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Life for Australia's nuns after Vatican II -

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HideAndrew West: Now if you despair at much of what constitutes television programming these days, the Big Brothers, the lifestyle shows, cast your mind back 21 years. The highest rating Australian mini-series ever was a six-part drama about the lives of nuns living through the reform of Vatican II. It was called The Brides of Christ.

Excerpt from The Brides of Christ: Nobody deserved a rest more than Johnny XX. Having no need to make his peace with anyone, he folded up his pointy hat and started fading into history, the spring-cleaning he began at your request, half done. Don’t let your church fall into the hands of thin men again—men who turn back the clock. The church needs a new Peter, courageous and loving and far-sighted as the first, your apostle. One your people can trust. Peter, upon this rock…how does it finish? I will build my church or run aground—the choice is yours.

Andrew West: This year is the 50th anniversary of the start of Vatican II. Producer, Noel Debien, has been looking at its impact on the Australian Catholic Church. Dr Margaret Beirne is a member of the Sisters of Charity; she taught for many years in the Catholic schools, she’s now a theologian and lecturer at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox college in Sydney. In a recent book called Vatican II: Reception and Implementation in the Australian Church, she writes about the experience of Australian religious women in the wake of Vatican II. In fact Margaret Beirne was an advisor to the producers of The Brides of Christ and Noel Debien asked her if its depiction of nuns was realistic.

Margaret Beirne: In terms of anything else that’s been tried of a similar style and medium, I think they got it pretty right—especially the impact on older religious. You know, it’s fine to say, we’ll dispense with this, we’ll dispense with religious dress and so on. Some of those women…and they’re portrayed beautifully—didn’t know we had so many good Australian actresses, older actresses—the impact that had on them, just a simple, feminine thing like wearing a short dress, when you’ve worn a long dress for 50 years. It sounds simple. And then of course all the deeper ramifications for that.

Noel Debien: It portrayed a period which was meant to be the renewal of religious life—that’s what your chapter is about in this book and I want to get on to the chapter in a moment—but I couldn’t help noting the emotion surrounding it. And I’ve heard people say to me, that when the nuns had to change from the old habit to the new habit, some of the older ones actually refused to come out of their rooms on that day. And you lived through this. Do you remember these emotions?

Margaret Beirne: Yes, I do. And I think so much has hung on the habit for religious women. I don’t think the men had nearly anything like the difficulty. None of the men that I’m aware of in religious orders were obliged to wear it 24/7. Whereas we were, and so it was a pretty big deal even to start taking a little bit off here and—which is what happened—a bit off here and a bit off there and gradually we finished up in lay clothes.

Now in as much as that may reflect the general renewal it seems to me that the aggiornamento, the updating of religious life, and the renewal of religious life in terms of what the Vaticanologists call ressourcement, going back to the original charism or the original…

Noel Debien: The source.

Margaret Beirne: …founding, the source. That’s right. The original source both in terms of the founding of a particular congregation, but also back to the original biblical time, the time of Christ, and back to the gospels. You know, what is essential to religious life? What do the gospels tell us, and what are those components as distinct from the accretions that had grown up over many years?

Noel Debien: That’s what I want to ask you. The habit is one thing because it was an obvious visual sign, but what was Vatican II on about? What was the renewal trying to approach?

Margaret Beirne: They were trying to get back to the core of what it was about and it was Pius XII that got that going.

Noel Debien: Well your article, in fact, says this. Your article points out that long before Vatican II—we’re talking more than a decade and longer than that—things were afoot weren’t they?

Margaret Beirne: They were and he made it a high priority of his pontificate within a few months of his election as the pope—Pius XII was already speaking about the urgency for renewal of religious life. The other part that I think he was trying to get us to think about was mission; what’s the purpose of religious life? And at the first meeting of the [unclear] of women with Pius XII in 1952, the pope’s secretary addressed the women leaders of congregations and said, what do you think your founder would do now in the face of our world? What needs would they be looking to meet?

Noel Debien: So this is pretty radical, what was coming before Vatican II?

Margaret Beirne: Correct.

Noel Debien: And, in fact, even in this period in the 1950s, one of your own congregation’s leaders came a cropper because you reveal this in the book. out of the archives, that Mother Mary Alphonsus O’Doherty ended up losing her position because she came back from this very conference you’ve mentioned, and she began the process of reform, but this wasn’t agreed upon by the order and there is, in fact, I suppose a dramatic move for an order—the loss of their leader.

Margaret Beirne: It’s been so dramatic that, at the drop of a hat, sisters will mention it to this very day. It’s like a festering wound.

Noel Debien: What did she come back and say that upset those who were worried by it?

Margaret Beirne: She came back and simply repeated the words of Pius XII and the hierarchs who were at that meeting, and essentially it was to look to anything that was getting in the way of mission, anything that was an accretion from past days that had no particular point, anything that was injurious to health—and so here we were in Australia wearing black serge…

Noel Debien: Hot habits.

Margaret Beirne: That’s right because that’s what we wore in Ireland; so, of course, we wore them here as well. Now it’s easy enough to get cynical about that, but that was normal at the time. So that was the adaptation, but also, to begin to renew our constitutions. That was the stumbling block for a small group of sisters who began to plot against her and they charged her as though this were her own…

Noel Debien: Agenda.

Margaret Beirne: …agenda. In particular that she was changing the constitutions and she had no right to do it. So at the next chapter—it’s a six-yearly meeting—she was re-elected by popular vote but it was disallowed. There was a canonical visitation called for by a small group of sisters who had plotted against her.

Noel Debien: So in a modern sort of way, they took power to themselves…

Margaret Beirne: They did indeed.

Noel Debien: …as they would have now…

Margaret Beirne: They did indeed.

Noel Debien: …and challenged the validity of her election…

Margaret Beirne: That’s right.

Noel Debien: …and had her deposed effectively.

Margaret Beirne: Had her deposed. She came back from the meeting in 1952—I think it was towards the end of 1952—so the chapter was in 1954; I mean, she couldn’t have done too much, but they must have had wind of it. She was actually very popular. She was a nursing sister of high calibre.

Noel Debien: Because you run the St Vincent’s hospitals in the major cities, this is what your order’s famous for.

Margaret Beirne: We do.

Noel Debien: We’re talking 10 years before the key document that comes out of Vatican II that you were writing on, Perfectae Caritatis. What was it asking for in the end?

Margaret Beirne: The universal call to holiness. And so it’s not just religious who are called to be holy but it’s all people and that was a very significant result of the council.

Noel Debien: Well, this is a key to what you write about, and I think what you observe too, that the universal call to holiness is to all baptised Christians…

Margaret Beirne: Correct.

Noel Debien: …not just an elite group of clergy or an elite group of sisters or monks, or nuns, but to everybody. And this has been a very profound change, not only within religious life but to the broader church and the place of religious life in the broader church.

Margaret Beirne: That’s absolutely right and that’s…it was a necessary corrective I think.

Noel Debien: You would say it’s necessary. There are others though…for example you bring up later in your chapter, the Dominican Sisters who came here in World Youth Day. Now these are orders that seem to have sprung up—there’s many of them now—wearing all the external signs that many of the other orders removed as unnecessary because they were seen as medieval clothing, or clothing for another climate. But you point out that a lot of young Australian women have been joining these orders.

Margaret Beirne: That’s my very limited experience of some young women and I am in contact with a small group. We’ve been chatting informally for about 12 to 18 months. Some of them seem to be looking for exactly the way in which we lived religious life in the ’50s and ’60s.

Noel Debien: Because you were there and you do remember it.

Margaret Beirne: Well, I was there in the ’60s and I certainly observed it as a child in the ’50s. What seems to me, is that the 30-something age group…

Noel Debien: These are the women who are actually applying—and there’s only a couple of hundred of them a year I think nationally.

Margaret Beirne: That’s right across Australia. But the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia from Nashville, who’ve been here since the year before World Youth Day, gathering them in to such an extent that…

Noel Debien: It’s a stampede compared to other orders isn’t it really?

Margaret Beirne: Compared to other orders. It’s not a huge number; it’d be…my understanding is that at this stage probably 12 to 15 young women have actually joined them, of whom about a third have come back home.

Noel Debien: Now you pose another theory on this though too, that no doubt these Dominican Sisters, though they look different, they have a life very similar to yours; they take chastity, they live a form of poverty, they live a common life which many of the religious orders in ordinary clothes do, but you later pose a question, I suppose it is, where you say, has the large scale abandonment of living in common, could it be considered a betrayal of a core element of religious life—a source of confusion for people? Is it not so much about the habit as the way you live in community that you’re posing a question about here?

Margaret Beirne: I think it’s a shame when things like a habit, which I can…for me is a pretty optional thing—although that’s exactly what they keep telling me; they would like to enter a congregation where wearing a habit was an option, even if it were, you know, one of the ones in Australia.

You know, I think we get stuck on the habit and some of the conversations I’ve had with these young women, I’ve said to them, can we just put the habit aside for a minute? Just forget about it. I haven’t criticised them because I’m trying very hard to keep an open mind, trying really hard to hear, what are these young women really looking for. Why are they attracted to go all the way to the United States, to a different culture? They seem to be looking for something that they’ve never had—but we had and then modified or, you know, moved away from. There are young women out there seriously interested in religious life but who’ve said to me, I currently…I live in a unit; I have a good job. In some cases, I even work with sisters in a hospital or a school or some other form of community care; I go to mass; I pray. Why would I leave all that behind to go into a religious congregation where it’s no different?

Andrew West: Noel Debien speaking there with Dr Margaret Beirne, a nun with the Sisters of Charity. She lived through the Second Vatican Council. She was also an advisor to that wonderful ABC mini-series, The Brides of Christ.

Today’s stories are available to podcast or download at our homepage on the RN website. You can leave a comment or follow us on Twitter @abcreligion.

Now just before we go, some of you may know I write a fortnightly column for The Sydney Morning Herald. The headline in last Friday’s column in the print edition, mistakenly suggested that we should forget the scandals of the church. It didn’t reflect the contents of the column. I don’t write the headlines and I didn’t suggest forgetting or downplaying the scandals.

Anyway, thanks this week to producers Paul Gough and Mark Franklin. That’s the Religion and Ethics Report. I hope you’ll join us next week.

Dr Margaret Beirne, RSC
Sister of Charity; senior lecturer, Biblical Studies, St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College, Sydney; adviser, The Brides of Christ miniseries, ABC TV, 1991
Interviewer Noel Debien Producer Paul Gough