Rite&Reason: Is Ireland no country for old nuns?

Nuance needed to give those dedicating lives to service the respect they deserve

‘Recently congregations have suffered devastating and disproportionate losses because of Covid’

‘Recently congregations have suffered devastating and disproportionate losses because of Covid’

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When I was a boy the biggest event to happen in our family was when my grandfather’s sister, a nun, came home from America. If Jesus Christ himself had visited there could not have been more deference on display.

Were she to return to Ireland now, 40 years later, she would experience both a very different reception and a radically different context.

John Scally
John Scally

Today religious congregations face four main problems: falling numbers; ageing members; little or no new vocations and a declining number of people willing and able to take on leadership roles. Some of these changes have been painful, even traumatic for them, such as the absence of any sisters or brothers in most religious-run schools today.

These congregations have lived through what Emily Dickinson refers to as “The Hour of Lead” – a process of mourning that results in a final relinquishing, and an essential thaw. It seems to many of them that increasingly faith has become like smoking – relegated to the private sphere.

The fallout from the controversies about child abuse in the Irish church cast a dark shadow on all aspects of religious life and on the institution of the church

There have been more specific issues. Recently congregations such as the Spiritans, the Jesuits and the Augustinians, who have large numbers in congregated settings, have suffered devastating and disproportionate losses because of Covid.

Few announcements in recent times unleashed such a tidal wave of controversy as the news about the ownership of Ireland’s proposed new national maternity hospital.

An editorial in a national newspaper on the news that the Sisters of Charity might have a central role in the new €300 million State-funded hospital saw it as evidence that “an intolerant majority [of citizens] wishes, like Erdogan’s Turks, to impose its world view on other, dissenting citizens”.

It is perfectly legitimate for any media outlet or individual to question or protest against the congregation’s possible involvement. However, is it fair to imply by association that someone like the lifelong champion of the homeless, Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, a member of the Sisters of Charity, is “intolerant”?

Given such hostile perceptions it would not be human for religious to escape feelings of diminished energy and even demoralisation. Inevitably the barrage of negativity has had a significant impact on many religious. Some of these religious women believe that Ireland has become no country for old nuns.

The dedicated and devoted were often seen as guilty by association. Many selfless religious were caught in the crossfire of this collateral damage

To some extent, this is the fault of a minority of their fellow religious. The fallout from the controversies about child abuse in the Irish church cast a dark shadow on all aspects of religious life and on the institution of the church as a whole.

It was a time when many people felt shaken in their sense of faith. In many ways it was the church’s version of Yeats’ assertion: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.”

The immediate problem was the abusing priests, but the deeper issue was the whole ecclesiastical structure. The damage was profound among all believers, as Pope Francis recently acknowledged: “In people’s justified anger, the church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons.”

The dedicated and devoted were often seen as guilty by association. Many selfless religious were caught in the crossfire of this collateral damage.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused us to hit the reset button in many areas. While religious are facing such internal debates, perhaps the time has come for us to rethink our attitudes to them. Such a new approach would recognise that religious like Fr Peter McVerry have done great things for a large number of individuals and our wider society.

It is time for us to give those good people who dedicated their lives to the service of God and others the appreciation they deserve

There is a need for nuance which, while owning all their shortcomings, will also pay homage to all the good they have done. It will be a mature approach which appreciates the necessity of a balanced evaluation.

Our first duty is to be in radical solidarity with those who were abused. Our second duty is to acknowledge the sins of the past. However, there is a third duty: to be fair to everybody.

The world witnessed a potent symbol of the role of religious last March when the image of Sr Ann Rose Nu Tawng begging a group of police to spare “the children” and take her life instead went viral amid mass protests against the military coup in Myanmar, with more than 200 protesters reported to have been killed in the crackdown. She said: “Don’t shoot, don’t kill the innocent. If you want, hit me.”

Closer to home, we had the example in Cork this August of Fr Con Cronin, a member of the Kiltegan Fathers, who heroically sacrificed his own life to save somebody else’s when a bus careered out of control.

It is time for us to give those good people who dedicated their lives to the service of God and others the appreciation they deserve. Let justice reign though the heavens fall. Let us praise where praise is due.

Dr John Scally is Beresford adjunct assistant professor of ecclesiastical history at the department of religions and theology, Trinity College Dublin

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