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Women and Ministry in the 1970's: a Psychologist Reflects by Susanne Breckel, from 'Women in Ministry: A Sisters' View', National Assembly of Women Religious, Chicago, 1972

Women and Ministry in the 1970’s: a Psychologist Reflects

by Susanne Breckel,

from Women in Ministry: A Sisters' View, National Assembly of Women Religious, Chicago, 1972, pp. 83-95

BRECKEL, S. Susanne RSM. PhD in Counseling Psychology, Boston College 1964. Personnel Director, Sisters of Mercy-New England Province; Consultation Services Center, Diocese of Albany; Human Relations Development with Albany police, as formerly with Rhode Island police. Has given hundreds of workshops to Major Superiors and sisters in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and Latin America.

(* “Ministry” is used throughout this paper to signify “to minister to” or “to serve” in its broadest sense. This does not imply, however that the writer would exclude women from full participation in ministry in the Church as in the concept of ordination to ministry.)

To share reflections about religious women and their changing ministries in the Seventies without recognizing the societal climate prevailing at the present time would be unreal. When historians reflect on the seething 60’s and 70’s, I am sure they will be forced to acknowledge the influential role of a movement that has swept through the Catholic Church and world culture — a movement based on a philosophy of personalism that has been translated into action in surprising, unheralded ways.

The movement itself is based on a new and deepened awareness of the sacredness of the human person and the inherent right of each person to freedom and self-direction. Although not always recognized as such, it is in essence a Christ-message which states clearly that each person is created in the image of the Maker and therefore deserving of utmost respect and human concern. As such awareness deepens, it calls forth humanization in all societal structures and institutions, including the Church. The growth and strength of the movement can be traced to diverse and multiple facilitators. Not least among these is the communications media which has played an impressive role in bringing worldwide attention to the inhumanity of man to man as well as to the importance of what it means to be a person among persons in a world community.

One of the major and significant thrusts within the total ideological context just mentioned is what has been publicized as the women’s liberation movement. In some ways the title of this movement is deceptive, since the ultimate goal is the liberation of ALL persons from traditionally and culturally assigned stereotypic roles and from exploitative attitudes and behaviors. Whether women’s liberation as a movement is ridiculed, misunderstood, passively recognized or actively embraced, its influence as a consciousness-raising experience cannot be blithely ignored. Even the publicity surrounding its concepts and activities has brought significant numbers of men and women to a realization of the injustice of treating persons as things, of forcing individuals into static roles or modes of being, of ignoring personal potentials, and of barring individual unique responses to life and work.

As the total humanistic movement escalates in force and breadth, the Catholic Church (so long male-dominated in its structures, liturgy, hierarchy and ministry) is feeling and will continue to feel its impact. As the social climate opens more and more to the emergent woman, religious closely identified with ecclesial structures are responding, and will continue to respond, to the general discovery of themselves as persons rather than as “roles” and “functions.” In their self-discovery they are reflecting upon themselves as individuals with special God-given charismata, being called to respond to a world community, directly within the Church institution as well as outside it, in new and creative ways.

As a matter of fact, underlying the renewal efforts of most religious communities is the call to deeper Christian insight concerning the priority of lived values, and assuming a rightful first place is the sacredness of person! At present, literally thousands of women religious are scrutinizing their relationship within the Church and with the world community, challenging one another to come alive to a Spirit Who is leading in ways undreamed of even ten years ago. In many instances this search is leading religious women along uncharted paths, to a new level of faith experience, into unfamiliar insecurities, through painful personal conflicts and decisions. In noticeable ways, their discoveries are revolutionizing former institutions and structures to a deeper humanization.

Religious women are beginning to perceive that their identity, when self-identified, may differ appreciably from more familiar, perhaps more comfortable, historical definitions of past eras. With firmer insights about herself and her place in society, the religious woman senses a richer feeling of freedom and a healthier challenge from within to search for, to discover, to evaluate and grow in ways reflecting her personhood. As a predictable consequence, her aliveness to newfound needs in her world community is being formulated into honest attempts at new and more authentic (for her) modes of service. It might be noted at this point that even in the most restrictive of circumstances women religious have maintained a certain “no nonsense” creativity. With the multiplication of options and increased opportunities to choose ministries, it is impossible for anyone to predict with precision what specific forms they will take.

Assuming, however, that new modes of ministry will be discovered in the 1970’s as a direct result of the search for relevance and authenticity, it is essential that certain barriers to the search-response process be examined honestly and fearlessly. Some of these barriers being mentioned are part of the heritage of another age and culture and are seemingly imposed from elsewhere. Others, possibly more subtle, come from within the self, but are a direct result of traditional thought patterns and misconceptions. To deal with these impediments healthily, it is necessary first to acknowledge them for what they are, examining them from new vantage points in time; then it is essential to dispose of them fearlessly when it is understood that they are based on false assumptions and are irrelevant in present cultural circumstances.

Cultural Barriers to Woman’s Growth

To offer some examples of barriers to growth, let us begin by looking carefully at the cultural conditioning which has been prevalent in some form or another for centuries and which has led to unscientific conclusions in this most scientific of ages. This is the conditioning which surrounds women, their role in life, their abilities or lack of them, their supposed innate qualities, their expected responses to the culture.

If the reader would like to pause here to exercise her ability to examine the facts and assumptions relative to conditioning, she is invited to reflect seriously on the following. Note the TV commercials brought into millions of American homes daily. Ask: Is there a sexist slant to advertising? What assumptions underlie these commercials? In the media in general, are women assigned a primary or secondary role in politics, the Church, law, and the other professions? What are the peripheral leadership roles expected of women; the not too subtle discrimination in business? (This you may have to discuss with women who have experience in the business world). Continue by conjuring up in your imagination the cultural milieu in which you were brought up or in which you presently live and work. What were/are the actual expectations of the role of women? Who established these, how was it done? For each finding, formulate the probable assumptions underlying the practice.

Such an examination should lead you to the major barrier for women’s growth in personhood. This is woman’s self-concept which has been formed in a sex-prejudiced atmosphere, i.e. in a climate where males are expected to assume certain roles and females other roles, not so much in function of their abilities but as a direct result of their sex. Expectations can and often do limit the alternatives one seriously considers in personal development. This is commonly known as the “self-fulfilling” prophecy. In essence it says, What is expected of me I expect of myself and usually, in fact, will produce.

Even more devastating than conditioning are certain subtle attitudes and behaviors relating to personal growth. These are not so readily recognized and acknowledged. For example, the attitude prevalent in some circles that is best described as indifference — to change, to growth, to new responses, to widening options. This climate is created by people who feel more comfortable and thus less threatened when “things are kept as they are” is the rule. In an atmosphere where “it has always been this way” is the standard answer to suggestions for change, there is a strong tendency to stifle growth in others and to eliminate excitement, discovery, joy and life from the climate itself. As a result, otherwise viable options for response are never brought to life.

Such barriers are very real in the 1970 culture. In addition, there are those inner attitudes which may keep me from seeing the reality of what could be in myself and in others. Training may have helped to impress certain beliefs. Defenses, fears, anxieties may fixate or seriously impede my personal growth and ability to change in my responses to reality. My own internal self-expectations (as fictitious as they may be), or my own frozen role concepts, or repressed anger and resentments, or a poor self-image may keep me from becoming the person I could become.

Women religious, with their sisters at large, are suffering the penalties for not confronting themselves in their own existential being. This is true to such a degree that they may even believe they do not possess the ability for such confrontation. Thus they fall into the trap of doing the same things to themselves and to other women. How often has a mutual “putdown” been sprinkled into conversations among women. Are such phrases as “She thinks like a man,” or “I wish we could disagree and make up as men do” really complimentary? Self-mistrust has been bred in most women to such a degree that some will settle for a ministry far below ability level rather than assume a work where there is real challenge or competition. It should be noted that strange as it may sound the greater a person’s potential and achievement often the greater the fear of trying to reach for success.

A last major barrier which may undermine the whole movement toward wholeness and a deepened Christian concept of person is the very un-Christlike (and often unconscious) hostility found in our culture between men and women qua male and female. It could be that distrust and lack of understanding of themselves as persons lead directly to a lack of acceptance of other persons. For example, within the parish structure or the larger institution called Church, where is there less true dialog than between priests and sisters who are co-workers, presumed to be united in fact and in spirit, in values and in ministry?

Toward Full Personhood as Women, Religious Women

Having reflected on some possible growth barriers, let us turn our attention to positive needs for developing toward full person-hood as women. The most obvious such need is that of a new definition of person accompanied by a positive and realistic (not idealized) concept of womanhood. Where such a redefinition occurs, there results a deepening opportunity for developing attitudes of respect for self and others. Mutual support and spontaneous pride in other women’s achievements follows. A new at-easeness with self and other, the embodiment of true inner freedom, takes root.

Another need is to clarify certain thought patterns. Confusions to be straightened out and implemented clearly are: the confusion between the role and the nature of woman; and, above all, the confusion between the identity and the cultural identities assigned woman in the past. In herself woman must foster her personal vitality, creativity and flexibility. She must deepen her unique tastes and beliefs; she must acquaint herself with the realities of the culture of which she herself is a part. She must dialog with people of differing beliefs and convictions in order to deepen her own. She must be where decisions are being made and policies being formed. She must make her presence felt and her voice heard. All of this must happen in order to undo the unrealistic negative assumptions about woman’s role in forming a culture. To be influential a woman’s presence must be felt in a persuasive way, not impersonally at a safe and silent distance.

The prospect for women in new and creative ministries is not at all hopeless. There are penetrating changes in attitude and self-definition already occuring. The most important hurdle has been cleared when the conviction is accepted that the best service to another is offered when the unique potential is used to its fullest.

Since it is the thesis of this paper that creative responses will be the direct result of self-definition and choice and since these cannot be predicted with precision because of their evolving nature, one cannot look to the future and spell out specific ministries for women. However, it might be helpful to review recent happenings and to examine creative roles that have emerged as the result of a freer search-response process of religious women. Women are in the forefront of movements for racial justice, peace, creative education programs. They can be found with the poverty-stricken in cities, with the alienated, drug-addicted, run-aways. Religious women are responding in definitively new roles in parish structures, e.g. in team ministry, in pastoral counseling, in marriage counseling, in home seminars’ groups, in leading charismatic prayer groups. In some places they are bringing the Eucharist to the sick and hospitalized. They are on policy-making boards, in community action and inter-faith projects, in campus ministry. Women religious are becoming more involved in TV, communications media, in publishing and writing. There are at least thirteen women vicars for religious in the United States. Many outstanding theologians, sociologists, psychologists and educators assuming key roles in both Church and world are women. Women religious are moving individually into areas where they perceive the action to be!

Penetration into societal structures by women is coming into its own. At times this changeover has been slow and painstaking. Some sisters started community involvement with part-time voluntary services over and above their regular apostolic commitments. In other cases, sisters have actively sought full-time ministry in areas where they perceived a real unanswered need and where they discovered they were being called to respond.

What is at stake here is not a description of new role models. What is important is that fact that every person has equal opportunity to serve people in the very best way. Every person’s ministry must be directed by perceived need and personal response. Since women have traditionally not been able to explore freely who they are as persons, and since they alone can validly reflect upon themselves, women must be freed as much as possible from traditional role definitions to explore creative possibilities.

During this transitional period of search, qualities such as creativity, risk-ability, initiative and honesty must be fostered and rewarded in individuals and groups at least as much as uniformity, conformity, docility, self-deference and followership were fostered and rewarded in the past. Regardless of specific roles and functions, whatever emerges must be reflectively self-chosen, after serious consideration of need and open dialog with the world community, in the context of the individual’s religious community setting. If this does not occur, there is a real and proximate danger that the ministry needed and the ministry being offered will not coincide. This would be tragic.

When it is recognized that woman as person possesses the power to communicate, to integrate, to bring to life, to heal and to sensitize, a forward step will have been taken toward total human-ization of culture. When it is acknowledged that religious women have the ability as persons to share the Word and the Spirit in vital ministerial roles within the institutional Church, there will be still further humanization. As ministry in its new dimensions becomes more crystallized, the manner of the ministry will witness to an integrated cycle which the technological world fails to acknowledge. In the good news, the manner will clearly show that Christian response involved a three-step cycle: reception, celebration and communication.

In evaluating their ministries women must be aware that structures of themselves tend to dehumanize and to divide rather than to humanize and unite; they tend to lessen rather than increase creative alternatives for growth and change. Therefore, every structure that is associated with religion or religious must be constantly examined to see if it deadens or brings to life. Religion by definition witnesses to life! In such an evaluation the fact should be reflected upon that every living being was intended to grow to fullness and perfection but can never grow into something that it was not intended to become. From a Christian point of view, structures that tend to pressure persons to become what they were not intended to be are necessarily suspect and dangerous.


I believe the most precious offering which women religious can make to the Church and society today is a developed and mature personhood committed in ministry. God calls each person to life and to a unique, loving, free response to Him according to individual gifts and capacities. Religious women cannot afford to allow barriers to keep them from such a response, whether these barriers be emotionally, attitudinally or culturally induced.

As a pilgrim group, women religious must not allow themselves to be identified by words, descriptions or assigned roles inherited from another time and place, but rather by a lived response to a dynamic Spirited-initiated call to being and to service. This requires openness to change, increased awareness and respect for self and others, and personal responsibility for one’s own growth and maturity. It also requires an honest recognition of the barriers that stifle life and growth.

American religious women for the most part are alert, well-educated, talented, able, generous and interested in helping others to hear and respond to the Christ-message. Their greatest challenge at present is to recognize and develop their own human potential in order to give authentic response and witness to the Living Word. Since this is done only through interaction and in freedom, it is inevitable that the Sister of the Seventies be continually discovering new ways of relating with God and her fellow human beings.

Although we are all called to take part in Christ’s work of liberating persons from alienating and dehumanizing forces, it may be that modern religious woman’s singular contribution will be to witness in depth to this value-conviction. The woman who has attained the full value of her adulthood knows a security that cannot be threatened by cultural barriers or imbedded attitudes; she rests her security on goodness, truth and life, and ultimately on faith in God who originally called her into being and continues to call her into becoming. There will never be a dirth of ways for such a woman to translate her personhood into relevant ministry!

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