Sister Sharon said that most sisters, to say nothing of the public, don't understand how much dialogue and productive communication goes on between representatives of the Vatican and superiors of religious orders before any action is taken. And the action then takes place under the guidance of the superiors. She gave the example of Father Robert Drinan, the former Massachusetts congressman, whose superiors ordered him to give up political life, which he did. "Now, you don't think the Vatican was going to put that kind of pressure on the Jesuits, do you?" she said firmly. Next she brought up the case of Sister Mary Agnes Mansour, who had been working as the director of Michigan's Department of Social Services. In that position she presided over the distribution of funds for abortion. She was told that she could keep her job if she expressed opposition to public funds' being spent on abortion. This was something she didn't want to do, nor did she want to give up her job. "But she asked for a dispensation," Sister Sharon recalled. "She was not dismissed."
"But," I asked, "she was out of the order?"
"By her own choice, yes."
For Sister Sharon, these cases seemed to have had happy outcomes; for many American Catholics, however, they created great anguish and conflicts that have yet to be resolved.
I asked Sister Sharon for statistics about the number of vocations worldwide, and she produced a chart showing changes in vocations from 1978 to 1998. In America there has been a 21 percent decrease, and in Europe a 31 percent decrease. In Africa, however, there has been a 45.5 percent increase, and in Asia a 48 percent increase.
"It's been observed," Sister Sharon said, "that vocations decrease in areas of greater prosperity and increase in less prosperous areas. Which is why there is great concern that the areas of discernment of vocations and the formation of vocations are very important. A word you'll hear spoken very frequently in congregations is 'internationalization.'" She explained this as the inclusion of non-Europeans and non-North Americans in positions of leadership. She told me that many congregations have adapted very well to this. There are many Asian sisters, particularly Indians, in positions of authority in congregations around the world. This is less true of Africans, because the missionary tradition is much younger there.
The mention of African nuns reminded me of two recent news stories. The more shocking story came out of the nightmare landscape of Rwanda: two Benedictine nuns were convicted in a Belgian court for participating in the massacre of 7,000 people who had sought refuge in their convent. These nuns were Hutu, and had been expected to shelter some Tutsi, members of their rival tribe. Instead they provided the gasoline that resulted in the Tutsi's mass immolation in a garage in which they were gathered.
The second news story concerned a report, sent to the Vatican by an Irish nun, about the abuse of nuns by priests. The report charged that certain African priests were demanding sexual favors of nuns. Many of these priests had formerly gone to prostitutes but had quit that practice for fear of AIDS. The report cited the case of a priest who had impregnated a nun; forced her to have an abortion, during which she died; and then said her requiem mass. I pointed out to Sister Sharon that some people in the Church were disturbed that the treatment of these priests had been so light: some counseling, some transfers. "I have a lot of trouble with that report," Sister Sharon said. "It was leaked to the press. I have problems with documents that are marked 'confidential' not being kept confidential."
I suggested that this might have been done because of frustration with the Vatican's foot-dragging. "What could we do?" she said. "It was up to the local bishops. I'm afraid that this might have a chilling effect on sisters who might have reported this kind of incident. Now they'll be afraid that their confidentiality might not be kept. And it was greatly embarrassing to African clergy. They feel that everyone is looking at them as potential abusers."
"Isn't this the argument that's habitually used against reporting abuse?" I asked. "I don't know the particular cases," she said. I asked her if the very fact that the identities of the priests were kept private constituted a kind of protectionism—a gentle response very different from, say, the excommunication of liberation theologians. "Liberation theologians put their name to something they wrote," she said. "They do something public. What these priests did was not a public act."
How did Sister Sharon think the secular world read these differing responses to the liberation theologians and the African priests? Did she think the inconsistency sent a message to the world that the Church is more concerned with doctrinal purity and protecting its male clergy than with the sexual abuse of nuns?
"People don't understand that the Church is one of the strongest voices in the world speaking out against the abuse of women, the trafficking in women," she said. "Of course, we need to do more, but we are definitely on the side of the women of the world, wherever they're oppressed."
I asked her what concerned her most about the state of American religious life. "I'm worried that there's too little emphasis on community," she said, "too many sisters living alone when they don't really have to. I don't think this is a good thing."
After my visit with Sister Sharon I wondered if my enthusiasm for the lives of the nuns I had enjoyed spending time with was an aberration, like a preference for arugula and dark chocolate when most of the world was happy with iceberg lettuce and Milky Ways. I realized that Sister Sharon would be most comfortable with the nuns I had spoken to whom I found the most difficult to approach—two nuns I interviewed in Brooklyn, one a Nigerian, one an Argentine. Perhaps they were most representative of the contemporary Church, which is, after all, the church of John Paul II, not of John XXIII, who has been dead nearly forty years. As America is now the country of George W. Bush, not of John F. Kennedy.
Sister Miriam Therese, the Nigerian, and Sister Angelus, the Argentine, share Sister Sharon's view that the hyper-individualism of American society has both discouraged vocations to the religious life and impaired the faithful fulfillment of such vocations. Both of them think that American women have too much freedom to take on the three Evangelical vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Sister Miriam Therese believes that American bishops like having African nuns in their dioceses because those nuns are more traditional in their outlook. She thinks that missing mass on Sunday is a mortal sin—a concept rejected by most liberal and moderate theologians. And Sister Angelus's order, The Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara, has taken a fourth vow, of "enslavement to the Blessed Virgin Mary"; her monastery is dedicated to prayer for the conversion of Jews. Responses like this called up my limitations and failures as an investigative reporter. I never succeeded in getting either of these sisters past the language of official response.
Sister Miriam Therese, who teaches in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn and is studying for her master's degree in education, contends that "it is more difficult for African sisters than for American sisters to say no to something the bishop wants." There is an increasingly widespread phenomenon called "reverse evangelization"; whereas traditionally priests and nuns were sent from Europe and North America to serve the needs of developing countries, the migratory pattern is now in the opposite direction. African priests and sisters are an increasingly visible presence in American parishes and schools. Even Tony Soprano's parish, in New Jersey, has an African priest.
Sister Miriam Therese declines to be critical of American nuns, and says she is "most edified by their work." But Sister Angelus thinks the fact that so many American sisters don't live in community with other sisters "opens them up to many difficult temptations." Her order, which is almost pre-conciliar in style (except for its adoption of e-mail and the rhetoric of the current Pope), has many new postulants, forty this year, all of them under thirty-five. Sister Miriam Therese says that many women in Africa want to be nuns, because they believe it is a good way of going to heaven, and because nuns are honored in their societies, by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Neither of these sisters thinks that her way of life is dying.
From Rome, I took a plane to Bucharest to visit some nuns Celia had told me about, members of her order, the Sisters of Sion, whose story had gripped me. Romania went Communist in 1945, and almost immediately a reign of terror began, culminating in the mad rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, who wielded absolute power from 1965 until his violent overthrow, in 1989.
Catholics are a religious minority in Romania, making up only about 10 percent of the population. Starting in 1948, Communist anti-religious fervor, mingled with paranoia about foreign influence, fueled a campaign to suppress Catholic religious orders. The property of the orders was confiscated; convents and monasteries were closed; those who lived in them were sent back to their families. But a group of Sisters of Sion, among others, kept their religious life alive underground while working in factories, on farms, or as domestic servants. Though often interrogated and harassed, they lived this double life for more than forty years, until 1990, when the repression was lifted.
A friend of Celia's, Rosemarie Wesolowski, a German member of the order who is also a physician, had recently arrived in Romania to help the Sisters of Sion integrate into the larger, modern world. The congregation includes around thirty older sisters, who joined before or during the repression, and six younger ones, who entered in 1990 or later. "Theologically," Celia told me, "they're still in 1948. And yet they are heroic."
Rosemarie suggested by e-mail that I come to Iasi, a small city in the largely agricultural province of Moldavia, where she was living. She would arrange for me to talk to both the older and the younger sisters. When she met me at the Bucharest airport, her looks surprised me. She was younger than I had expected, a large, fair woman with the rosy skin of a Dürer maiden. She was the only nun I'd met with long hair, which was clipped by a metal barrette and hung down her back. When she discovered I was staying at the Hilton, she responded with laughter. "Go for it," she said. I learned that this is her favorite English expression.
She had been in Romania for only six months. In that time she had, in addition to her other duties, started a counseling center, focusing on pregnancy prevention and help for battered women. There are no shelters for battered women in Iasi, although because alcoholism is a huge problem in Romania, so is battering. But her principal job was to evaluate the local community and to give the worldwide congregation her suggestions for its future.
She understood the anomaly of this. At forty, she is one of the younger members of the order worldwide, and she has no memory of a pre-conciliar Church. Meanwhile, the majority of her sisters in Romania, coming out of a time warp, have no experience of a Church touched by Vatican II.
I spent more than a week in Rosemarie's company, and in that time I learned her remarkable history. She entered the Sisters of Sion at twenty-four, after finishing her medical training. She has lived and worked as a doctor in many places: Frankfurt, Geneva, Vienna, Egypt, Ethiopia, Jerusalem, Brooklyn, and Chicago. She chose the Sisters of Sion because she believed that as a postwar German, she had a particular responsibility to witness the importance of Yaweh's covenant with the Jewish people, to stand with those who honored its importance in the life of Christianity.
I asked Rosemarie some of the questions I had put to the other nuns. Her understanding of her way of life, her sense of the meaning of her vows, is rooted, as are the others', in personal history. "I'm making a statement by my communal life about the possibilities for reconciling difference," she told me. "Because I do not choose whom I live with, there must be constant reconciliations. I go where I'm needed by the community. I live simply and I don't own things. I am celibate, which for me, believe me, has not always been easy. When you are a doctor, you work closely beside men, sometimes very attractive. But I believe I am called to live my life as a celibate, and as Jeremiah says, the word of God can sometimes feel very violent."
Her job in Romania was very much on her mind. She needed to examine the quality of the vocations of the younger sisters, making sure, as she put it, that "it's a calling from God and not just a career move." The younger sisters were all from poor rural families; they had moved from simple houses to convents with private bathrooms and washing machines. They were all studying for teaching degrees.
"When I first arrived, they would use the word 'children' about themselves," Rosemarie told me. "I would say, 'We don't have children in the Sisters of Sion; we have independent women.' I must work with them to see if our order really makes sense for them. Independence and individual responsibility are very important in our order. I have to try and determine with the younger sisters if they would be better off in a more traditional order. For instance, a Romanian bishop has recently founded a religious institute called The Servants of the High Priest Jesus Christ. Their mission is to be domestic servants to priests. They appeal to a lot of younger women: two hundred nuns in less than ten years."
Of the six sisters who entered after the fall of communism, four are living in the convent at Iasi. One, Paulina, is fifty-two, the eldest by seventeen years. Ecaterina is thirty-five, Christina twenty-eight, and Maria twenty-seven. Maria and Christina, who are first cousins, have lived together since they entered the order, in 1993. Christina has a sweet, almost babyish face; Maria is stronger-looking, plainer. Ecaterina is angular; her face can look angry, but then she smiles, her tension dissolving into eagerness. These three wear habits and veils.
I spoke first to Paulina. She sat across from me at the dining-room table in the convent—a beautiful, sad-faced woman with light-hazel eyes, a tan face, a strong, graceful body, and short, naturally wavy gray hair. I asked her how she came to be here. She said that in her town there was a nun, Sister Ludovica, one of the Sisters of Sion. Paulina was drawn to her because of her calm, her kindness, her willingness to talk to people about Scripture, about her life, about their lives. She never spoke badly of anyone. Sister Ludovica was often interrogated by the police. When she spoke of her mentor, Paulina began to cry.
Ever since she was ten, Paulina had wanted to be a nun. But when she spoke to Sister Ludovica about it, her mentor told her that it was impossible in Romania, and that she should forget it. But Paulina made a private vow of celibacy, and she kept alive the dream of nunhood. She worked in a sheet-metal factory, and later in the fields, all the while living with her mother. In 1990, having dreamed of joining the Church for more than thirty years, she was finally able to start her novitiate. In 1991 she began caring for the older Sisters of Sion in a nearby town. There she read for the first time the documents of Vatican II, then almost thirty years old. In 1992 she moved to Iasi. When I asked Paulina why she didn't wear a habit, she said, "I didn't wait thirty years for a habit. I waited for a religious life."
How to explain the strength of what Paulina would call a vocation, what most modern people would call a dream? How to describe Paulina's smile, which irradiates the calm plain of her face like a pool in a fertile field suddenly struck by sunlight? It is a smile of hope and quiet pleasure: an expression of almost incredulous gratitude for being, after years of great patience, finally in the right place.
While we ate lunch, I asked Maria, Christina, and Ecaterina to tell their stories. Maria and Christina were from the same village as Paulina, and also knew Sister Ludovica. But they had been frightened of her and found her harsh. They came of age after the Communist collapse, so they were able to meet openly with other sisters for prayer and Bible study. Maria, the more talkative, said she knew very early that she didn't want to marry. Neither had much to say about what drew them to the Sisters of Sion. "We wanted to serve God," Maria said, answering for both. They went through high school in the Sion community; now they are studying to be kindergarten teachers.
Ecaterina was older than Maria and Christina when she entered the order, in her late twenties. She worked in a textile factory and deliberated for two years about entering religious life. She, too, knew she never wanted to marry. She, too, wanted to serve God.
Frustrated with the emotionally flat tone of their responses, I asked them if they believed that women should be ordained, expecting the topic to be provocative. The three young sisters laughed. "We knew it would come to this, this question," Maria said. She argued that women have their proper sphere and should not step out of it. Ecaterina was more vehement: she said that the line of succession was passed from Saint Peter to the Apostles, and that only men can continue the line. She said she believed that women are emotionally unfit to become priests, and that the idea of a pregnant woman saying mass was disgusting.
Gently Paulina suggested that Ecaterina might find it disgusting because she had never seen it. Change is always difficult and frightening, Paulina said. It would be fine with her if women became priests, although she does not think it will happen in her lifetime.
The women asked me why so few young men are becoming priests in the West. I suggested that celibacy is particularly difficult for men. I told them that the priesthood has been racked by scandals of sexual abuse and homosexuality. In general, fewer Catholics go to church regularly now; the Church's ban on contraception has made many of them feel distrustful and abandoned. "It is not the Church that has abandoned them, but they who have abandoned the Church," Christina said. "They can always confess their sins and be taken back." Ecaterina added, "If Westerners can't live up to the demands, then we will have to be missionaries to them. Here we have many vocations."
Later Rosemarie told me that the younger Romanian sisters didn't believe a word I had said. They all thought it was wrong for sisters to be engaged in such conversations.
After lunch we went to the apartment of Maria Gabor, another Sister of Sion, which fulfilled all my preconceptions of Eastern bloc grimness. The glass was missing from the front window; the stairway was littered and unlit. I was surprised when a young man answered the door; it was Maria's nephew, who lives with her. We walked into the sitting room, which was dominated by a dining table. On the wall was Technicolor religious art: The Last Supper in aquarium shades, an effeminate Jesus pointing to a coral-colored heart. On a shelf were statues of the Madonna, the Little Flower, three china dogs. Across from The Last Supper a computer and a printer were oddly out of place in this cluttered room.
Maria is a tiny woman of seventy-one, toothless and stooped. She wore a mid-calf navy skirt, a white shirt, a green-and-yellow babushka. Born in a small village in Moldavia, she knew she wanted to be a nun because of the nuns who came home on holiday to visit their families. She used some of the same language to describe these nuns that Paulina had: they were calm, talked more quietly than other women, didn't speak ill of people. I could only wonder at the difference between these nuns and other women in the village, who were probably overworked, producing a baby a year, at the mercy of a husband perhaps brutal, perhaps merely in charge.
By the time Maria came of age, religious orders had been suppressed. But she retained a strong desire to be a nun, to devote her whole life to serving God. So she, too, made a private vow of celibacy. In her thirties she moved to Iasi, where she worked in a textile factory. In the parish she met a woman named Rosina, who she only gradually discovered was a nun. Sister Rosina worked as a nurse in a hospital; she was under suspicion by the police, who would often tail and sometimes even interrogate her. When Maria and Rosina spoke, they had to go outdoors to an isolated place. Often they met in a local cemetery. In 1970 Maria made private vows to a priest in a confessional in the cemetery chapel. She met occasionally with Sister Rosina and two other women, also secret nuns. But to the world she was a single pious woman working in a factory. Even her mother didn't know the truth. Once, her mother was questioned by the police about why Maria wasn't married; but because she didn't know her daughter was a nun, the investigation proved fruitless.
After the religious orders were reinstated, Maria's life didn't much change. She moved in with her sister and her sister's children, because she felt she was needed there. This surprised me; I asked her if she had longed to wear a habit and live in community. "No," she said. "I felt I could do more good helping my family. And if I wore a habit, it would be strange for the people who knew me all those years. As if I had become a different person. I don't need a habit to love God and serve people."
The next day I traveled with Rosemarie to Sabaoni, three hours by bus from Iasi, where the order has a kindergarten and a convent. Later, as I was resting in my room at the convent, reading, there was a knock on the door, and an old woman burst, almost jumped, in. It was Sister Ana Marta, a joyful force, in the room, which was cold even in May. I was reminded of the words that compared the presence of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost to a rushing wind that enlivened the Apostles. Sister Ana Marta embraced and kissed me, enthusiastic that we would speak Italian to each other. Although she was born in Romania, she has lived most of her life in Italy. She left Romania during World War II, was trained in France, moved to Trieste and then to Rome, where she ran schools. At the age of seventy-three she returned to Romania to help the new community of sisters, and today, at eighty, she is in charge of the kindergarten. Later she told me that she was puzzled by the attitude of the younger sisters: they seemed so joyless, to have such a sense of entitlement. She said that one of the younger sisters, miffed that her request for a car had been denied, said to her, "But Jesus said, 'Whatever you give will be given back to you a hundredfold.'" I told her I didn't think Jesus meant cars.
At dinner I was introduced to several more nuns, who wanted to tell me their stories. Each of them wore a habit, complete with veil. Sister Josepha, toothless and in her seventies, spoke first. Her convent had been broken into by the Communists in 1948. All the books were thrown into the street and burned; then the police sent the nuns home to their families. At first her family didn't want her—another mouth to feed. The family had two horses, and they sold one to buy her a sewing machine. Sister Josepha is very proud that her tailoring raised her family's status and economic well-being. "And I did it all with only four years of education," she told me. "Not like these young ones who think they know so much." She had no contact with other sisters until 1991, when she put on the habit for the first time in forty-three years and rejoined her community.
Sister Florenta is the only nun I have heard brag about the men whose sexual advances and marriage proposals she refused so that she could join the order. She also boasted about having been beaten by the police, because of her brave resistance. Her presentation, her desire to lord it over the others, made me uneasy.
Another sister, also called Christina, told her story, encouraged by Rosemarie. She had wanted to be a nun from a young age, and with the support of a hometown priest, she moved to Iasi. There she met Sister Rosina, who urged her to join the Sisters of Sion. She made her vows secretly, like the others, knowing that she and the other women who met with Sister Rosina were under surveillance; she even suspected that the confessionals were bugged. After the fall of the Communists the sisters discovered that Rosina had brought a total of twenty-two women into the order, but none of them had known that at the time. They each knew one or, at most, two other secret nuns.
A radiant smile came over Sister Christina's face. "Those years, those difficult years, were nevertheless full of joy," she said. "I told no one that I had a religious life. Even my family didn't know. It was a very beautiful, very wonderful secret I had with God alone."
Sister Ana Marta burst in excitedly, "You found the absolute."
"Yes," Sister Christina said. "I did." Now she works in a school where she and another sister teach Gypsy children. As she described her work, she revealed the negative attitudes many Romanians have toward Gypsies. I looked at these nuns, and other than Ana Marta they seemed to me ordinary women, with the ordinary faults and limitations of their time and class—except for the fact that under the extraordinary pressures of history they had done extraordinary things. They had put themselves in danger to keep alive a way of life that was only a hint, a shadow of itself, practiced in secrecy. They had lived a life of trust in a society in which trust was nearly unimaginable. I asked myself, Is it possible to act extraordinarily and yet not be transformed into an extraordinary person?
When we got back to Iasi, Rosemarie suggested that I invite Maria, Christina, and Ecaterina to dinner in a restaurant. When I proposed it, they were excited in a way that reminded me of young children being taken to the city for an outing. None of them had been to a restaurant in the years they had been in Iasi.
The restaurant they chose must once have been a splendid fin de siècle place. Later it may well have been the dark hangout of the security police and their bought girls. The high ceilings, the elaborate moldings, were grimy and crumbling, and there was a smelly, spotted carpet on the floor. Light bulbs were missing from the overhead fixtures. A guitarist and a keyboardist played seventies-style music: "Feelings," "Save the Last Dance for Me." Then they moved with an anachronistic swoop into "Them There Eyes."
To my surprise, the sisters all ordered beer. Almost immediately Christina got rosy and giggly. Maria swayed to the music. I asked her if she liked to dance. Yes, she said, very much. I said I did too. She asked if I would like to dance with her; women, she told me, often dance together in Romania. And so I danced with a nun who probably considered me heretical, in a dispiriting room of former glory and former intrigue, next to men in nylon shirts stretching over their beer bellies and excessively made-up women with cheaply dyed hair and tacky, excruciatingly high heels.
The nuns ordered meat dishes (a luxury for them), salad, and dessert. They seemed very happy. It was almost midnight when we left. The municipal bus didn't come, so we hailed a private minivan, which stopped several times to pick up more passengers—so many that the last two half stood, half crouched in the space between the seats.
Back at the convent Maria reminded me that I had promised to teach her the tango. After I showed her a few steps, Ecaterina and Christina wanted to learn too. Then they spoke to each other in Romanian, and Ecaterina fetched a boom box and a cassette. They played Romanian music and said they wanted to teach me their native dances. We were all giggly, and I was dizzy with the spinning that is an essential part of their dances. They spun me and spun me until we were all laughing very loudly, a bit out of control. Rosemarie, who doesn't dance, watched from a bench in the hallway.
It was after one o'clock in the morning, and I had to wake in three hours to catch the train to Bucharest. But I couldn't get them to stop dancing. I said to Maria, the best dancer among them, "You look like you've spent many a night dancing." A shutter came down over her happiness. "Not really, no," she said disapprovingly.
I was glad I hadn't said what was on the tip of my tongue: "The way you dance, you must have Gypsy blood."
If it is not a fantasy, what is the idea of a nun? It is so strong that it can inspire a group of women to keep it alive during a murderous dictatorship, so potent and so large that women as different as spiky Janet and traditional Sister Angelus can recognize themselves by it, and Sister Miriam Therese can feel at home in an alien continent because of it. The image is so evocative that it moves a gay agnostic friend of mine to weep uncontrollably when he sees a friend take the veil. It is amorphous enough that the two Benedictines from Rwanda can still think of themselves as nuns.
In Finding the Treasure, Sandra Schneiders defines a nun's life as "the total commitment to Christ in lifelong consecrated celibacy lived in community and mission." I can't imagine anyone's having a problem with community and mission. But then there is celibacy.
Possibly I come from the cohort least disposed of any in history to accept celibacy. Women like me, who came of age in the sixties, believed that sex had been kept from us, that our rightful pleasures had been denied us. We had been lied to for centuries about the strength and range of our desires and our satisfactions. It wasn't that celibacy was always in the back of my mind when I talked to nuns; but it never ceased to be a puzzle.
People look at me suspiciously when I talk to them about the happiness of the nuns I've spoken to, as if I've regressed to a point of infantilism. It takes real courage for me to say, however tentatively, to the people I know: Since Freud, we all believe that sex makes one if not happy, then whole. But look at these women's lives. How can we understand that even without sex they are happy, and whole, and free? Freer than many of my friends. Although, like most of my friends, I don't quite understand why.
Often in recent months I have felt as if I were floating in a lake fed by two streams: the stream of my admiration for these women and the stream of my incomprehension of the totality of their lives.
How can we speak to each other over the gulf of a life not lead?
This journey into the world of nuns has not been without pain. "Put your tears in it," Celia said to me when I told her that I often found myself crying as I wrote about these women. Tears for the end of something. Tears for the neglected parts of my own life.
To give up the idea of the higher calling. The one right way.
To leave behind the book and the stiff, uncaressable doll.
To get beyond the old, dead images in favor of what Vatican II called "the freedom of what is unsettled."
The grip of a past that will no longer serve. The risk of partial understanding.