The old Catholic schools and the tough-as-nails nuns (or, more accurately, sisters) who famously staffed them often get a bad rap. Recollections include everything from run-of-the-mill punishments—like being forced to eat soap or having a chalkboard eraser fired at one’s head—tohopefully apocryphal horror stories like being tied to a radiator.
Catholic schools still exist, of course, but they are now distinguished chiefly for forcing their students to wear uniforms and for occasionally firing a gay teacher. There are fewer sisters doing the teaching these days (in fact, the whole U.S. population of women religious now stands at less than one-third of what it was in 1965.)
It’s not just the schools that have changed. Catholic parishes have fewer on-site convents than they used to, fewer community and cultural events like the old street processions sometimes ending with communal meals, and often fewer altar boys—which is, given the sexual abuse scandal, perhaps not surprising. The result is that, as the communitarian dimension of Catholic school and parish life is diminished, a whole generation of young people is growing up without the distinctively hellish and wonderful mentoring that those “old nuns” could give.
A whole generation of young people is growing up without the distinctively hellish and wonderful mentoring that those “old nuns” could give.
Call their attitude “cheerful world-weariness.” They knew how to face and challenge the fallen world without becoming bitter and without losing their faith and hope in the eventual triumph of God’s mercy. I am lucky enough to have had a few elderly sisters living at the parish I grew up in, though unfortunately I am likely part of the last generation that will get to experience that attitude in action.
The best descriptor for these women—they were strong, though you would never think of calling them “strong women”—might be spunky. My family used to cook a holiday dinner for the whole convent every Christmas, and the sisters would make sure it included wine. One of them told us about their vows of poverty and simplicity, one rule of which was that they must buy only the cheapest cuts of meat in the grocery store. Of course, she made sure to indicate her favorite cuts, which her vows usually put out of reach. Another added that she preferred real soda and that the diet version tasted like “dirty water.” We would always begin and end visits with a prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in the convent chapel, but in between were jokes and lively chatter.
I was in the lobby of our church with one of the sisters before Mass one morning when a young woman in beach attire went inside. I asked her (the sister, I mean) whether it was appropriate to chide people for dressing so casually in church. She replied, with a twinkle in her eye, that simply coming to church is admirable, and it would be quite wrong to judge the young woman for dressing so inappropriately as that. This ability to find humor rather than outrage or indifference, to remain kind and humble while believing oneself to be in possession of the truth, is by no means a common posture. God knows it is not common enough in the church.
The old nuns and sisters knew that our sins condemn us but also in some way define us.
These days, however, the general weakness among Catholics is not so much arrogance as a lack of serious belief in the truth. To me, Mass at an average suburban parish resembles traditional, historical Catholicism about as much as a KFC bucket resembles Thanksgiving dinner. The greeting “thank you for visiting and we hope you come back soon” makes an hour in God’s presence seem like grabbing coffee at the local McDonald’s.
The worst abuses are the songs, half of which are barely identifiable as Christian hymns, let alone distinctively Catholic. It is difficult to determine the worst musical crime I have ever witnessed in church; perhaps it was the singing of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during Palm Sunday Mass or the brass band of middle-aged white musicians trying to reproduce African-American spirituals or the fiddle solos that make every hymn sound like Rod Stewart’s 1970s pop hit “You Wear It Well.” It is barely an exaggeration to imagine a tough old sister conking the wayward music director over the head with her cane. Though perhaps she would instead remark that it is very sinful indeed to visit corporal punishment on a bad liturgist, and we must never imagine such a thing.
It is a rare thing to recognize even in our vices and our shortcomings something indelibly human—perhaps made possible because Christ himself became man. The old nuns and sisters knew that our sins condemn us but also in some way define us. G. K. Chesterton put it aptly that the average Catholic understands himself to be a bad one. This fading Catholic ethic—the ability to laugh, shake one’s head and look up to heaven all at once—is perhaps bound up with a very different America, when Catholics lived mostly in densely built, tightly knit urban communities that have been called the “Catholic ghetto.” But it is an ethicwe can work to restore. When many of our contemporaries associate religion with hypocrisy and arrogance (or with God-veneered progressive pablum), a certain kind of Catholicism offers a human, and humane, alternative.
This goes quite a bit beyond yearning for the old Catholic nuns or schools. You don’t have to miss them to appreciate it. A revival of that distinctively Catholic cheerful world-weariness is something everyone could use right now.