Indulge me in this statement of the obvious: these are difficult days in which to be a Roman Catholic. The tidal wave of secularization and the reconceptualization of freedom as radical autonomy have swamped the citadel of faith. The institutional church is today mired in seemingly permanent crisis. And despite the cheeriness of the current pope, hope is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. That Francis himself may be inadvertently playing into the hands of the church’s adversaries, as some critics charge, is not beyond the realm of possibility. For those of us in the pews, being a Catholic hasn’t been much fun lately.
In my long-ago days as a student attending parochial school, the nuns taught us that faith is a gift. All these years later, I have concluded that, for me at least, it is more than a gift but also less. On the one hand, being Catholic has become central to my identity. It forms an indelible part of who I am, part of my birthright handed down by my parents and grandparents. I would no more abandon the church than I would abandon my country. To do so would be an act of betrayal. The very thought is anathema. On the other hand, remaining a Catholic today is necessarily a choice as well. There are, after all, other options. So I stay because I choose to do so, if only out of sheer stubbornness. I do not reproach the multitudes who bail out or just drift away. But I am sticking.
Still, sticking hasn’t been easy over the past couple of decades. This has especially been the case for those of us who worship in the once-celebrated Archdiocese of Boston, the very epicenter of the clerical scandals that have rocked the church in the present century. So when some occasion arises to remind an ordinary churchgoer of what the faith can and should be, it is cause for celebration. Recently, my wife and I participated in one such occasion, the installation of a new abbess at Mount St. Mary’s Abbey in Wrentham, Massachusetts.
Members of this community belong to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, perhaps more familiarly known as Trappistines. My wife’s older sister Maureen, now Sr. Robert, joined the Trappistines more than a half-century ago. Apart from sojourns in India and Rome, she has lived at Mount St. Mary’s ever since. This community of several dozen nuns supports itself by making and selling candy, which you ought to buy. Sr. Robert does not work in the candy factory, however. Instead, well into her seventies, she tends a small flock of sheep.
The reference to Strict Observance in the order’s formal name is misleading, in my view. Among other things, Trappistine life is not quite as strict as it was when Sr. Robert professed her vows. More to the point, a phrase like strict observance conjures up something akin to my long-ago plebe year at West Point: daily misery inflicted by petty tyrants of sadistic bent. While members of the community do still adhere to a demanding daily routine centered on ora et labora, the dominant attitude that they convey is one of effervescent joy in serving the Lord. That joy rubs off on everyone who encounters them, very much including me.