Young sisters today: Vatican II through education
For many Sisters of Providence, “before Vatican II” can refer to nearly everything in their lives. Rules regarding their clothes, acceptable forms of prayer, relationships with family, ministry opportunities, celebration of liturgy and much more changed after the Second Vatican Council.
However, that’s not true for everyone. The Sisters of Providence have 59 members ages 60-69 — sisters who would have been ages 10-19 at the time of the start of Vatican II — and 29 members younger than 59 — those who most likely don’t recall much of life before Vatican II. Many of the members who are in initial formation — all women in their 20s, 30s and 40s — have never experienced a Latin Mass and don’t understand references to finding a handkerchief to cover one’s head.
Sister Janice Smith, director of novices, was very young when Vatican II started and got to experience changes to Catholic life in her late teenage years. As a student in the Aspirancy, a former high school program for girls interested in religious life, Sister Janice youthfully confused the changes with “something the nuns did.” After leaving the Aspirancy, she learned more about the Vatican II changes that were starting to happen in all churches, but her entire experience of religious life was post-Vatican II. She joined the SP Congregation in 2000.
As director of novices, it’s her job to help educate 25-year-old Sister Arrianne Whittaker on religious life with the Sisters of Providence. Sister Arrianne admitted that while she might have a basic understanding of the influence of Vatican II, the concepts are hard to understand given her vastly different Catholic upbringing. “I kind of know what some of the changes were,” she said, but sometimes the specifics are startling, such as “the idea that people said rosaries during Mass because they didn’t participate at all is so foreign to me.”
As a post-Vatican II Catholic, Sister Arrianne has had no real formal education of why the council was called and what its purpose was. Therefore, Sister Janice arranged for Sister Jan Craven to teach a class for Sister Arrianne about Vatican II and its impact on the life of the Catholic Church.
While Sister Jan is well-educated on the history of Vatican II and the changes that came of it, she has little recollection of it — except that Vatican II opened on her eighth birthday. She said the 50th anniversary of Vatican II and the class is, “a great opportunity to reflect on what happened then. People born since then don’t have a clue what a watershed moment this was. It was a miracle that it happened. … The whole image of God changed.”
Sister Janice, who is just old enough to recall a bit more of the “change era,” said “it wasn’t change for change’s sake, but they were trying to get to the root of the Gospel call. Vatican II was a pastoral attempt to identify how we as Catholics were to be living our lives as the people of God. It was an examination of our lives as Catholics in how we lived the Gospel call through the way we prayed as a community of believers, in the way we cared for each other and our global society, especially the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized and those whose belief systems were different from our own. Vatican II called us to really look at ourselves and ask, ‘Do we model what Jesus asked of us? Do we really show love: to God, to each other, to our neighbors, and yes, even our enemies?’ If not, in the areas where we fell short, we were called to renew and reform ourselves.”
Sister Arrianne — who was born in a fully post-Vatican II world — said she loves that unlike previous councils which were called, in her understanding, to condemn heresy, Vatican II was called to “figure out who we are as Catholics. It seems this marked a change in how we approach living out our Catholic faith — by looking at and trying to renew the Gospel values which Jesus taught us.”
Sister Arrianne finds hope in the legacy of Vatican II. “Vatican II empowers me to challenge boundaries,” she said. “The questions asked about ‘are we living our Gospel call’ are no less relevant today. Vatican II set a precedent of honest and open dialogue about how we are measuring up to those questions. So it seems to me that this moment in history empowers us all to keep asking those questions as our community of faith and church evolves.”
(Originally published in the winter 2013 issue of HOPE magazine.)