In or around 1957-58, I was a 5th grader at St. Ann’s parochial school on Neponset Avenue in the Dorchester (specifically, the Neponset) section of Boston. We were learning our catechism. I still have my Baltimore Catechism of Christian Doctrine, as it was called. Millions of Catholic children across the nation were instructed from the identical volume which was in a question-and-answer format.
I still have my copy. The Sisters of St. Joseph were our teachers — our catechists.
In our class — 5B– we were asked to protect our catechism copies by stapling on a sturdy light red cover made of material like oil cloth, which has helped preserve my copy’s deeply yellowed, fragile and flaking 131 pages these 65 years.
Sadly, my catechism has survived far better than the Sisters of St. Joseph, which was among those Catholic religious orders sadly decimated by its wayward, culturally conforming superiors in the seductive post-counciliar period of the 1960s and into the 1970s. It was those more senior St. Joseph nuns (though I believe “nun” is supposed to refer to cloistered not teaching orders) who insisted the order’s legions of devout women uniformly come out of their uniform, which was the “habit” — from the Latin habere, or habitus, referring to “condition or state of life.”
I’d wager that the majority of the subordinate sisters of that era still embraced their “condition of life” and welcomed its centuries-old outward manifested of a white linen coif and wimple and black full-length black tunic. It certainly set them apart, and they knew it would be their sacrifice. I once interviewed three aged St. Joseph sisters — forget just why — and they told me they didn’t want to give up their traditional dress but were ordered to do so. The habit had been their visible message to the world of their complete devotion to Christ. Sounds corny to modern ears.
Now, of course, we don’t need a “uniform” to tell the world we are Christian. But priests, nuns and sisters are consecrated religious. It had long been understood and accepted that religious garb identifies the individual’s consecrated state. Clothing is such an identifying mark across religions. Consider the Buddhist monks. (Get a bunch of tattoos and dye your hair purple and you’ll have declared outwardly your inward conversion to our age of expressive individualism that is no longer quite so individual.)
For sisters and nuns, I submit that the shedding of the religious habit began the outward manifestation of a different, more worldly theology and, ultimately, of inward conversion to a multitude of secularized, “liberalized” attitudes and beliefs. They often came, if they remained in the order, social workers more consecrated religious. The ranks of confused, disoriented sisters and nuns commenced to expand disastrously. The world welcomed them, but did this calm their inner storm? Some adjusted, many left. It was not a happy time for the rest of us who were once inspired by their visible sacrifice.
Things also went morally, socially, culturally disastrously awry for multitudes of plain Catholics and their children throughout the same period. I count myself in that number.
The first chapter of that Baltimore Catechism is The Purpose of Man’s Existence. (Guess that should be a Person’s Existence, if we’re to be political correct.) The last chapter is Prayer.
It’s almost Holy Week.