My most challenging and most transformative years
When the Second Vatican Council opened in 1962 I had just been appointed Director of Novices for our Congregation. This meant that I had accepted the responsibility of passing on to another generation the traditions, practices, prayer forms and life style of the Sisters of Providence. At that time there were approximately 150 women in our Novitiate. Most of these women were college age and, like the youth who peopled the college campuses during the 60s, they had high ideals and were ready to help change the world. Pope John XXIII’s call to the church to open its windows so that the winds of the Holy Spirit could blow new life into it was music to their ears!
I, on the other hand, had come to maturity in a church rooted in tradition. I had grown up in a Catholic family, attended a parochial school and was taught by the Sisters of Providence. I had learned all of the rules that identified me as Catholic. I knew from memory the answers to the Baltimore Catechism questions. I knew the Bible stories but had never been encouraged to pray with the Bible in my own hands.
I joined the Sisters of Providence in 1940 and received the traditional habit. I lived the convent lifestyle which at that time was very monastic. As the Council opened I began to see the challenges for change that awaited me. I would be a learner even as I was mentor and teacher!
In retrospect I see the years of the Council (1962-65) as being among the most challenging, yet the most transformative years of my life. The Council changed me.
Now I look back to the blessings that supported me in that time of change and challenge. One blessing was that early in my religious life I had been gifted with a spiritual director, a woman ahead of her time, who encouraged me to develop a devotion to the Holy Spirit, recognizing God’s presence within me, within others and in all of creation. She encouraged me to look for signs of God’s presence in the circumstances of my daily life. She encouraged me to begin each day by acknowledging God’s presence within me and around me and asking God to use me, that through my own words and actions I would help bring God’s presence to all whom I would meet that day. This daily prayer enabled me to be open to the changes that became part and parcel of my life each day.
A second blessing in those Vatican II years was the great theology teachers who taught the novices. They really created the optimism and hope for the church that made that period such an exciting time for all of us and served the women well, both those who chose to leave and became leaders in their parishes, as well as those who stayed.
As the Council progressed and its teachings were published, I realized in a new way that the church is more than an institution; it is the Body of Christ in the world today. Each of us is a part of that Body and is committed by our baptism to make God’s presence known in the world in which we live through our own acts of love, mercy and justice. As someone has wisely said “God has but our hands, to do his work in the world today.”
I learned a great deal from each of the documents of Vatican Council II but the Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of Religious Life was particularly significant for me because of my own vocation choice and of my work with the novices. The document detailed a specific time line during which all congregations of religious women in the world would initiate a plan to study all aspects of their way of life, their founding myth, their customs and their distinctive garb and then make changes in keeping with the times.
The Sisters of Providence responded to the request of the church and within a year a plan for adapting our life style to the needs of the times was ready to be implemented. These were stressful times for many — those just entering religious life and those who had been living religious life for many years. Change is never easy and change during those years was constant and profound.
Along with adaptation there was another Council challenge to each congregation: to engage its members in the interior spiritual renewal of its commitment to God and in service to God’s people within our vowed life. The final words of Vatican Council II were: “The Council is over; the Council is beginning.” The work of answering the call “to love tenderly, to act justly and to walk humbly with our God” [Micah 6:8] is a lifelong challenge and so the challenge and the transformative work of the Council continues in my own life. I am grateful for all that I have received these 50 ensuing years!
About the author: Sister Bernice began her ministerial career as an elementary school teacher and later taught high school and was a guidance counselor, serving in these capacities for more than 20 years. She was a pastoral associate and held several roles within the Congregation: provincial councilor, director of postulants and director of novices and, until recently, vocation minister. She currently is a spiritual director.
(Originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of HOPE magazine.)