St. Paul, of course, was right. When I was a child I really did think like a child—and for that, I would like to apologize to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto, the wonderful women who ran the secondary school I attended way back in the 1970s.
I arrived in high school a little more than a decade after Vatican II began, heady days when we still believed so much was possible. The practical reforms we’d heard about had begun to unfold around us. While I received my first communion kneeling at an altar rail, I was likely one of the last children in my parish to do so. The nuns once swathed in yards of serge now appeared in either a modified habit or, more frequently, modest street clothes. Our grad year retreat included seniors from the local boys’ school. Change was the new normal and we were confident there was a place for all of us in this exciting new 20th-century Church.
So when the sisters teaching our religion classes would speak about the importance of inclusive language, for example, my classmates and I, largely daughters of privilege, would roll our eyes, groaning about how we all knew that the word mankind, for example, included us. We were confident this was a minor hurdle because we had been promised change. It just didn’t matter.
As we all headed out into the workforce, though, we began to experience the desire to be recognized as ourselves and not subsumed into a category that at once acknowledged one gender while neatly bypassing the rest of us. By 1984 I was a reporter in a local newsroom, a place that was still a bastion of sexism, and I developed an appreciation for the call for inclusive language, a trend that has long since become the norm in so many places, including newsrooms—although still not yet in many quarters of my church. While change is taking place, the pace can feel glacial.
Long before the notion of community service for students became popular, the sisters expected us to serve society. For that reason, I found myself, more than a little sheepish and self-conscious, picketing the local grocery store where my mother shopped, attempting to enlighten shoppers about the challenges faced by the migrant workers picking grapes in California. Memories of those days came back to me at the height of COVID, when I read of pandemic outbreaks among local migrant farmworkers lacking the same protections the rest of us had.
Far more immediate was a stint in our local children’s hospital, taking patients down to Mass on Sunday mornings. One morning, the first patient I wheeled downstairs was a classmate. She had a reputation for being trouble, but that day I learned she had both an eating disorder and had been battered by a parent. It’s a lesson I have never forgotten.
Today, many of the teenagers I encounter who are active in the Church are vocal in their desire for a return to more traditional ways—mantillas, more kneeling, more opportunities to attend adoration or to say the rosary. We each worship in our own way, and I certainly respect the right to focus on forms I may not normally participate in, but I am sometimes left with the question of where all this leads. Call me a child of the 70s, but if that personal relationship you are developing with Jesus is an end point rather than a starting one, I can’t help but be disappointed.
Today I am a white-haired grandmother. If my children attend Mass, it’s largely to keep me company. My Church is riven with a division often fueled by secular politics, and the change upon which I had built my youthful hopes simply hasn’t manifested itself to the degree I had expected. I now realize my life is finite, and I mourn the fact that I will die before so many of the developments I had hoped to see become a reality. Today’s Church does not hold out the same promise to my children that it did to me.
Now I understand—and appreciate—the urgency of the women who taught me. They understood that they stood between the paternalistic institution they had entered and a more egalitarian vision of Church that would allow all of us to share our gifts in our own unique ways. Experience made the sisters prescient about what the next generation of Catholic women needed to know.
My classmates became teachers and social workers, healthcare professionals and volunteers, all with an understanding that the many gifts we had been given should be given back. Instilled in all of us was a sense of purpose and dignity and value, and we headed out into the world — and the 1980s—with a view that we could make a difference.
More than 40 years on, we are still waiting for our Church to catch up.
Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.