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Thursday, 15 May 2014 10:29

60 years in religious life in a changing church in a changing world

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Sister Pat Bartley rsj looks back at 60 years of her vocation and finds that a phrase from among her Jubilee greetings encapsulates the joys and challenges in the story of her religious life.

“OPEN TO CHANGE” was one of the affirmations I received among my Jubilee greetings - and the question is, why not be open to change when we recall the inspiring words of Cardinal J. H. Newman - “to change is to grow and to change often is to become perfect!” No one has proceeded to the latter statement in their affirmation of me, but we keep trying!

As my father was a Returned Soldier from WW1 and an avid collector of memorabilia, my brother and I were quite familiar with that period of our national history, and well aware of the implications of Australia’s entrance into WW2. As soon as Reg turned 18 he enlisted in the RAAF. Some years later when I was trying to win my father’s consent to enter religious life, I put it to him that this was my way of contributing to the good of my country - I had been captivated by the ATS pamphlet “The Cry of the Children” highlighting the need for religious education in Australia.

From the moment I stepped into the Novitiate greeted by other young women like myself, I knew there was no going back, despite my mother’s deep distress at what she felt was losing her only daughter. The view of religious life at that time was a complete cutting off from family and “the world”. From the time I left home, until the week he died my Dad wrote me a weekly letter which always began “my dear Little Sweetheart”.

At this time Sisters were only allowed a day visit to their family with a sister companion and took their refreshments in a separate room. We were always dressed in “full habit” at home and “abroad” - whatever the climate.

As a special concession when my Dad retired I was given permission to return to Werris Creek with my then Superior, stay at the local Convent and visit during the day. My parents were overjoyed at this.

Our daily regime commenced with rising at 5.00am, followed at 5.25am by prayers, meditation and Mass (in some country places we only had Mass twice a week). Meals were taken in silence accompanied by spiritual reading. There was evening recreation for an hour, followed by prayers and the “great silence”. Weekends/holidays brought some variations.

There were no lay sisters in the Sisters of St Joseph (added appeal for me) so we shared all duties. This was religious life, what I had expected and freely chosen in response to God’s “call”.

Our enlightened Superiors ensured that we Sisters availed ourselves of every opportunity to attend gatherings, conferences, lectures etc which focussed on the information emerging from the Second Vatican Council -and we needed little encouragement! For me, this experience was reinforced when I studied Theology in ‘72 and discovered the Commentary on the Documents of Vatican 11 by Herbert Vorgrimler.

Secondary Teaching had become more demanding when the Wyndham Report came into operation in 1960 and set out a whole new curriculum including compulsory study of Science by all students. At Milperra, Glen Innes and Quirindi, I arrived just in time for the building and equipping of new Science Laboratories - very new experiences for me!

One of my first learnings when taking on the role of Principal was handling finances - up to this point I had never signed a cheque!

During the 70’s there was much activity at both Provincial and Congregational levels in implementing Vatican II’s insights into religious life. So Religious Life and our relevant educational ministries were both moving us into change. Opportunities for overseas studies brought a whole new dimension to Religious Life - a broadening of the purely local perspective, a greater sense of belonging to the Universal Church, cultural enrichment, and development of knowledge/skills relevant to the modern world and fitting us for Ministry. This was a totally unexpected period of my life - certainly part of the “hundredfold”!

In the words of T.S.Eliot: “..the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

So with the closing of St Margaret’s I arrived back in the Armidale Diocese, feeling I was somewhat hearkening back to the origins of my vocation, and having many reasons to recall often the words of St Mary MacKillop: THERE WHERE YOU ARE YOU WILL FIND GOD.

Read this article in full where it was first published, in the Autumn 2014 edition of Catholic Viewpoint, the quarterly magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Armidale.