Recently I was hearing confessions for the students at St. Dominic Savio High School in North Austin. I heard confessions in a hallway outside the gym while the students had Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the gym. As I was getting ready the students came in accompanied by their teachers, including a couple of nuns, Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. It is a relatively new religious community that came to Austin only in 2008. In the ecclesiastical scheme of things, not that long ago. Two things struck me about the Sisters. First, they were in full habit, with full veils on their heads, flowing white dresses to the floor, and girdled round by a big rosary. It was a vision very much out of my childhood in the 1950’s. The second thing that struck me is that they were all younger than me. Usually women religious in this country are not.
Just recently we received the sad news that the Daughters of Charity are leaving Austin. The Daughters have been here in Central Texas a long time, with a most enviable record of service, but they are aging and their numbers are dwindling. Meanwhile, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist are growing as a community, indeed exploding. Their primary ministry is teaching in Catholic schools, a work as traditional as their habit. They came here just five years ago, but already they have acquired a piece of property in Georgetown of over 60 acres. In addition they have already received donations of $13 Million toward their $30 Million goal of building a new Priory (a large convent) for 120 Sisters with a large chapel. 120 is a lot of Sisters in these days, but they are growing community, so as the Daughters of Charity (and the Paulists, I might add) decline the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, increase. I am left wondering what is going on. Where will it all end? What does it all mean?
For the Catholic Church in the modern world is the way forward re-appropriating practices and structures from the past (such as distinctive religious habits) that mark us as different, set us apart, visibly show our dedication to God? I remain skeptical. I fear that instead of speaking to the modern world in terms it can apprehend and understand it will have the effect of separating and isolating us, making us into less of a “Sacrament of Salvation” for the whole world and more of a cult.
There was a fascinating article by Russ Douthart in the Sunday New York Times of October 6, 2013, entitled The Promise and Peril of Pope Francis. I often disagree with Mr.Douthart, but this time I believe he was right on. He compared Pope Francis’ situation to New York Jews, where there has been growth among the ultra-orthodox who wear distinctive clothes and separate themselves as much as possible from the multi-cultural life of New York around them and a fading away of all other forms of Judaism in New York. Mr. Douthart poses the question: Can an ancient faith (Judaism or Christianity) speak convincingly to the modern world or survive only by withdrawing from interaction with the outside world, withdraw into itself and become a cult? Mr. Douthart wrote:
“And this is where Pope Francis comes in, because so much of the excitement around his pontificate is a response to his obvious desire to reject these alternatives—self-segregation or surrender—in favor of an almost-frantic engagement with the lapsed-Catholic, post-Catholic and non-Catholic world. … Francis’s style and substance are pitched much more aggressively to a world that often tuned out his predecessors. His deliberate demystification of the papacy, his digressive interviews with outlets secular and religious, his calls for experimentation within the church and his softer tone on the issues—abortion, gay marriage—where traditional religion and the culture are in sharpest conflict: these are not doctrinal changes, but they are clear strategic shifts.”
How does Pope Francis think and believe we as a Church should move forward? Not by avoidance but by engagement.
As a Paulist I believe the Church must engage the modern world. That is the command of Christ, to preach to all nations. A church that chooses to be a ghetto is not in any way catholic. We have no choice but to go forward in engagement with the world. It will certainly be interesting to see how this will all play out. Please pray for the Daughters of Charity, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, and the Paulists.