Shortly after the watershed democratic election of 1994 I was involved in the organisation of the annual meeting of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors of Southern Africa. To help us reflect on the recent, bitter past, we had the good fortune to have emeritus Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu.
Time has erased much of what he said to the assembly, but the matter and manner of Tutu's preamble remain crisply clear in my mind's eye and ear. 'Before I begin', he said, 'I just want to say thank you. Thank you for all you do in the Church as religious. Thank you for your prayer and your work. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!' Tutu's emotion, as he spoke these simple words, was palpable. The assembled Catholic religious superiors, the majority of whom were women, were themselves deeply moved by this heartfelt expression of gratitude from an Anglican archbishop.
As for myself, I could not help but wonder when I had last heard a Catholic bishop thanking religious, especially women. I still struggle to remember such an occasion today although I do recall clearly one memorable gathering at which a Catholic bishop upbraided the religious superiors, for, among other failings, going to the movies too often! Perhaps the saying about prophets not being acceptable in their own countries holds true of groups and individuals within churches. And to be scrupulously fair, I daresay one should also ask how often Major Superiors have thanked members of the hierarchy for what they do for the Church.
As the enthusiasm among many clergy for the current Year of the Priest underlines, in any organisation, acknowledgement is vital. The lack of it can be tantamount to a martyrdom by one's own. Witness Mary Ward, the English foundress of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She presented the vision of her international apostolic order of women – envisaging neither enclosure nor religious habit – to Pope Gregory XV in 1621. By 1631 the Institute had been suppressed and Mary, who died in 1645, was not acknowledged as the foundress until 1909. 278 years is an awfully long time to withhold acknowledgement and recognition!
If timing is all, some might judge that in the light of the recent clergy-abuse scandals and their systematic concealment, the time is not particularly ripe to acknowledge the inherent importance and the actual contribution to the Church's mission of the priesthood. The institutional Church has judged otherwise, no doubt taking the view that no time will ever be ideal and that encouragement is what is needed right now.
Similar considerations apply today to American women religious. The present 'visitation' is unlikely to throw up anything remotely as scandalous as the criminality of clergy-abuse and its neglect by bishops and superiors. Those unhappy with some sisters' support for the ordination of women surely cannot compare this with child-abuse. If some privately do so, one hopes they are aware that the court of public opinion would be horrified at such a moral equivalency. Therefore if 2009 is a good year for the Year of the Priest, surely now is as good a time as any to acknowledge the crucial and outstanding role of women religious in the Church.
A consistent observation in my life as a Catholic in both the developed and developing worlds (1950 - ) has been that women religious are on – in some cases quite simply are – the front line of evangelisation. As a child I was formed in the faith by Dominican and Presentation sisters. As a religious I have been constantly inspired by the example of my sisters in religious life who live this our common commitment but without the prestige of the priesthood and the resources it garners. I have seen them in tough inner-city schools in Britain, sharing the neighbourhoods of their students, in squatter camps on the dusty fringes of South African cities or running projects for people living with HIV/AIDS and their traumatised children in the country's forgotten and impoverished rural outlands. Even where their numbers are down, they are often the key figures in Catholic institutions – schools, clinics, orphanages and parishes – ensouling these organisations with a compassion-filled, evangelical dynamism which is one of the main engines of Catholic growth.
Although acknowledgement may not always come too readily from the institutional Church, the People of God do this in implicit fashion when they compete to get their children into schools in which religious are present, or prefer to present their illnesses at the Catholic clinic rather than at the government-run one because they know that they will be received with greater professionalism and respect by the sisters. A distinguished local educationalist (not a Catholic) bemoaning the continuing failure of government education in South Africa, was a recent witness to the dedication of sisters. Professor Jonathan Jansen, ended an article in the local Times newspaper, with the generous, rhetorical punchline: '[M]y advice to President Zuma is to solicit the support of his Holiness to rope in nuns from all over the world to teach our children'.
All this we Catholics know, yet the hailing of heroism is failed by familiarity and it sometimes takes outsiders like Archbishop Tutu and Professor Jansen to jolt us out of our tendency to take the extraordinary people on our doorstep for granted. Let us hope that historians will not look back with disbelief at a century which started with a Year of the Priest and in which the institutional Church omitted to celebrate a Year of the Sister.
Chris Chatteris, S.J.