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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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August 5, 2003 
Vol. 1, No. 19

  Vision: The fine art of seeing the unseen
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Witness to Integrity Witness to Integrity: The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of California
By Anita M. Caspary, I.H.M.
The Liturgical Press, 312 pages, $21.95

(Editor's Note: This is the third installment of a three part reflection on Witness to Integrity: The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of California by Anita Caspary, former IHM superior. In the late 1960s, the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters found themselves caught between the directives of the Second Vatican Council to renew religious life and the mandates of Los Angeles Cardinal Francis McIntyre to cease experimentation and change.

Eventually, 50 sisters decided to accept the cardinal's prescriptions; 132 sisters, weary of the struggle and disillusioned with the church, left religious life all together. More than 400 others committed themselves to the IHM community that remains to this day.

Read Part One Setting the record straight(July 22) and Part Two Justice and power are not synonyms (July 29).

Even the best-managed and most efficient buggy whip makers never survived Henry Ford's Model T. Some lasted a few years after the invention of the horseless carriage, but none survived. The lesson begs respect.

There are some things no institution in the world can make up for by good management alone. Vision is one of them. To go on making buggy whips after the first automobile appears on the horizon means someone in the organization lacks the vision it takes to identify and adapt to social change. "Vision," Jonathan Swift wrote, "is the art of seeing things invisible." The problem is that social change lurks among us largely invisible long before it becomes apparent.

Change does not start simply with the creation of a new gadget or the spinning of a new idea. The patent office is full of inventions that never caught on. Social change starts in people's hearts. Change starts with the awareness that what we are doing or the way we are doing it leaves even more to be done. Change, then, starts with discomfort. It starts with lack of energy. Change begins when what we've always done and the way we've always done it ceases to satisfy us anymore. Ceases to make sense. Ceases to work.

Ironically, change happens just when it seems that the system as we have always known it has reached new highs. And indeed it has. Because, from then on, it becomes clear that however perfect the system is at this point, there is also a great deal more to be done that can't be done with the system as we know it now.

Religious life had reached the point of static perfection long before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The system that had been developed to enable an immigrant Catholic population to be absorbed into a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant population had succeeded. It had been fine-tuned to the ultimate. Its early missionary impulses had settled down into institutionalization and institutional competitions. Catholics stayed within very defined cultural boundaries. Orders vied with one another for the population of Catholic students available to Catholic high schools and colleges instead of reaching out in new ways to new populations.

As the Catholic population itself rose to new social status and new levels of economic achievement, religious communities rose with them. Every year we found ourselves further and further away from the very kinds of people religious ministries had been instituted to serve.

The novitiates were full to overflowing but the culture from which we were attracting novices had ceased to support symbolic asceticisms and childish lifestyles for professional women. To be required in the interest of "obedience" to ask permission to go places she had been told to go -- like the schools in which we taught -- or to be deprived of professional formation because courses or conferences were held at night, failed to persuade a new generation of women religious that these were necessary steps to holiness.

A trivialized life began to look trivial to post-war women whose vision had expanded with the expansion of the world around them. New social questions -- poverty in an industrialized world, peacemaking in a violent world, children and hunger and housing and women's issues in a world where the national budget itself fed classism -- began to creep into consciousness.

With the reality of social change facing them at every level, women religious went to the floor of their general chapters with the Vatican II mandate to "renew" religious life. And they did. But it was precisely issues of social change that fueled the struggle between the Immaculate Heart sisters, of whom Anita Caspary writes in Witness to Integrity, and James Francis McIntyre, the cardinal of Los Angeles, and his supporters in the Vatican.

McIntyre lacked what the IHMs had. He lacked vision. He could only see what was behind him, not in front of him, and he determined to stop anything else from developing. He had resisted the decisions of Vatican II, complaining at the Council itself, Caspary notes, that "active participation (by the laity at mass) was receiving more consideration than needed (especially when it would be practiced by those) whose whole intellectual capacity is not great."

Such a man was certainly not going to listen to these women about the changes they knew they needed to make if they were possibly going to be able to stay the truly religious women they were meant to be in this society at this time.

What McIntyre was demanding -- a uniform habit, daily Eucharist celebrated for the entire community in one place at one time, and classroom teaching alone as "the essence of their religious life" -- the sisters knew to be completely inadequate for the times that were emerging under their feet. In fact, given the size of the community and the size of the chapel, a common community Eucharist had not been possible for years. But McIntyre would not hear the women, let alone negotiate with them. He lacked a vision of a whole church, as well as of a new church.

Instead, McIntyre used the institution to preserve the past rather than to enable the future.

"Witness to Integrity" is more than a history. It is a warning to us all.

Scripture (Proverbs 29:18) says it clearly: "without vision the people perish."

The IHMs, and, with them, hundreds of other religious communities, have become new, are still with us, have changed but did not perish. They have gone beyond the old disciplines of obedience and submission. They have become adult as well as committed, involved as well as set apart.

What's more, new communities of men and women, married and unmarried, Christian and interfaith, driven by a different vision, given to new issues but nourished by ancient spiritualities, have sprung up everywhere, many of them beyond the pale of the church.

From where I stand, it seems that if this book is any signal of things to come, if the church is to stay a potent factor in society, it must develop a vision for "seeing things invisible." Otherwise, this book warns us, how else can our creating God go on creating, except, perhaps, by rupture?

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Preview the book:
Witness to Integrity The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of California, by Anita M. Caspary, I.H.M., The Liturgical Press, 312 pages, $21.95

Past NCR stories about Immaculate Heart Community of California and Anita Caspary:

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