Irish religious called to be modern apostles in a cosmic universe

In an era of societal condemnation cast at Ireland’s religious and their institutions, it’s important to not be swayed by contemporary biases when reflecting on the legacy of Ireland’s religious women, writes Garry O’Sullivan.

Of all the synodal submissions I’ve read to date, the submission of religious women in Ireland has to be the most heartfelt, and the most brutally honest. They feel deeply that they have been “pruned to non-existence” and those who have not left religious life are “often only barely holding on with our fingertips”.

They call the dream for a more inclusive Church “the impossible dream” because their experience has been one of exclusion simply because they are women. How did the Church of Jesus come to this sorry state?

These are women whose foundresses went out onto the streets of Ireland and started nursing people suffering from cholera, helped the destitute, built hospitals and schools to educate the poor who in the 1800s in Ireland lived horrendously difficult lives. The dignity of the gospel was brought to the poor at home and abroad and often at great personal risk. As one nun said recently: “We’ve been made feel like we’re monsters”.


These religious women should be basking in the afterglow of such a history of service, the president should be handing out medals to beat the band and elderly nuns should be enjoying a victory lap in their golden years. On the contrary, religious women feel scapegoated for the sins of the past, a past that many weren’t old enough to be part of and many who were, were innocent of any wrongdoing.

“Despite the reports demonstrating that Irish society as a whole was responsible, the focus of culpability has remained almost exclusively on women religious.” Yes, they admit and have admitted that wrong was done by some but they all collectively have had to pay the price of that, not just financially but in terms of opprobrium and shame.


The hierarchy, they say has also withdrawn from them or disassociated itself. Only recently has communication opened up as part of the synodal process and this is to be welcomed. Women religious have always been leaders especially in the area of ecology and their leadership on this is needed now more than ever. Thomas Berry quoted by Ilia Delio in her book The Hours of the Universe says “We will go into the future as a single sacred community, or we will all perish in the desert.” Delio writes: “We are starting to feel the effects of perishing in the desert. It is time to come together to work for what we share together, the future, into which we are being fearfully but irresistibly drawn. This is the true test of our faith, what we really believe in, because God is the power of the future”.

Religious sisters still have hope despite everything that has pruned them so severely and there is an opportunity for them to be wise elders to what is being born, what is evolving because the world is in a state of perpetual evolution and faith too, despite patriarchy and hierarchy is forced to evolve. We need a big God now, in an expansive unbelievably massive universe because a medieval small God won’t and doesn’t work and hasn’t worked.

Francis of Assisi found God in the cathedral of the universe. As Delio writes: “For Francis, nature was a place of worship, and community and spiritual transformation; in this church of life he learned to live in the wildest embrace of love. We too must learn from nature how to be part of nature once again, so that we can join with nature in the evolution of love… Today we must rediscover God in order to be at home in the universe with one another and the wider world of nature”.

That great American teacher, Sr Joan Chittester writes in The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully: “Can we smile at what we have not smiled at for years? Can we give ourselves away to those who need us? Can we speak our truth without needing to be right and accept the vagaries of life now—without needing the entire rest of the world to swaddle us beyond any human justification for expecting it? Can we talk to people decently and allow them to talk to us? . . . Now, this period, this aging process, is the last time we’re given to be more than all the small things we have allowed ourselves to be over the years. But first, we must face what the smallness is, and rejoice in the time we have left to turn sweet instead of more sour than ever.”


Religious have undergone the Paschal Mystery, suffering, death (of ego, reputation, greatness) and now the sweetness of Resurrection is offered. Many will say ‘but it’s late, we’re old, if only this happened 20 years ago’. The disciples have come of age, it’s time to leave the upper room of fear, invisibility and become apostles of participation, of an evolutionary cosmos, of a God ridiculous in its generosity and mercy and love all given with wild abandon.

Elizabeth Johnson writes: “A flourishing humanity on a thriving planet, rich in species in an evolving universe, all together filled with the glory of God: such is the vision that must guide us at this critical time of Earth’s distress, to practical and critical effect. Ignoring this view keeps people of faith and their churches locked into irrelevance while a terrible drama of life and death is being played out in the real world. By contrast, living the ecological vocation in the power of the Spirit sets us off on a great adventure of mind and heart, expanding the repertoire of our love”. Irish religious, just like the Irish monks of old, with networks around the global Catholic world, can unlock the minds of people of faith with their witness as wise elders casting into the deep and leading us all on a wild adventure.

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