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Vatican II: 40 years later

In religious life, a chance to choose again


When people from every nation came to the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Park in New York City’s borough of Queens in the early ’60s, the Vatican came, too, in the words of Pope Paul VI, carved into the exterior of the Vatican Pavilion. People who had never heard of an encyclical, much less read one, perceived with wonder and admiration the effect of John XXIII’s open window policy.

The inscription read: “Let the world know this: The church looks on the world with profound understanding, with sincere admiration, with an intention not of conquering it, but of serving it; not of destroying it, but of appreciating it; not of condemning it, but of strengthening and saving it.”

When my eyes first took in this cataclysmic statement, I wore the traditional habit of the Sisters of Mercy. Surrounding me were my 40 delightful seventh-grade students whom I had led, via a short ride on the No. 7 subway train, to the excitement that was the World’s Fair. The words carved in stone transferred easily to my heart, even though I knew embracing them would change my life. Members of religious congregations had been trained to renounce the world the pope addressed. “The world, the flesh and the devil” were woven from the same cloth.

There was little in our formation that encouraged appreciation of different religious faiths. Even members of other religious congregations were seen as separate creations, not potential collaborators and co-ministers. Laypeople were to be treated respectfully, but kept at a distance.

But even as my open heart welcomed those prophetic words, I could have not envisioned that I, a few days before the first anniversary of the destruction of the Twin Towers, would accompany a laywoman to a mosque 12 blocks from ground zero. Entering that sacred place, I removed my shoes and covered my head and sat in the back with the women. After an hour of instruction and prayer of the kind I’d welcome from my own tradition, I was invited up front to bestow a blessing in the name of the Catholic church. My companion, Patricia McCann, had invited me to this ecumenical event. The fact that I know her from 1010 WINS Radio, an Infinity Broadcasting Station that delivers “All news all the time,” along with my weekly commentaries, is another sign of the distance we’ve traversed since the Second Vatican Council.

What would my mistress of novices think of that? The night before our first profession, she warned us to refrain from sharing our presumably limited wisdom. “You are to take your place at the bottom of the table and learn from your elders. Keep your mouth closed for 25 years.”

Three years before that time expired, I was opening my mouth, every Sunday, as one of the station’s three religious commentators. Listeners to my broadcasts are an estimated half million. On the last Sunday of this November I’ll mark 29 years of unbroken Sundays. My ears and eyes were opened, too as, with many of my religious sisters I studied the signs of the times and chose those mentors who seemed most closely aligned with the teachings of Jesus. “Religious life,” I recalled from my days as a novice, “is not something, but Someone.” So wrote Fr. Edward Leen in In the Likeness of Christ.

Before the World’s Fair folded its many tents, my superiors had removed me from the classroom I loved and assigned me to a new venture called “Educational Television,” a pilot program of the Brooklyn diocese. A school superintendent, Fr. Michael Dempsey, had gathered master teachers from about 10 separate congregations of women and men and a staff of lay professionals. Gone were the distinctions, the separations. We worked together in our separate areas of expertise, breathing life into an educational pioneering venture. Friendships were formed and, in three separate cases, they led to marriage.

While working in television, I accepted an invitation from Don Zirkel, editor of the Brooklyn Tablet, to write for that paper on a regular basis.

This widened world was a kind of training field for my experiences as a doctoral student in communications at the University of Michigan. I first saw the campus in the summer of 1966. There were so many nuns in religious garb that some professors likened it to Notre Dame. By the second summer I wore a modified habit and by the third carried only its memory in my suitcase of simple, contemporary dresses. The academic community, professors, their spouses and students enthusiastically embraced all stages of my metamorphosis.

The erudite professor who taught us the history of broadcasting had a perspective quite different from that of my high school teacher. Sister revered Sen. Joseph McCarthy as the saint who kept atheistic communism at bay. My Michigan professor considered him “a diabolical megalomaniac who conducted ruthless witch hunts.”

My association outside the academic community included one homeless teenager who, without documentation, became and, at 52, remains my adopted son.

My studies completed, my dissertation on the life work of CBS reporter-commentator Eric Sevareid accepted, I took a teaching position at Brooklyn College in September 1973. There were at least as many yarmulkes as crosses visible on students there and I learned to cherish a broad, diverse student body. For most of my time I was the only woman and the only Catholic on the faculty of the TV/Radio Department. There, as in every other phase of my life, I acquired friends who remain part of my life.

In the ashes of the ’60s, from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his brother Robert; in the losses from the exodus from the priesthood and religious life, recommitment and consecration were of the essence. We all had a chance to choose again.

Women religious leaders were emerging. The late Columbus, Ohio, Dominican, Sr. Marjorie Tuite, became a disturbing prophet demanding that nuns measure themselves by their fidelity to the gospel. Along with Sam Easley, a wise, quiet black man, she conducted workshops on racism and social justice. She expanded her purview to include techniques for winning justice for women in church and society. I watched and reported on her, even as I learned. When she invited me to go with her delegation to El Salvador on the first anniversary of the deaths of four North American churchwomen, I did. Next it was Nicaragua. Then Honduras. But we never got off the plane in Tegucigalpa, being forbidden by the Honduran president to enter his country. His advisory called us all -- laywomen and nuns -- “Maryknoll whores of the Jesuit persuasion.” His condemnation and our laughter couldn’t drown out the insistent sound of Marjorie’s “three most important questions: Who lives? Who dies? Who decides?” The sisters with whom I’ve shared community these many years have tended to these questions in light of their own outstanding ministries.

In her own voice, Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister repeated the challenges and set the direction for so many of us. Other women from different communities continue to offer direction.

Jesuit priest-poet Daniel Berrigan inspired us by his constancy, his creative demonstrations against nuclear weapons and warmongering -- above all, by his rootedness in the sacred scriptures. What I learned from him is that social justice efforts are not to be a competitive game. The passions of the spirit are not about winning converts or judging others. Everything is about being faithful. Pax Christi is one of the national organizations that clings to that vision of nonviolence.

Soon after my 60th birthday I was named president of my regional community. As I left Brooklyn College, I feared my world would narrow. Instead, I entered a more expansive arena. In 1991 my own regional community had joined the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. What beauty and wisdom resides there!

Three years later I was elected to the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. How enriched I was by those strong women and the challenges we faced together!

As the 1990s were drawing to a close, a man was locked in a prison cell many miles away entered my world. Facing an execution date, David Paul Hammer, #24507-077, who had read of my opposition to capital punishment, asked me to find him a spiritual guide for the remaining weeks of his life. When the approach Christmas 1998 rendered that task undoable, I went to see him myself. Now, with two stays of execution behind him, he has become my godson and friend. He has taught me about the value of freedom, the existence of those who wait in prison and the power of redemptive love. I’m working hard to win him life in prison without parole and to put an end to capital punishment. I know if I have to watch his execution in the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., it will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

My recent golden jubilee celebration brought together about 200 people from the various walks of my life. We shared memories, music, laughter, food and liturgy. How different from my expectations of 50 years ago. How wonderful to have lived with the openness of Vatican II.

Let the world know this: Together we are privileged to share a journey. Many of you give witness by your lives to the motto I wear in my silver ring: “He [Jesus] went about doing good.” The apostles are still in action.

Sr. Camille D’Arienzo is a member of the Brooklyn Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002