A life of change and renewal

From left, Brennan with Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry and Dominican Sr. Donna Markham in Toronto in 1993

Years from now, when historians look back to better understand the mindsets of U.S. women religious who lived through the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath, they would be well advised to read What Was There for Me Once, a memoir by Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Margaret Brennan.

With a vantage of 65 years as a woman religious, she looks back and in an unassuming manner tells the story of her love affair with religious life during a period of monumental change. Brennan embraced this change, at times being called upon to manage and direct it, causing her bursts of excitement and reexamination, along with disappointment and a tinge of sadness, perhaps for dreams that never quite came to be.

Introducing her work by evoking the imagery of playwright Lillian Hellman, Brennan depicts her life as a layered landscape, a portrait yet to be completed. “Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: A tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by the later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”

The layers, presented as chapter headings, take the reader on a journey with the author through the second half of the 20th century as her outlook on life evolves, catalyzed by feminist spirituality and theology, and a growing Christian desire, rooted in fresh Gospel understandings, to get involved in building a more just and peaceful world. While in so many ways, Brennan’s experiences were unique, she was also a religious everywoman and for this reason her clean and simple writing will resonate widely.

The first part of Brennan’s memoir deals with her early childhood, growing up in a loving Irish-American family “in which the traditional faith was vibrant and strong” and her parents encouraging. That upbringing led Brennan to decide to enter religious life as it had been lived “largely unaltered for centuries before.”

This preconciliar church experience was fulfilling and made sense to her -- and she embraced it. Of religious life as it approached Vatican II, she writes: “While I was entirely happy in the traditional model of religious life as it had been lived for hundreds of years, I was open to the coming changes.”

Explore this NCR special report with recent articles on the topic of immigration and family separation.

By Margaret R. Brennan, IHM
Published by Novalis, $19.95

The Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were among those religious who were quick to internalize the Vatican documents and the new theologians appearing on the scene. “To use the framework of [Jesuit theologian] Bernard Lonergan, I would say that for me the change from the traditional model of religious life to the Vatican II model was a process of conversion. In involved a real change in worldview, in horizon.”

In a Vatican II insight that was to have ramifications for Brennan and countless other women religious to this very day, Brennan writes: “Our sense of how the Holy Spirit moved in our communities was reversed. The charism of a religious congregation was given to the founder for the church, not from the church to the founder [emphasis hers]. ... We began to see ourselves as ourselves -- women in the church empowered by our own Spirit-given charisms and called by God to minister with our brother priests as collaborators in the great work of evangelization.”

It was during this period of change that Brennan was elected general superior of the Monroe, Mich., Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation. According to the order’s constitutions at the time, each woman was expected to approach Brennan, kneel before her, and kiss her hand as a mark of respect and obedience. “I knew instantly and instinctively that this was not what I needed from these women who had entrusted me with leadership. And so I made my first change as general superior and asked them to give me what I most longed for and needed -- a kiss of peace.”

Brennan was fortunate that her community rested within the archdiocese of Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit, who had been a member of the commission that drafted Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.” Dearden was a strong advocate of renewal in the years that followed the council.

When I spoke to Brennan recently, she recalled a piece of advice Dearden offered her: “He said, ‘I ask you one thing. Do not ask me any questions.’ ” Those words allowed and encouraged Brennan to lead her community as the Spirit inspired her -- and she said she remains grateful to the late cardinal to this day.

Brennan’s own spiritual renewal was founded upon three pillars: the house of prayer movement, Ignatian thought, and the entrance of sisters into deeper theological education. During those years the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, under Brennan’s leadership, personally encountered the likes of Br. David Steindl-Rast and Thomas Merton. Spiritual thought seemed volcanic at the time. Brennan describes it as seeing -- and seeing again.

“A dream began to take shape in my mind. What if we had one theologian for every hundred sisters in the congregation? Perhaps then, I thought, we would be able to discuss matters as equals.” So she decided to send 10 sisters to pursue studies in various fields of theology.

She describes the decade of the 1970s as one of “global outreach” for the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters, who were setting up new missions in Asia, Africa and Latin America. With those fresh contacts with the poor and marginalized came an inevitable social and political radicalization. The missions of women religious never seemed to be more grounded.

It was also a time when religious congregations began to feel church disapproval over how they were implementing council recommendations. Some congregations lost their status as canonical institutions. Tensions between the institutional church, fastened to the status quo, and religious, advocates of the marginalized, were beginning to become pronounced. These tensions, of course, would ebb and flow for decades.

In that atmosphere, Dom Helder Camara, the dynamic Brazilian bishop, spoke in 1973 at the annual gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, with Brennan at the group’s helm. The “red bishop” called upon the women to become “Abrahamic minorities” -- persons “determined to fight in a peace-filled, yet valid way for the formation of a more just and human world.”

Those were “messy” and difficult years, Brennan writes. She watched many women leave her religious community and this caused her to rethink her ideas about religious vocations. Once she thought a vocation was irrevocable; it was a lifelong matter. Now she was thinking vocations had several dimensions. “Whether they were younger or older, many of these women who were leaving religious life had realized that they were called not to consecrated life as a religious, but to work as laypersons in the church. Exactly what is the call of religious today is something that needs a great deal of our prayer and reflection.”

The next phase of Brennan’s life involved time in Toronto, teaching for 25 years at the Jesuit-run Regis College there. These were more private years. They continued to nourish spiritual growth, and she encountered more feminist thought. She writes that she didn’t seek out a female deity to replace a male deity, but rather feminist thinking allowed her to “recover, reclaim and rename the God who is not any one person or any one thing, but is the source and the reality of all persons and all things.”

Creation spirituality, including the works of Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry, also molded her thinking. And in a yearlong sabbatical in Boston in 1984, she encountered Jungian thought and continued to let go of old notions of God, “images that were anchored in my mind but that no longer spoke to my heart. É Letting go is something that happens organically as old images are healed and transformed, and fresh ones slowly take shape out of new awareness, perception and experience.”

Sensing “it was time,” in 2001, Brennan left Toronto at age 77 to return to Michigan. Ending her teaching career was another time of “letting go.”

The idea of letting go, of emptying, was by then more than an old habit; it was another way of seeking God, seed for another insight to the divine. “To be able to let go of how and what and where the church, my religious congregation and I should be is an almost daily preoccupation that I can easily mistake for zeal,” she writes.

Brennan’s words reflect a tranquility that seems to emerge from a recognition she is not in control, that she has shed what she needed to shed, and faith moves her forward. As for religious life, Brennan likes to cite the thinking of two women religious she holds in her heart with special admiration: Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister and Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders. Each of these women holds that religious life is primarily a call to reclaim a way of life organized to pursue the human quest for God. “To keep the question of God -- and God’s questions -- high on the horizon of the world is worth the gifts of our lives,” Brennan says. And, without a doubt, her memoir attests to this purpose.

[Thomas C. Fox is NCR editor. His e-mail address is tfox@ncronline.org.]

Looking for comments?

We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.