As Vatican II ended, I was just about to begin doctoral studies in communication theory and social psychology. I didn't know a lot about either subject at the time, but, with one foot in religious life spawned by the Council of Trent and the other in a religious life awash in Vatican II, I knew that anthropologists and social psychologists were missing the academic news of the century. Right in front of their eyes, a subculture was about to unleash its own cultural transformation -- by design, with impunity and in toto. It was a human undertaking of massive proportions. It added a great deal to religious life, but it exacted a cost as well. Or, as Robert Hooker put it over two centuries ago, "Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better."
Of all the church, the people most mobilized for change were women religious. Mandated to hold renewal chapters and write renewal constitutions, groups retrained their entire memberships in the theology of Vatican II in anticipation of what would of necessity be a community project. Change was impossible without the support of the entire group. Groups suspended their Vatican I constitutions and instituted experimentation in every area of religious life.
It was an exciting time. It was also a dangerous time, a time of great personal tension and deep spiritual struggle.
The truth is that religious life had been formed in the spirituality of the virgins and martyrs, of sacrifice and perseverance -- virtues men had traditionally required of women -- when what Vatican II called for was the spirituality of priests and prophets, of community-building and witness. It was, then, on the deepening, the broadening, of both personal development and spirituality that the transition to Vatican II religious life really depended. To bring the church into the modern world, it would take women committed to risk and with courage for the unknown. But prophecy and risk are not the hallmarks of large groups. It was not the large groups who started religious life, and it is not large groups that will renew it now. Religious life must travel light into the future, burdened by nothing of its successes of the past, held down by none of its past goals but fresh in direction, vital in its meanings for the people of today.
A movement that loses its creative edge loses its vision and its reason for existence. A movement that is only radical can lose both its popular base and its stabilizing foundation. The continuing task of Vatican II is to sharpen the edge of religious life again. What religious did for past generations, they must now do for the forgotten peoples of our own generation. A whole new global population must be carried beyond the limitations of their lives, become visible to those who see them not, be heard by those who are deaf to their tears.
Conformity is no longer the major religious virtue, togetherness masking as community, and the fear of change is no longer the agenda of religious life. Renewal of spirit, openness to new needs and depth, if not necessarily length, of personal commitment has become the new norm. "Why did you come here?" I asked a new applicant. "Because this is the only group of women I have been able to find that cares about exactly what I do -- community, the gospel of Jesus, and a commitment to peace and justice," she said simply. Interestingly enough, I couldn't help but think that her answer sounded to me exactly like what Vatican II wanted from religious, too: that they would examine their life from the perspective of the "charism of the founder, the needs of society, and the gifts of their members." But if that's the case, religious life is not only new again, it is also a long way from being over.
Excerpted from 'The Struggle between Confusion and Expectation: The Legacy of Vatican II' by Joan Chittister in 'Vatican II: 50 Personal Stories,' ed. William Madges and Michael J. Daley (Orbis). In this new book, 50 distinguished authors, including theologians, journalists, spiritual writers and pastoral leaders, offer their own assessment of the meaning of the Second Vatican Council and its historic documents, drawing in many cases on their personal experience as witnesses or participants. To order, click here.