'Nun School' for the 21st Century: An Outdated Version of the Novitiate Persists in Movies, Featuring Strict Rules, an Emphasis on Personal Piety, and Little Interaction with the outside World

By Comfort, Marianne | National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2007 | Go to article overview

'Nun School' for the 21st Century: An Outdated Version of the Novitiate Persists in Movies, Featuring Strict Rules, an Emphasis on Personal Piety, and Little Interaction with the outside World


Comfort, Marianne, National Catholic Reporter


I recently spent two years in "nun school."

At least, that's the simplistic phrase I've come to use to describe the novitiate period of discernment and preparation for professing vows in August as a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

It was the easiest way to tell my young nieces what I was up to at the time. And it seems to satisfy many people who wonder what I was doing in that gap on my resume, between working as a grant writer for an ecumenical human services organization and volunteering in various community projects and then seeking paid ministry again as a vowed woman religious.

Of course, there are a lot of important details left out of that casual response. And it's clear that some are left to imagine an outdated version of the novitiate that persists in movies, featuring strict rules, an emphasis on personal piety, and little interaction with the outside world.

Let me set the record straight: The process of formation for religious life today is mostly about preparing women and men for ministering to the church and a world in need in the 21st century. That includes everything from addressing each individual's health holistically to studying contemporary understandings of the vows of poverty, religious chastity and obedience; from developing skills for living in community to deepening a personal relationship with God in each person's unique way; and from learning about the grave environmental threats and social injustices crying out for attention to discovering new talents we each have to minister with persons in need and to work for systemic change.

The Religious Formation Conference, a national organization, has developed a statement that describes the areas of transformation required for a congregation in the 21st century.

The statement, called "Word Becoming Flesh," challenges members of religious congregations to live simply, chastely and obediently in relationship to the human community and to the planet; to learn the skills of social analysis; to listen contemplatively and be influenced by diverse cultures; and to honor the wisdom of the Earth and the richness of community so that a world community can emerge.

Over the two years of my own novitiate, I had a day set aside once a week for personal prayer and reflection to build up my relationship with God and to develop a routine of prayer that I can now draw upon while busy in ministry. Experiences of community brought me face-to-face with habits and perceptions that needed to be transformed to relate better with others. Volunteering in a women's prison and on a college campus brought me to settings I never dreamed I'd be called to and opened me to the value of simple presence to others. The power of collective action became apparent when joining other Sisters of St. Joseph at a Pax Christi witness at a nuclear weapons test site in the Nevada desert and at a protest at the former School of the Americas.

To get a broad view of the range of ministries the needs of the contemporary world are challenging us to take on, I made the rounds of the dioceses of Albany and Syracuse, N.Y., visiting sisters who work with new immigrants and refugees, who organize a community garden for the rural poor, who administer parishes, and who run food pantries and home-furnishing programs for low-income families. …

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