When Vatican II promoted change in the Catholic Church the changes seemed to be external. Language used during Mass no longer was Latin but the “mother tongue” of the people; the main altar looked more like a table where the priest faced the faithful; large areas in church were renovated and the people were closer to the Table of the Lord on three sides; the Font for Baptism moved to the front and had more prominence; the Blessed Sacrament in its tabernacle was given a place of its own where people were more inclined to make frequent visits.
There were changes that were disturbing to Catholics: statues were displaced and banks of lighted vigil candles were removed; the Calendar of Saints was streamlined and even omitted some saints revered by the Catholic population. Funeral Masses went from black vestments and sung Latin chants to white vestments signifying the Resurrection of the Lord and hymns that were often chosen by the family of the deceased. I think of these changes as the “external reformation change” in the Catholic Church.
Many Catholics felt pain and anger during this “changeful time.” The internal change of this reformation took a very long time. The Sisters stayed among the people to accompany and guide people they had grown to love through the changes occurring in schools, parishes and hospitals where the Sisters worked. I think of the Sisters in this time as the “yeast” in the slow baking of new bread in this period. The Church was the Sisters’ Kitchen and they had always been familiar with families and their children; they shepherded through illness and death in hospitals; they stood by the disturbed and distressed faithful, gathering all to the family table for nourishment, talk and patience with the change. The Sisters gave them the food they needed for their spirits.
Perhaps we have not thought of Catholic Sisters as agents for reform, but that is what they did. The Sisters were visible in Church works and had always stood with the people during crises. Sisters brought their feminine strength when it was needed in the Church. They held the people close as the generation of Catholics found new footing in the midst of change.
Sisters gave their lives to full Gospel living at the core of the Catholic Church and yet at the time were hidden from view in their educational and medical works of mercy. The work was daily. The work was humbling. Silently the Sisters imagined the new Church forming. They imagined lay leadership that would multiply the works of mercy in the Church; they understood when Scripture was studied how the life of Jesus would energize their family life; they imagined a new balance of gender in parish staff, councils and faculties that incorporated women that would show needed relationships in addition to the role of the priest. The Sisters imagined a thorough reformation for the Church they loved without an excess brought by revolution. Their prayers and sacrifices, their age and wisdom, their trust in the Holy Spirit have brought this reforming strength to the Catholic Church.
By Sr. Karlyn Cauley, SDS