Praising Days Gone By

I suspect we’ve all heard more than enough about the LCWR and the correction they received from the Vatican. The member communities of this organization were criticized for certain theological inadequacies as well as apostolates that sometimes ignored vital elements, such as the pro-life issue. As a result, many people have predictably and enthusiastically taken sides, and the LCWR has been temporarily catapulted into minor celebrity status. 

All this has caused me to think a lot about religious sisters in the past few weeks, but not the sisters who are in the news. I am thinking about the sisters who were so instrumental in making most of us what we are today. I am absolutely convinced that my life would have turned out very differently if I had not been educated for 11 out of 12 years by a succession of wonderful sisters from the Sisters of Charity of Convent Station, the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill. I will never forget that it was a sister — my second grade teacher — who somehow saw the makings of a priest in me at a time when all I could think about was becoming a fireman. How many priests reading this have had similar experiences? How many of us owe their vocations, at least to some extent, to the sisters who taught us? I suspect there are a great many. 

I have countless memories of edifying and dedicated women, many of them very seriously concerned with the spiritual wellbeing of their students. These were women who taught us our school subjects well, but more than that, they carefully and lovingly taught what it meant to be Catholic to one generation of children after another. What challenges those sisters faced! I can remember classes of up to 80 students — enough to give a contemporary teacher heart palpitations. I recall one sister who was still a postulant, probably only about 19 or 20 years old, and she had to deal with a class of almost 80 youngsters. She not only survived but did a very good job. Things like that were nothing short of heroic — and yet they were simply part of a sister’s life back then. We never realized how extraordinary they were. 

Back then the sisters who did so much expected almost nothing in return. They served for a very small stipend, which went to support the convent and community. Perhaps it was as small as one hundred dollars a month. 

Yes, there were some sisters who were tough or cranky, but there were also many who were kind and gentle, sisters who went out of their way to help us. I was taught to be an altar boy by a sister, and I became an assistant sacristan thanks to a sister who was the principal sacristan of the parish. I know now that these were stepping-stones as I made my journey to the priesthood, and they were made possible by sisters who had my best interests at heart. I also worked in the motherhouse of the Caldwell Dominicans for six years when I was growing up. What a positive experience that was! I served at investitures, professions and just about everything else. I was entranced by their beautiful and almost ethereal singing as they chanted the Liturgy of the Hours. I was amazed by what seemed the great intensity of their prayer. I am certain that witnessing their communal life helped to bring me to the religious life as soon as I was out of high school. 

I know that many people will be quick to say that those days are long gone, that they will never return. That troubles me. It pains me to think that so much seems to have been lost, that children for several decades now have not known the sisters as we knew them, have not had the wonderful experiences that we had. Perhaps I am simply a laudator dies acti, a praiser of days gone by, but I believe they were days that deserved to be praised, and I also hope they are days that will return. There are some communities of outstanding religious sisters at the present time, communities that were not rocked and battered by the events of the last few decades. Such sisters along with many cloistered nuns give wonderful examples to the world. How fearlessly they stand against the tide. How wonderfully they show us not simply what once was but what might one day be possible again. TP

FATHER GROESCHEL is the director for the Office of Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York and professor of pastoral psychology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York. He is also a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.