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Le Concile Vatican II et le monde des religieux

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Christian Sorrel

Les voies du changement. Tensions et réformes

The influence of Vatican II on female order

Exemplarily on Good Shepherd Sisters in Europe

Kirsten Gläsel

Texte intégral

  • 1 Ute Leimgruber, « Frauenorden in der Krise », OK, 46, 2005, p. 335.
  • 2 Ewald Frie, « Sozialisation des Ordenfrauen. Kongregation, Katholizismus und Wohlfarhtstaat in Deut (...)
  • 3 Zoe Maria Isenring, Die Frau in den apostolisch-tätigen OrdensgemeinschaftenEine Lebensform am En (...)

1The first decade after the 2nd World War became a florescence for female religious orders. The number of members in Germany, for instance, peaked out at more than 90 000 sisters1. But from the 1960s on, the number of women religious in Germany declined. Remaining sisters suffered from exits, death of familiar members and a deficit of novices. According to this, they had to cope with aging of their congregations and overloads in their apostolate. Especially female religious orders got more and more confronted with criticism in the modern society, because their severe lifestyle, which was mainly shaped by the vow of obedience, seemed to become obsolete. Inside the German welfare state was a shift. As there were not enough apostolic women religious any more, laypeople had to be hired as nurses, educators, management administrators and so on2. At the end of the year 2013, there were 18 300 sisters left in Germany. « The nun in the world » or « Sisters in crisis3 » – this kind of book titles arouse in the 1960s and expressed in which way the situation of women religious was perceived in Germany and, actually, on the international level. The way of religious life had to be reconsidered and reformed. In this time, grave transformation processes started inside of the orders and congregations, so that they got new shapes and occupied new fields of action. This article reveals some changes in this period of Vatican II by using the example of the congregation of the Good Shepherd Sisters. Therefore, a short general overview for the situation of women religious in Europe during the post-conciliar era is given in the first step. Secondly, the foundation and the aim of the Good Shepherd Sisters are presented, whereupon a deeper insight into their post-conciliar reforms follows. Finally, this article ends with a short conclusion according to the question to what extent the congregation changed due to the Second Vatican Council.

  • 4 Michael N. Ebertz, Erosion der Gnadenanstalt? Zum Wandel der Sozialgestalt von Kirche, Freiburg, 19 (...)
  • 5 Leonard Holtz, Geschichte des christlichen Ordenslebens, Zürich, 1991, p. 321.
  • 6 Audomar Scheuermann, « Das Ordensdekret des II. Vatikanischen Konzils », OK, 7, 1966, p. 45.
  • 7 Karl Rahner, Herbert Vorgrimler, Kleines Konzilskompendium. Sämtliche Texte des Zweiten Vatikanums, (...)
  • 8 Joachim Schmiedl, « Reception and Implementation of the Second Vatican Council Religious Institutes (...)
  • 9 Anna Elisabeth Fürst, « Entwicklung von Satzungen in einem Religiosenverband am Beispiel der Kongre (...)

2Since the middle of the 1960s, tradition, authority and obedience were not longer taken for granted by society. In fact, people began to reflect and discuss these values – and even dropped them in some cases4. This paradigm shift challenged the Catholic Church, which was representative for the traditional values. Already in the year 1959, Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council with the aim of a renewal of the whole Catholic Church. The reforms of female religious orders in Europe were mainly enforced by the conciliar documents Lumen Gentium and Perfectae Caritatis. Lumen Gentium required a modification of the religious orders according to the changing society5. Perfectae Caritatis created general conventions and implied guidelines for the renewal of religious life6. A main principle was the return to the sources of Christian life in general and the reflection of the founders’ charism7. To name but a few more reforming approaches, the orders were asked to reinterpret their spiritual self-understanding and their vows. These actions intended a complete reform on their former lifestyle and a deep revision of their constitutions and custom books. The past hierarchical structure had to be weakened and gave way for the principle of subsidiarity. In addition to that, the document Renovationis Causam (1969) provided « a revision of the novitiates [and] the introduction of juniorates for the professional, theological and spiritual education and formation8 ». Those requirements should be realized gradually in the following General Chapters of several religious orders. Every single society was asked to express their renewal in the form of revised constitutions9.

  • 10 The secular name of Maria Euphrasia was Rose-Virginie Pelletier. She was born on 31th July 1796 on (...)
  • 11 Constitutions 1926, n° 4, in Archive of the Good Sherperd Sisters in Germany, Würzburg [ADPSvGH], I (...)

3The congregation of the Good Shepherd Sisters was founded by Maria Euphrasia Pelletier in the year 1835 in Angers (France) and originated from the religious female order « Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge » founded by Jean Eudes in 164110. The traditional special end of the Good Shepherd Sisters was to care for so called « fallen girls », who had lived in sin and wanted to turn back to God11. In other words, the sisters mainly cared for delinquent young women and prostitutes and tried to save their salvation by doing girls’ welfare and correctional education. In Maria Euphrasia’s lifetime, the Good Shepherd Sisters founded 110 convents in Europe, North and South America, Africa and Australia. Today, they work in 71 countries on five continents. Since their beginning up to the eve of the Second Vatican Council, the sisters of the Good Shepherd had been following constitutions which Jean Eudes had given to the origin order.

  • 12 Wochenbericht vom 2.10.1969, p. 2, in ADPSvGH, NDP 69.
  • 13 Constitutions 1955, p. 13-14, chapter 1.

4Like all other religious orders, the Good Shepherd Sisters got through grave reforms during the post-conciliar period and tried to perform them on their General Chapters between the years 1969 and 1985. The main post-conciliar reforms of the congregation of the Good Shepherd were initiated by the General Chapter in the year 1969, which took place in the mother-house in Angers with 129 delegated sisters from 49 provinces12. Here, the sisters created their constitutions on their own for the first time. In a first step, the life of the sisters before Vatican II has to be revealed, so that it is possible to compare and understand what has changed from the end of the 1960s on. In the constitutions of the Good Shepherd Sisters of the year 1955, their spiritual self-understanding was described in the following way: « By the example of a holy life, by deep prayer and burning zeal, the sisters are working on the conversion and moral lifting of girls and women, who have had a disordered life. The sisters are also caring for those who are endangered to do so13. » The Sisters of the Good Shepherd tried to reach salvation for these young women by prayer and penitence. The daily routine of the sisters was shaped by Maria Euphrasia’s device « One soul is of more value than a world ». According to this, the Good Shepherd Sisters lived very monastically in enclosure in the 1950s: prayers, liturgy of the hours, meditations and some more exercises were practiced by the sisters few times a day.

  • 14 Ibid., p. 73, chapter 16.
  • 15 Arbeitstage zur Verinnerlichung und Weiterbildung in der Schule der hl. M. Eufrasia im Ge-neralmutt (...)
  • 16 Constitutions 1955, p. 65, chapter 14.

5The integration of the apostolic work into the monastic lifestyle was very useful for the specific apostolate of the Good Shepherd. The sisters supervised their patronage within the cloisters’ walls. From a theological point of view the enclosure is related to the vow of obedience and for the purpose to save the sisters’ spirit14. Moreover, the walls were an important element of the pedagogy: they prevented that the girls had contact to the outside world and defeated attempts to escape. Moreover, the sisters dedicated themselves to a physical and mental mortification, which was a consequence of the vow of obedience. This vow included a fully repression under the will of God, represented by the Local Superior15. Every sister had to obey the Local Superior like her own mother: true, prompt and with all her heart. They had to obey with childish love16. The reasons for this behavior, which the sisters accepted voluntary, can be found in theological motives. The separation from their own will was seen as a salvific sacrifice, which the sisters gave like Jesus Christ to avenge the sins and to reach salvation for themselves and their fellow men, especially their patronage. The imitatio Christi was a significant idea, which mainly influenced the thoughts and acts of the sisters in the pre-conciliar period. Moreover, according to the theology of Thomas Aquinas, it assumed that obedience would help the sisters to get in closer contact to God. Summarized, the sisters’ spirituality before Vatican II was focused on salvation and – with it – on afterlife. By observing the vows in a strict way, the sisters tried to fight for their own soul and for the souls of their patronage. The salvation implied an eternal and a salvific life.

6As described above, the sisters created their constitutions on their own for the first time in the year 1969. After Vatican II, the general level of the congregation of the Good Shepherd requested various provinces to draft one chapter of the constitutions in a completely new way. During this period of consultation, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd had many questionnaires, committees, sessions and tertian ships on the general, provincial and local level. This kind of participation was new for most of the European sisters and was seen as a huge challenge, because the traditional understanding of obedience was still in their mind and restrained the sisters from being proactive. During these reform-processes, two groups of sisters differed in their opinion. Elderly sisters did not want to remove from their traditional lifestyle whereas younger sisters were willing to open, to liberalize and to professionalize. The new constitutions were adjusted by the delegated sisters on the General Chapter of the year 1969 and were valid in a preliminary way, because the sisters should test their new rules and evaluate them after a certain time. The post-conciliar spiritual self-understanding was grounded in the constitutions from 1969:

  • 17 Constitutions 1969, p. 8, chapter II, part I, in ADPSvGH, NDP 514.

Through the ghost of love, who lives in us, we answer His call by a special consecration, which roots out of our baptism. We answer His call by common life, life in prayer and in sisterly love, a life according to the vows and by our service for people in need17.

7This new self-understanding had changed as the congregation modulated it according to the spirit of Vatican II. Sisters’ vocation was seen as dialogue and the aspect of community focused on the metaphor of the People of God. Especially the definition of the apostolic work was reformed as the sisters began to see their task on people in need. The monastic lifestyle with the aim of salvation for fallen girls was displaced by values like community and apostolate in the world. In consequence, the enclosure was dropped in the year 1970 for the German provinces of the Good Shepherd Sisters. The new aim of the sisters was not only to save the soul of people in need, but to protect their human dignity in addition. The congregation worked out a new anthropology, which went to the deletion of a moral evaluation of their patronage.

  • 18 Ibid., p. 17, chapter IV, part I.

8Moreover, the sisters experienced further liberalizations according to their clothes or their daily routine. By degrees, the sisters were allowed to wear plain clothes. In this course, sisters often chose to doff their habit in case that the patronage could be stigmatized in their company. The former fixed prayer sessions and mealtimes became successively more flexible so that the sisters got more space to realize an apostolate in the world. Because of numerous conciliar paradigm shifts within the Church and also the religious orders, a new interpretation of the vows was indispensable. One essential post-conciliar modification relating to the vow of obedience was the call for active participation of all members in the reform-processes. In return, the traditional mental mortification had to be canceled, whereas communal decisions and the use of intelligence and will power of every sister won weight. Every sister was postulated to take responsibility for the congregation in an active, sensible and self-reliant way. The superior was still the highest authority for making decisions, but the community was more and more seen as the appropriate place for the search of God’s will18.

  • 19 Kongregationsinternes Dokument « Gerechtigkeit und Armut », in ADPSvGH, NDP 77 (Unterlagen zum Gene (...)

9The constitutions of the year 1969 were valid till the General Chapter of 1985, on which the experimental-stage got to its end. On the General Chapters of the years 1973 and 1979, the Good Shepherd Sisters worked mainly on the topic of social justice. In this context, the sisters asked themselves how they could fight for social justice and human dignity in the world. Based on the Vatican documents De iustitia in mundo and Evangelii Nuntiandi, the sisters got more and more involved in sociopolitical concerns. The first document was announced by the synod of Bishops in the year 1971 and dealt with justice as the main topic. This document, which belongs to the Catholic Social Teachings, focused on injustice and inequalities within the contemporary social structures. These deficits were seen as a consequence of the technological progress, the globalization and asymmetrical structures of power. The synod of Bishops pointed out that the Church had the duty to fight for justice on a social, national and international level and to denounce unjust situations. In this context, the synod also made clear that the Church could only preach the gospel, if the Church resigned abundance. Hence, the Bishops appealed to all Christians that they should review their own lifestyle. On their General Chapter in 1973, the Good Shepherd Sisters made the decision to reevaluate their own lifestyle according to the vow of poverty based on De iustitia in mundo. Moreover, they intended to scrutinize structures within and outside of their congregation. The General Chapter postulated that all sisters should be attentive for injustice and to take a firm stand. The sisters were also requested to get involved actively with the development of their own community, to reform unjust structures and to generate practical options to act19. On their General Chapter in the year 1979, the Good Shepherd Sisters received some aspects of the Apostolic Letter Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) as they focused on evangelization in the modern world.

10The topics and discussions at these two General Chapters in combination point out that the apostolate of the sisters should focus on current needs in society more and more. Not later than on the General Chapter of the year 1979, the Good Shepherd Sisters saw their mission resolutely as apostolic work in the world, which finally replaced their traditional detachment from the world. As a result, many European provinces of the Good Shepherd Sisters dropped the traditional field of action in girls’ welfare and correctional education and took over new tasks like social work or curative education. In the year 1985, the sisters had their last General Chapter according to the reforms of Vatican II, on which they formulated their definite constitutions. These rules were a composition of the constitutions of 1969 and the new motive of social justice, which played a major role in the congregation of the Good Shepherd Sisters in the 1970s.

11The pre-conciliar lifestyle of the Good Shepherd Sisters was shaped by a hierarchical structure, which was also anchored in Church and society. In this period, order, discipline and salvation were deeply connected to each other. The drop of the enclosure stands for a new Church after the Second Vatican Council. This Church does not comprehend salvation in a separation from the world any more, but rather in an apostolate, which opens to the world and especially to people in need. All in all, the self-understanding of the congregation of the Good Shepherd Sisters developed during the post-conciliar era and focused on a « mission in the world » with the aim to safe human dignity and to reach social justice. The sisters tried to realize their aims by giving support for people in need, by an active reformation of unjust structures in society, by the reflection of their own habit according to the vow of poverty and by an active lifestyle in community and prayer. The post-conciliar reforms in the Catholic Church took place in the religious orders very intensively. These reforms did not only affect one single area of life, but rather changed gravely the sisters’ whole lifestyle. There is no way to deny that the Good Shepherd Sisters lost a lot of members in the conciliar and post-conciliar period like most of the other female orders. Nevertheless, the congregation was able to cope with the challenges of the time and got a deeper reflected self-understanding. Up to nowadays, the sisters are on the move and adapt their fields of action to society’s requirements. In their current direction statement, the Good Shepherd Sisters declare their apostolate in the following way:

  • 20 Direction statement Good Shepherd Sisters.

Work zealously with women and children, especially those who are trafficked, forced to migrate and oppressed by abject poverty. We support projects for economic justice, confront unjust systems and take a “corporate stance” when appropriate. […] Respect and appreciate the diversity and richness of cultures and at the same time recognize that we need to take concrete steps to move beyond the encrustations that impede growth and development individually and communally20.

12The transformation-processes within the religious orders after the Second Vatican Council mirror the contemporary changes in religion, Church and society. Therefore, this topic will remain as a promising object of research.

Notes

1 Ute Leimgruber, « Frauenorden in der Krise », OK, 46, 2005, p. 335.

2 Ewald Frie, « Sozialisation des Ordenfrauen. Kongregation, Katholizismus und Wohlfarhtstaat in Deutschland im 20. Jahrhundert », in Klaus Tenfelde (ed.), Religiöse Sozialisationen im 20. Jahrhundert. Historische und vergleichende Perspektiven, Essen, 2010, p. 82.

3 Zoe Maria Isenring, Die Frau in den apostolisch-tätigen OrdensgemeinschaftenEine Lebensform am Ende oder der Wende, Freiburg, 1993. See Léon-Joseph Suenens, Krise und Erneuerung des Frauenorden, Salzburg, 1962; Heinz Claassens, Schwesternorden ohne Zu-kunft? Restauration oder schöpferische Erneuerung des Frauenorden und Kongregation?, Freiburg, 1967; Corona Bamberg and al. (dir.), Frauenorden vor der Gegenwart. Überlegung zu Standort und Funktion in der Kirche von Heute, Freidberg bei Augsburg, 1967; Maria van der Leeuw, Ordensleben im Umbruch. Warum Ordensfrauen ihre Gemeinschaften verlassen. Eine psychologische Studie, Kevelaer, 1968; Sr. Jeanned’Arc, Hat die Ordensfrau noch eine Aufgabe?, Ostfildern, 1968.

4 Michael N. Ebertz, Erosion der Gnadenanstalt? Zum Wandel der Sozialgestalt von Kirche, Freiburg, 1998, p. 79.

5 Leonard Holtz, Geschichte des christlichen Ordenslebens, Zürich, 1991, p. 321.

6 Audomar Scheuermann, « Das Ordensdekret des II. Vatikanischen Konzils », OK, 7, 1966, p. 45.

7 Karl Rahner, Herbert Vorgrimler, Kleines Konzilskompendium. Sämtliche Texte des Zweiten Vatikanums, Freiburg, 2007, p. 312.

8 Joachim Schmiedl, « Reception and Implementation of the Second Vatican Council Religious Institutes », in Leo Kenis and al. (ed.), The Transformation of the Christian Churches in Western Europe 1945-2000, Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2010, p. 303-305.

9 Anna Elisabeth Fürst, « Entwicklung von Satzungen in einem Religiosenverband am Beispiel der Kongregation der Armen Schulschwestern Vöcklabruck », in Klaus Lüdicke and al. (ed.), Recht im Dienst des Menschen. Eine Festgabe Hugo Schwendenwein zum 60. Geburtstag, Graz, 1986, p. 79.

10 The secular name of Maria Euphrasia was Rose-Virginie Pelletier. She was born on 31th July 1796 on the island of Noirmoutier in France during the times of the French Revolution. She was canonized on 2th May 1940; Jean Eudes (1601-1680, canonized in 1925) was a French priest and missionary. Apart from the foundation of the female order, he founded also the congregation of Jesus and Maria and spread the worship of Jesus’ and Marias hearts.

11 Constitutions 1926, n° 4, in Archive of the Good Sherperd Sisters in Germany, Würzburg [ADPSvGH], IX-45.

12 Wochenbericht vom 2.10.1969, p. 2, in ADPSvGH, NDP 69.

13 Constitutions 1955, p. 13-14, chapter 1.

14 Ibid., p. 73, chapter 16.

15 Arbeitstage zur Verinnerlichung und Weiterbildung in der Schule der hl. M. Eufrasia im Ge-neralmutterhaus, Angers, 12. September bis 20. Oktober 1954, in ADPSvGH, Gen 62, p. 82.

16 Constitutions 1955, p. 65, chapter 14.

17 Constitutions 1969, p. 8, chapter II, part I, in ADPSvGH, NDP 514.

18 Ibid., p. 17, chapter IV, part I.

19 Kongregationsinternes Dokument « Gerechtigkeit und Armut », in ADPSvGH, NDP 77 (Unterlagen zum Generalkapitel).

20 Direction statement Good Shepherd Sisters.

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Université de Bochum

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