On Thursday, February 12, Father Jim Martin posted on the blog of America magazine the first part of a four-part YouTube video of the appearance of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The reader/viewer was instructed to go to YouTube to watch the remaining three parts.
According to the website of the Sisters, their Order was founded in 1997 with four Sisters. There are now around 100 Sisters, whose average age is 26. The average age of women who enter the Order is 21. The site introduces the Order with the following statement:
The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist is a Roman Catholic community of women religious. Our community was founded in the Dominican tradition, as a response to Pope John Paul II's call for new religious foundations to embody the graces of the New Evangelization of the third millennium Church.
Through profession of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, along with a contemplative emphasis on Eucharistic adoration and Marian devotion, our community exists for the salvation of souls and the building of the Church throughout the world.
Oprah's staff had apparently contacted numerous religious women's communities requesting access to their convents and inviting representatives to appear on the show, which is filmed in Chicago, and were turned down by all of them before the Dominican Sisters of Mary agreed to do the show. Reporter Lisa Ling was invited to the Sisters' convent in Ann Arbor, Michigan and was actually permitted to spend the night in one of the cells, the first non-religious ever given access to the cloistered part of the convent.
Ling expected that on arrival at the convent she would find all the Sisters in prayer but was surprised to see them playing cards and Scrabble instead. The four nuns, especially the two younger Sisters, that made the trip to Oprah's studio and appeared before the cameras belied the image many hold of cloistered nuns as serene, other-worldly, and silent. The two young Sisters who sat with Oprah on the stage were lively, candid, and funny. They did not flinch or dissemble when asked about sex and they were honest in their personal accounts of their vocations. Several nuns were interviewed in the convent as well, via Skype, and they too appeared confident in themselves and in their choice of a way of life.
The women of this Order, as they appeared on Oprah, seem to be genuinely happy. They love God, they love each other, and they love their vocation and the life it has given them. The most often mentioned factor in their choice to become religious, besides a call from God, was the overwhelming materialism of our society. Many of these women had left good jobs and promising careers, as well as significant material wealth behind to pursue a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, a cloistered life of prayer and service. All those that appeared on Oprah - postulants, novices, and fully professed nuns - seemed to be deeply satisfied with their choice.
I was surprised and moved by this show. In my opinion, Oprah and Lisa Ling were both very respectful of the Sisters and of their choice of a way of life. The candidness of the Sisters and their obvious joyous devotion to their Order and to Christ were touching indeed. I admire the courage and the reflection involved in their decision to renounce the pursuit of material and carnal satisfaction and to respond to a higher calling. I pray that their joy will only deepen as they grow in years.
The young women who enter cloistered communities like the Dominican Sisters of Mary have made a free choice, one which they can undo at any time until they make their final vows. They reflected intelligently on their secular lives before making the decision to leave those lives behind and pursue a life that is still very much a mystery to them. One can only hope that they are only required to leave their material treasure in the world, that they can take with them into the convent their God-given intelligence and creativity.
It seems to me that of the three vows taken by all religious, obedience has the most potential to cause spiritual damage. Authority wielded by unwise hands can lead to the kind of bitter disillusionment that Karen Armstrong experienced. While perhaps today's postulants are somewhat more sophisticated than the young Karen was and the authority that commands obedience at the convent in Ann Arbor appears charitable and wise, one wonders whether the absolute obedience to the magisterium commanded by John Paul II and his successor, who are so admired by many of those entering the priesthood and religious life nowadays, will bring about a restoration of the kind of Counter-Reformation regime that Armstrong experienced in the 1960's.
I pray that it will not.