Some books merit reading because they explain the past unusually well. Some books deserve to be read because they clarify the present with uncommon perspective. But there are few books that manage to do both. Journey in Faith and Fidelity: Women Shaping Religious Life for a Renewed Church is one of them. For that very reason, it will be an important book for years to come.
Edited by Nadine Foley, O.P., a historian and past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Journey is a compilation of essays by a group of Adrian Dominican Sisters, each of whom is experienced and credentialed in the area in which she writes. Each writer looks back over the last 30 years of religious life from a particular vantage point and through a particular lenstheological, sociological, psychological, ecological or socialto assess the impact of renewal on what was then the fabric of religious life and on its ongoing evolution as well.
The book treats of the development of one particular congregation caught in the throes of Vatican II, true, but it tells a universal story. And it tells it uncommonly well.
The interesting thing is that Journey does not really say much that is "new"in the reportorial sense of the wordto anyone in any religious congregation who lived through the post-Vatican II years of renewal in religious life. In fact, the book does something a great deal more difficult than simply unearth little-known anecdotes about a very well-known social phenomenon. The importance of this bookone in a relatively long line of books that talk about the changes in religious life in the last quarter centurylies in the fact that it presents the facts of change from a new perspective and with a new purpose.
Unlike most materials on the subject of the renewal of religious life, Journey makes the connections between the theology of renewal and the process of renewal. It does more than simply detail what happened in religious life during those turbulent years. It explains in detail how religious life got from where it was to where it is, and why.
This book is painstakingly clear in establishing the relationship between the theology of Vatican II and every dimension of religious life: authority, community, ministry, lifestyle and cultural identity. It is a veritable college course in theological reflection and organizational change applied in microcosm to one particular group at one particular moment in time.
For those who fear that change in religious life after Vatican Council II was a kind of ride on the wild side of chaos, without responsible reflection, without direction, without good sense, Journey dispels that ugly and baseless rumor by tracing the newly emerging behaviors of religious and religious congregations to their theological source. It talks of successes, and it talks of attempts that failed as well, and in the doing of these two things shows the paucity of a theology of perfection that locks people into an unproductive but unchangeable past.
Why religious did what religious did after Vatican II will, I am sure, remain the historical conundrum of the period. Here, in their own words and with obvious honesty, 12 Dominican women talk about the fear, the confusion, the frustration and the dogged determination to be true to their charism and true to the mission that characterized a period driven by the implications of a new theology of church. They indicate the pressure and resistance they met on every side. They talk about the rediscovery of identity that led some to realize that they should leave religious life but led just as many others to realize that they were meant to stay.
Whatever the cost of the process to themselves, they began to realize that seeing the long journey through to a life wholly new compared to the one they had first professed was really not a new commitment at all. It was simply the best of the Dominican commitment newly framed. This underlying message of the book will not be a new one for any religious from any tradition. But it is an important one both for them and for the generations of women who follow them to see in print.
Journey has value to two groups of readers. First, it will be an important addition to the libraries of religious themselves, whatever their tradition, as an adjunct text that will enable them to trace their own history and explain their own developments theologically long after the people who lived through the process are no longer here to explain them. Second, it makes an important contribution to those longtime supporters of religious life who were themselves uncertain about whether religious life could meet the obvious need to change and yet withstand the pressure to remain the same.
This book does well what most of us did poorly during those hectic years of renewal: It explains to people in clear and simply stated theological terms why religious did what they did after Vatican II. It also makes clear that they did it for the same reason they had always done everything: for the glory of God and for the sake of the mission of the church.