Do Irish nuns need to listen to their American sisters?

The highest profile nuns in Ireland achieve now in the national media is in the death notices in the newspapers. Apart from that it would seem that Irish society is happy to air-brush nuns out of the national consciousness. Nuns too seem happy to keep their heads under the radar.
Once nuns were at the centre of Irish life: running schools and hospitals, developing social services, accepting responsibility for swathes of Irish life that governments hadn’t the money or the appetite to service.
Thousands and thousands of people received an education because the nuns provided it, selflessly ploughing back their salaries into improving their school buildings and widening the curriculum to facilitate their students, often with minimal assistance from the State.
Hospitals were run in that robustly efficient way so characteristic of nun-matrons and nun-nurses where bugs, the equivalent of the modern MRSA, were ritually and comprehensively wiped out with elbow-grease and carbolic soap.
New ground was broken in providing social services because nuns were trained at the expense of their congregations and worked often for either no salary or a pittance.
Many, many families on the verge of destitution were kept afloat by the care and support they received quietly at the back door of many an Irish convent.
Now no one, most of all media outlets in Ireland who seem to be progressively more infected with an anti-Catholic group-think, seems to regard nuns as of any compelling interest apart from blaming them for their failings and limitations. You’d imagine listening to Joe Duffy and those who have adopted his successful formula that nuns were no more than easy targets for those with a grievance, real or imaginary.
Not that I’m trying to excuse the inexcusable. There were thousands of nuns in Ireland and a percentage of them abused their positions of trust. Some people were treated abominably at their hands and no one would want to minimise the suffering involved for both vulnerable children and adults or the guilt of those who perpetrated it. Nuns have very publicly and consistently put their hands up and accepted responsibility, including financial compensation, for those who were variously abused. And so they should.
There were militating circumstances, of course, and no objective observer would credibly deny them: lack of training, few support structures, systems overwhelmed by sheer numbers, inadequate supervision by congregations and state authorities, round pegs forced into square holes, and, particularly, a lack of understanding of the human condition. It is easy to say, in hindsight, what could/should have been done.
But is it not strange that the profile of Irish nuns today is forensically focussed on the failings and limitations of a minority while the contribution of nuns in general to Irish society and directly to thousands, even possibly millions of individuals before and after the foundation of the State, is being brushed under the carpet?
Isn’t it strange that those who would never have had an education and who, through the support and sponsorship of Irish nuns, qualified as teachers, priests, solicitors, doctors and so forth, never feel compelled to raise their voices in appreciation or gratitude?
Isn’t it strange that An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, on behalf of the people of Ireland, has nothing to say to commend the contribution of nuns to Irish society?
I have no doubt but that history, while recognising the failures and limitations of a minority of Irish nuns, will eventually laud the extraordinary contribution nuns have made to Irish life. Despite the fact that the recent Mothers and Babies Homes controversy is shaping up as another opportunity to sock it to the nuns, the perspective that history brings (as distinct from the narrow perspective the Joe Duffy syndrome offers) will eventually give them their due recognition.
It’s different in America where nuns, what they’ve done and what they do, are unambiguously cherished. Honours are heaped on them, bishops rush to commend them for their work, society values their contribution to those on the margins. While, no doubt, there are individual criticisms, they tend to be swamped by the glow of appreciation that surrounds the work and lives of nuns in America.
At present nuns in America are in bother with the Vatican who are uncomfortable with some of the boats they’re pushing out and are anxious to ‘reform’ them. The American nuns, direct in their approach and robust in their defence of their positions, announced last week that while they were happy to dialogue with church officials demanding reform, they are adamant that they also protect ‘the integrity of their group’.
The message is clear. The group, which represents about 80 percent of the 60,000 women religious in the USA, has made it clear that it wants to continue raising questions and exploring ideas ‘on matters of faith in an atmosphere of freedom and respect’.
Irish nuns have a lot to learn from their American counterparts, particularly in standing up for themselves, both inside and outside the Church. One area is in recognising that while apologies are appropriate and necessary in certain contexts in relation to ‘trusts that have been betrayed’, a robust defence of work done, responsibilities met and trusts that have been ‘not been betrayed’ is appropriate and necessary too.
Irish nuns have a responsibility not least to themselves to set the record straight. I know that’s not easy to do, as they grow older and with the run of the media is against them and those who should be rushing to their defence have lapsing into a selfish silence.
The self-less service given by thousands of nuns should not be air-brushed from the national memory. They deserve more than that. And someone, not least the nuns, needs to start saying that.
Note: My latest book, Who will break the bread for us, which deals with the reality and the implications of the vocations’ crisis is now available to download on Kindle from Amazon.com

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  1. All very true. Public attention inevitably is taken up by unfinished business, when it is highlighted. This includes the plight of those who who were confined in magdalen laundrys and the record of mortality in mother and baby homes, now being investigated. It is a matter of first things first. Justice and care for the living is more urgent than reputations. Care and compensation for people who were incarcerated in church run institutions and who suffered all their lives as a consequence, seems still to be unfinished business. It is still not clear that a compensation agreement (lenient to the religious orders) negotiated by a previous government minister has been fulfilled by religious orders. Perhaps it is time for further clarification. If it could be shown that every agreement has been fulfilled to the letter and that the religious orders have left no stone unturned to reveal the past and to help the victims in their old age then that would speak volumes.

  2. Anthony Murphy says:

    I would like to recommend Mother Angelica as a suitable role model just look at what she has achieved in the field of evangelisation and she was well able to stand up for herself against the clericalism of Cardinal Mahoney who unsuccessfully tried to silence her!

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    The sport of nun-bashing is the Irish version of the new atheism, and it is despicable.
    “militating” should be “mitigating” above. Our militators allow no voice to mitigators and go straight for the jugular every time, with no consideration of historical context or of the fact that the sisters gave themselves selflessly to doing the best for their charges according to the wisdom of the time Were they themselves put in charge of the unmarried mothers and unwanted children of Ireland back then the first thing many of them would do is have all the children aborted before they became a social problem. I don’t see them providing homes of any description for the women and children they are fretting about fifty years after the fact, much less undertaking the task of running such homes.

  4. The Church itself stands accused of ‘nun-bashing’. Because of their gender nuns can only receive six sacraments, whereas male clerics can receive seven sacraments. If nuns themselves are not valued by the Church how can they be expected to be valued by the society in which they live? I have only ever had good experiences from the nuns who educated me, my Presentation nuns in George’s Hill.

  5. Mary Vallely says:

    I agree with Nuala. The problem with nuns is that they are not male. Misogny is still the beam in the eye of the RCC institution. I would also like to express my admiration and deep respect for religious sisters, in my own case, the Sacred Heart in Armagh, many of them working quietly away in the community. Then again, they are doing what Christ asked of all of us, loving God and their neighbour, without reward or recognition. No hierarchical stepping stones for them.

  6. Kathleen Faley says:

    Mary @6, some years ago I remember a nun saying that while they did have a Solemn Religious Profession she regretted the fact that it had no Sacramental Status such as Priests have when they become Ordained to Holy Orders. When you consider that the two main choices for adults in life (in the past anyway), were either Marriage or Holy Orders, Nuns/Religious Sisters did not have the Sacramental Status of either Marriage or Holy Orders. Nuns/Religious Sisters literally dangled between the two Sacraments without any Sacramental identifiable Status with either one.
    We know from history that many Women’s Religious Orders have equivalent Male Religious Orders and both equally observe Chastity, Poverty and Obedience. That makes it difficult to accept that Nuns/Religious Sisters can only advance to Solemn Profession – so far and not further.
    I realise of course that there are Orders of Religious Brothers who are not Priests and make that choice to remain at the level of Religious Profession but it is also possible for them at some future date to advance to Priesthood if they so wish because they are not subject to the gender barrier which Nuns in Religious Orders were/are still subject to.
    Maybe this is one issue which should be brought to the table in any future discussions about Vocations to Religious Life. It has plenty relevance for a re-evaluation of Vocations to Religious Life.

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