gluttony for an active order of nuns to spend four hours or so in formal prayer when people in the world are dying of spiritual hunger.
Perhaps the answer to another objection may provide an excuse and an apologia for the writer of this article, which may seem a critical one, in spite of his very great affection for nuns and in spite of having always been treated so well and with such respect by them that he always leaves them with an enhanced respect and with indeed a greater appreciation of his own privilege in belonging to the ranks of the priesthood, on account of their spirit of faith and appreciation of its dignity.
This objection is that almost all the reviewers of the hook who have praised it have been priests, and that priests and even cardinals often do a lot of harm criticising a way of life of which they do not have first-hand knowledge. This indeed, it is alleged, is even responsible for loss of vocations.
Speaking about England for a moment (in Ireland some nuns
have reviewed the book), the fact is that one never sees from one year's end to another nuns acting as reviewers. There is no conspiracy among editors to exclude them. Is it something in their rules or way of life that does not allow them to take part in the world of literary life ?
If nuns had been established reviewers they would undoubtedly have been asked to review this book.
Another point is that although priests are outsiders their are privileged ones. They often see nuns and work with them; they also. let it be said, hear criticism of the nun's way of life, often good-natured and semi-apologetic, from good lay people. Also many of the changes they approve are with regard to externals.
The habit may not be an indication of the spirit of an order, but if it is kept as it has been for centuries in spite of suggestions for change, where it is obviously unsuitable for modern life, there is a natural tendency to think that in some other ways the nuns who wear it may not be eager to adapt their way of life to presentday needs, and a priest is surely entitled to say so. It is good to realise and give full credit to the adaptations which have already been geom.ously made.
But in this matter we could reasonably use the words of Saint Paul about forgetting the things that are behind and pressing forward to the great goal, which in this case is nothing less than the mobilisation of all the resources of the Church in the best possible way to face the challenge of the second half of the twentieth century.