Many people who denounce the Church for admitting only celibate men to the priesthood also ignore or minimize the importance of Catholic sisters and call for “other forms” of religious life that will supposedly bring “empowerment for women.” How little they realize the special honor that celibate men in priestly service have traditionally paid to women, and how truly powerful the habit-wearing, self-denying women religious of the pre-Vatican II era were in the Church and in the lives of the men and women they educated.
It’s difficult to define how the sisters operated, but perhaps an incident from the late 1950s captures something of their elegant graciousness and liberating discipline. I was a first- grader working with the rest of my class on a “silent reading” assignment when our teacher, Sister Wilhelmina, a newly consecrated Sister of Saint Joseph, came to my desk and said, “Miss Courter, may I speak with you privately?” Anyone educated by sisters will recognize that distinctive use of the subjunctive as well as the sisters’ practice of addressing even very young children as adults. Taking me aside, she began to ask me to “explain” certain ideas in the catechism.
All the world is odd to a six-year-old, and to me this seemed no stranger than any other classroom exercise, and so I conversed with her as best I could. She seemed pleased with the conversation even though my base of knowledge contained nothing more than what she and her predecessor, Sister Simplicia, had taught us. She then said, “Let’s go across the hall so you can meet our principal, Sister Letgard.” Upon being introduced to Sister Letgard, I curtsied and she, a motherly and aristocratic woman in her sixties, smiled and bowed silently in reply. She then engaged me in a discussion of religion. When she had finished she nodded to the waiting Sister Wilhelmina and, turning to me, said, “Sister and I believe that you have reached the age of reason. Would you like to receive First Holy Communion this year or wait until next year with the rest of your class?”
Thoroughly flustered, I blurted out, “this year.” Sister Letgard replied, “Good. Sit here while I send for Father Walsh. He will conduct your practical instruction.” Within a few minutes Father Walsh was in the office with me explaining how confessions are heard. I was too stunned to remember much of what he said, but I do remember Sister Wilhelmina waving to me happily as she strolled across the hall, back to her classroom of 50 first-graders.
That’s how the sisters operated: Discussions of theology with six‑year-olds, children educated to make spiritual decisions and then allowed to bear responsibility for such decisions, the clear deference of a 23-year-old sister to her superior, and the just-as-visible deference of the distinguished superior to the young nun. But there’s even more to it than the way the sisters acted. Consider Father Walsh. A soft-spoken, grey- haired man, he responded immediately to the task that Sister Letgard assigned him. Associated with parish schools for over 20 years, he regarded the sisters as more capable than he in evaluating a student’s abilities. Sister Wilhelmina analyzed, Sister Letgard confirmed the analysis, and Father Walsh acted on the sisters’ conclusion.
This spirit of charity and complementarity was expressed by the priest and sisters, not with self-referencing or pious words, but with simple nods, bows, and smiles. And through it all a six-year-old realized that access to God is based not on quickness of intellect or displays or sentiment but on “reason”: the gift from God that functions only when we will to interact with and develop it.
The behavior of a priest and two sisters in a small incident, observed only by one small child, exemplifies a uniquely Catholic spirituality. As long as there are those who formally and publicly commit themselves to lives of perfected celibacy, poverty, and obedience, the distinctive beauty of Christ-centered virtue will always be with the Church.