Vocations before the Council—A Snapshot

NOT ALL WAS UTOPIAN in the Church before Vatican II, even if since the Council she has grown increasingly dystopian. The danger we face today is to fall into the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Not everything that came after the Council can be simplistically explained away as a direct result of the Council, be that thing good or bad. The Council occurred at a particular point of time in history and culture, and the implementation of its decrees was a distinct phenomenon, which acted almost as a corrective to the deficiencies of the conciliar texts in the eyes of their implementers, and certainly as an interpretation of those texts according to an agenda that was not easily reconciled to the express will of the majority of the Council Fathers.

Should we have had a Council in the 1960s, of all decades? Well, as we shall soon discover with Covid, hindsight is a wonderful thing.

In 1956, two issues of the New York monthly, The Catholic Mind, ran pieces on issues confronting apostolic sisters’ congregations at the time. In the April edition, Sr Mary Emil IHM, of the only-recently-defunct Marygrove College in Detroit (from which a cornucopia of books have since been digitized and added to the Internet Archive), addressed in her article, among other things, “The Vocation Crisis:”

There is a vocation crisis. It would seem that there is not a Motherhouse in the country where the authorities are not wringing their hands over the Sister-shortage as the number one problem. Everywhere the story is the same—classrooms with two, three, and four times as many children as there should be, sick and old Sisters teaching, schools of nursing staffed by one Sister and for the rest lay help, two floors of a hospital assigned to a single supervising Sister-nurse. Postulants continue to enter our novitiates, but there are not enough. Every Mother General will tell you that she could use tomorrow twice as many Sisters as she has now. (pp.192-3)

Let us be honest; it is a different sort of vocation crisis. It is not the contemporary crisis of negligible supply in religious vocations. Rather, as is clearly implied, it is a crisis of healthy supply facing extreme demand. Annual novitiates of three or four (and in many congregations even more) were just not able to meet growing needs. It is a crisis born of the exuberantly rude health of the Church, at least in some areas of its life. Sr Mary Emil seeks a cause:

The blame for this situation must be fixed somewhere. Where? Shall we say that the Holy Ghost no longer knows the needs of the Church, or is unwilling to give the grace of vocation to meet modern needs? The suggestion is ridiculous, if not blasphemous.

Shall we decide then, as some of us do, that there is something wrong with modern youth—that girls are too selfish and pleasure-loving to heed the call to the heroism of the teaching or nursing apostolate? This is an appealing solution, because it absolves us so neatly of responsibil­ity, and gives us in addition the soothing feeling of having belonged to a generation made of the prover­bial sterner stuff. But there is the disquieting suspicion that modem youth may be as generous and ideal­istic, as capable of being inspired, and as ready to sacrifice itself as the young have always been when properly appealed to. (p.193)

Moreover, blaming the world of today is not much help:

…what­ever paganizing or enervating effect the modem milieu may for the sake of argument be conceded to have on the girls who graduate from us, it is a singularly futile angle for us to concentrate upon… (ibid.)

As if the world in every age has not provided a culture that was, to some degree, counter to the Gospel. No, Sr Mary Emil bids us look not outside through a window, but at ourselves in a mirror. She identifies “two kinds of answers” to the problem of what we can do to address to vocation crisis. The first lies in the “use of devices,” perhaps the predominant method up to our own day, a dead horse well and truly flogged:

We can get out better view­-books showing how the novices play basketball and are therefore “hu­man”; we can have our vocational rallies and exhibits and pep meet­ings, as it were; we can put more “recruiters” in the field; we can turn, as to a complete answer, to clubs and visiting days and to a hundred and one tricks of the trade. Of course, the devices have some ef­ficacy, not the least being that they give us the conviction that we have done all in our power to swell the ranks. But it must be observed that, to date, all the devices together have hardly made an impression on the vocation shortage. (ibid.)

Plus ça change! Anyway, she alights on an obvious alternative:

The opinion might be held, there­fore, that the key to the vocation crisis lies in the kind of Sister with whom the girls come in contact. It could be thought that all the pub­licity and promotional devices in the world are useless if the last Sisters whom the girls have known have not been such as to “sell” the religious life. (ibid.)

Sister Mary Emil then clarifies that the crisis lies with the active religious, not contemplatives—whose vocations had, we know, been fertilized with a vigorous dose of Seven-Storeyed Mertonism. She holds that the solution lies in presenting, in her congregation‘s case, the teaching sister as “a first-line fighter in the troubled years ahead of us” (p.194). Girls must be able to see in the sisters‘ congregations what is possible when “the natural and supernatural talents of the members are developed and fused into a single striking instrument.” (ibid.) In her eyes, active sisters must play a crucial role in “these days of an emerging struggle that will endanger even the public profession of religion and all western civilization.” (ibid.)

Clearly she has done the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. So, then, she poses the inevitable question:

But who is to bring this message, this concept of Sisters as shock troops of Christ, and as representing the institution which has the answers to the problem of our day? Who is to present this to our youth? Certainly it must be the people who know about it themselves. (p.194)

Sister goes on to lament that while the active sisters are beloved in their Church, few thinks of them as “formidable fighters for Christ.” While it will take longer and better formation, she is convinced that it can only be achieved by placing “into the classroom, the nurses‘ training school and the hospital dynamic, challenging, inspired, highly competent, and obviously happy and holy sisters.” (p.195)


Well, it is hard to fault her reasoning, even with hindsight. Did anyone listen to her? Well, given that modern active sisters from the older mainstream congregations are indeed very often well-educated women, bold in speech and even confrontational in action, it seems that she was heard. Why, then, the utter collapse in vocations among these congregations? Her words were fine and noble, inspiring; the results have been exasperatingly underwhelming, to put it diplomatically. In 1965, there were 179,954 nuns and sisters in the USA. Not quite 50 years later, there were 49,883. Sr Mary Emil Penet (1916-2001) lived long enough to see this unravelling of religious life; did she come to see her use of the word “crisis” in 1956 as being somewhat hyperbolic in hindsight? She was the founder of the Sister Formation Movement, which for a period operated under the aegis of the forerunner of the Leadership Conference of Religious Women (LCWR).

We can compare Sr Mary Emil‘s fine words and the results which followed them, with the fine words of the Council and the results which followed them. There is something of a pattern forming. In the case of Sr Mary Emil‘s sisters, we might say that for all their enhanced training and professionalized formation, they had not become “formidable fighters for Christ.” Indeed, the LCWR has pointedly esteemed theologians like Barbara Marx Hubbard, whose advocacy of ”Conscious Evolution” leads, in the words of Cardinal Müller in 2014, ”almost necessarily to fundamental errors regarding the omnipotence of God, the Incarnation of Christ, the reality of Original Sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ in the Paschal Mystery.”

How on earth did we get from the crisis of Sr Mary Emil to the catastrophe of Barbara Marx Hubbard? How on earth did we get from the solemn decrees of Vatican II to the collapse in Catholic life and activity that the Council was called to nip in the bud?


Well, a few months later, in the October 1956 edition of The Catholic Mind, there was an article that was perhaps an unwitting follow up to Sr Mary Emil IHM‘s article the previous April. Or perhaps not? I will attach it here for you to read at your leisure; it is not long. Sr Mary Alexander SMSM records the reaction of her young pupils to seeing the newly-reformed habit of her congregation introduced in 1956 (nb well before the Council):

How to tell them that Sister would no longer be wearing her cupcake headgear but would appear in a new, stream-lined canonically approved 1956 model? (p.560)

Sister lamented that many Americans misunderstood the changes “advocated by the Pope” as a desire to make habits more attractive:

But it is a moot question as to what is attractive! And there was ample proof of this in the community‘s impromptu style-shows staged before the Regional Chapter met in Rome. (ibid.)

Sisters on the catwalk. In 1955. The reformed habit decided upon, as she describes it, sounds quite noble. Oh, that it was so short-lived! But her conclusion struck me as the zinger in her piece. You can unpack it for yourselves. She is writing about a Marist Sister in San Francisco, in charge of the altar boys:

When she appeared in the New Look, the youngsters stared at first, but one summed it all up, in a long, slow whistle—“Gee, S‘ter, you look good!” (p.562)

Out of the mouths of altar boys and sisters…

Join the Conversation

  1. Nice add for the telescope! lol

    On Sun, Mar 21, 2021 at 4:23 PM Dominus mihi adjutor wrote:

    > Fr Hugh posted: ” Not all was utopian in the Church before Vatican II, > even if since the Council she has grown increasingly dystopian. The danger > we face today is to fall into the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Not > everything that came after the Council can be simplis” >

  2. Dear Fr Hugh, you hit it on the head (as usual). The last point about the reformed habit is very apposite. Religious no longer ‘look’ like religious. The new habits ape the lay form of dress. Why? I remember as a boy when my teachers were priests. We went on a holiday to Switzerland & at breakfast on the first day the priests came down in open neck shirts! We were convinced they had left the priesthood. No, why do you think that the military wear uniform? To make a statement that they are a body of men all with the same intent. So should priests & religious show that their intent is the be the army of God bringing to all the weaponry to defeat evil, to bring hope to those under attack. We must know who our defenders are.


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