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In praise of older Sisters

Women Religious have done more for society than we realize

  • Fr William Grimm, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • August 2, 2012
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Some of the most beautiful though not often pretty people in the world are those who have spent a long life loving God and effectively serving their neighbors. And probably the best place to meet them is in a convent.

There are, of course, women whose hard lives, illness, pains or other factors make them exceptions, but by and large a convent of elderly Sisters is one of the most joy-filled, lively, generous and humorous places on the planet.

I am blessed in spending several evenings each month in such a convent, celebrating the Eucharist and sharing dinner with "my girlfriends," Sacred Heart Sisters in Tokyo. The oldest of them, one for whom I had special affection, has died at the age of 103.

Sister Setsuko Miyoshi was the first Japanese president of the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo. I did not know her in that capacity, however. I knew her as a woman who remained generously ever-welcoming, even when her failing memory left her unsure of who I was.

Some, possibly most, people might say that Sr. Miyoshi’s final years were marked by decline. I disagree. As her physical and intellectual abilities weakened, the core of her life as a Religious woman — a joy-filled love of God and cheerful service to others — became more obvious.

Her situation has a parallel in many congregations of Sisters today.

There was a time not long ago when one of the few arenas in the world where women could run universities, hospitals or school systems was the Catholic Church. Women who had the desire and talent to be of professional service found support and tools to realize those dreams, in community with other women.

In many parts of the world even today, apart from entering a convent focused on an active, professional apostolate, talented women are still greatly circumscribed in society and the Church.

But now in many places, Japan among them, congregations of Religious women that provided those opportunities face an uncertain future as the number of women who join them declines.

Some criticize them for abandoning medieval styles of dress, life and piety. Others claim that their confronting injustices that oppress God’s children — ignorance, poverty, powerlessness — has distracted them from focusing upon lives of demure prayer. For those critics, many of them male Church leaders, their decline is punishment for straying from some ideal of true Religious life.

It is true that in places where Religious congregations that emphasize professional competence in other-directed service are declining, traditionalist groups that emphasize Religious garb, self-focused spirituality and well-intentioned but not necessarily professionally effective service are growing.

Are the critics right: that groups of women who have taken the lead in presenting a servant face to the world for the Church have gone wrong?

Not so. A major reason young women no longer enter active Religious congregations in the numbers that they once did is that the work of those congregations has become to some extent superfluous.

In more and more parts of the world, women need not enter a convent in order to take their place in the operating room, the classroom, the board room, the courtroom, the government. Modern societies have learned the benefits of unleashing the talents of women.

Sr. Miyoshi reached the end of her long life looking to the foolish like someone who had declined from her glory days. But, to the end, she actually prevailed.

Religious women like her appear to be going through a period of communal decline. But, that decline is, in fact, a measure of the dawning success of women in the modern world, a success pioneered in part by women like Sr. Miyoshi and so many other Sisters.

Fr William Grimm MM, based in Tokyo, is the publisher of ucanews.com
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