In an interview with U.S. Catholic magazine, Sister Doris Gottemoeller, the first president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and a former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, says that the "good old days of the 1950s" weren't as great for nuns as people remember.

Religious life was humming along just fine in the 1950s, wasn't it? What happened?

I suspect that may be a somewhat distorted view of the '50s. If you take the long view, the number of people who entered religious life in the 1950s and '60s seems to be artificially inflated. When so many of these people left later, in a sense we were just returning to a situation more like what we had known in the past.

The situation of women religious before Vatican II was exacerbated by the fact that because the church was so dependent on us for ministry, we didn't pay enough attention to preparing and educating our religious. We've all heard stories of sisters who entered an order and were teaching months later, and who spent 25 years in summer school to get a bachelor's degree. Also, our orders adhered to cultural practices that belonged to another era.

Such as?

Even in active communities, one couldn't go out without a companion, one couldn't eat in the presence of "seculars." What better way to share than to have a meal or cup of coffee with others? But we couldn't have so much as a sip of water in the presence of anybody else. Our vow of poverty was interpreted as never having a penny. If you needed to go to the dentist, you had to ask the superior for the carfare, and she gave you the 25 cents.

How did the post-Vatican II changes in religious communities affect the church as a whole?

I think in hindsight one thing we could be faulted for is that we didn't take time to explain to others what we were doing and why. That left people saying, "What happened? Where did all the sisters go?"

What are the good fruits of the changes? We developed skills for participation and process. Sometimes we make fun of ourselves for pushing process to the nth degree just to make a decision, but this springs from a basic concern for the variety of gifts among our members. We've also learned from and welcomed the insights of the laity, and we've moved into partnerships with laity that have, I hope, enriched everyone. It has given us a more real view of life and life's struggles.

Isn't it a loss that the sisters aren't there in the numbers they used to be?

I think the loss to the church, if there is a loss, is more that of a witness of a life-style and a life choice, not the loss of a workforce. In terms of education, Catholic schools are getting along quite well. In fact, enrollments are rising. What we do need to be concerned about is the loss of the witness of this way of life. That's more difficult to grapple with because it's less tangible.

What elements of your lifestyle today are such a witness?

I could tell you some amazing things that sisters are doing today. Religious life is a relationship to God and a relationship to people in light of that relationship to God.

What we have to show people is not just that religious share their goods in common, or that we don't get married, or that we pray and live in common. It's all of those things put together in a way that defines a lifestyle.

Some people say nuns are almost invisible today.

One problem is that we're not visible in parishes anymore. I regret the loss of the parish convent, for example. I never taught in a parish, but I had a wonderful experience for three years in the 1980s of living in a parish convent. People knew the convent was a door they could knock on.

Have you found anything to replace that kind of visibility?

I think we're now in a period where we've cast off symbols, like the habit, that are no longer relevant in some situations, but we haven't found new ones yet. You can't just hire an agency to do that. It has to come out of who we are. I think wearing something like a pin, as simple as it is, can be surprisingly effective.

I think our living in community is something that's more apt to be noticed than when we live singly. Presence in a parish church together is something that will attract notice.

How did the idea of community living begin to fade?

We began to react against a certain rigidity in religious life, rising and going to bed at the same time, that kind of thing. Nobody expects that today, but some people fear that's what we mean by community.

Second, people needed us for ministries that required sisters to be at a distance from the rest of the community. A certain amount of that we can accommodate, if our members are generous enough and if the community will reach out and support them. But we also have to ask whether we need to respond to every need if in the end it destroys who we are and what we are.

Unfortunately there are some sisters who have been overtaken by a kind of individualism. Some of them choose a particular ministry because it puts them at a distance, so they have a reason to live apart. After a while, that starts to become the norm, and then the ones who live in community are regarded as aberrant or weak or old-fashioned. We need to affirm the people who do create the welcoming communities.

What are some of the spiritual benefits of community?

First and most obvious is that you have a group to pray with. Communal prayer and communal spirituality have to be part of the rock-bottom foundation of who we are. We cultivate that by the very dailiness of praying together.

Celibacy is not about lonely deprivations but about creating adult relationships that are life-sustaining. Celibacy while living alone is much different from celibacy in community, where a network of relationships that are of the Gospel sustains us.

Poverty is not just living poorly or simply; it's sharing things in common and having my choices modified by the choices of other people. Together we decide how much is enough and how much is too much.

Religious obedience today means that the key choices in my life are discerned in the context of community. The ministry I'm in is made more effective by the people who send me forth.

Has religious life always been for the few?

I'm not a historian, but I do know that while religious life has endured, it has taken many forms. The element that has endured has been the permanency--it's a life gift. It almost died out in some eras, and then there have been times of resurgence. So we take the long view. It would be amazing if there weren't another resurgence at some time in the future.

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