Louise O’Reilly, The Impact of Vatican II on Women Religious: Case Study of the Union of Irish Presentation Sisters, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2013.

Louise O’Reilly, The Impact of Vatican II on Women Religious: Case Study of the Union of Irish Presentation Sisters, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2013. $75.95, ISBN 978 1 4438 4840 4 (hardback), pp. xiii + 216

Reviewed by: Catriona Delaney, University College Dublin, May 2018

Recent scholarship has highlighted the lacuna in our understanding of the history of female religious. Indeed, the level of historical interest in Catholic religious orders has traditionally been confined to the histories of founders and foundresses, general histories of religious congregations, or overviews of specific religious institutions and their apostolic activities. This narrow scholarship is particularly evident in the many historical accounts which have ‘explored’ particular aspects of the Presentation Order, including the life of their foundress, the evolution and expansion of the order, and commemorative publications which seek to celebrate their many educational institutions. The Impact of Vatican II on Women Religious: Case Study of the Union of Irish Presentation Sisters is therefore unique in that it is the first study to be undertaken on this specific group of female religious which challenges the traditional scope of their convent histories. For that reason alone, O’Reilly’s innovative research is a welcome addition to academic enquiry. Moreover, her ability to gain access to, and to present in a cohesive and engaging narrative, diverse and unique archival material pertinent to this study provides a valuable insight into developments in the post-Vatican II period. Finally, in giving a voice to the women themselves by incorporating personal correspondence and oral testimonies into the analysis of her findings, O’Reilly makes an important contribution to the history of women religious.

This study is constructed chronologically with each chapter exploring the key events which helped shape and transform the lives of the Presentations from the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 to the culmination of union in 1984 when the final convent joined. The introduction provides a concise history of the congregation and highlights some of the major changes to religious life in the period directly before and during the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65. In identifying the decree, Perfectae Caritatis, as the blueprint for change in religious life, O’Reilly clearly charts how its proposals were received, devised, and finally enacted by the Presentation Order. It would be short-sighted to assume that this publication is limited by its subject choice. While the core narrative is inspired by the recommendations of Vatican II and how these proposals altered the lives of the Presentation Sisters, it is important to note that the study as a whole serves the broader purpose of providing an insight into change in the wider Catholic Church and the lives of female religious more generally.

Perfectae Caritatis, and its ‘up-to-date renewal of religious life’ was promulgated on 28 October 1965 and according to O’Reilly gave women religious the ‘opportunity to implement changes’ (p. 19). These changes, as outlined in the decree, included the reorganisation of the governing structures of religious institutes, the revision of constitutions, directories, and books of customs, and offered women religious the agency to oversee and implement these changes for themselves. For the Presentation Sisters, the recommendations of Perfectae Caritatis provided an opportunity to incite very real change in their institute and, as O’Reilly demonstrates throughout this study, the most notable changes were made in the areas of governance, agency, and amalgamation.

From its first publication in 1805, the constitutions of the Presentation Order were defined by rules concerning the governance of the institute. In its simplest form, the Presentations were governed by a tiered system of authority which accorded the local bishop supreme control over the congregation. Within the order, the Reverend Mother held the primary position of power and she had at her disposal an Assistant, a Bursar and a Mistress of Novices collectively referred to as the ‘Discreets’. This system of governance created an internal division within the congregation and, as O’Reilly suggests, that division was defined by ‘those who held office and those who were subjects’ (p. 29). Although the constitutions had been revised on numerous occasions throughout the lifetime of the order, the principal governing structures remained largely unaltered. The governance of the Presentation Order had an acute impact on the lives of the women who entered and as one sister recalled, ‘our training has taught us that blind obedience to the rules and regulations of the house and superior was what led to sanctity’ (p. 33). However, the recommendations made in Perfectae Caritatis challenged these traditional assumptions and indicated that ‘a more democratic form of government, in which all members were to be involved at some level’ should be devised (p. 20). O’Reilly argues that revising the constitutions was central to reorganising the governing structures of the Presentation Order.. O’Reilly charts the process of revision from the initial redrafting in 1976 to its final submission for approval to Rome in 1986. Her discussion is comprehensive and, if examined in isolation, may appear tedious. However, for those with an interest in canonical history or the laws prescribing religious communities, this study offers an invaluable insight into the radical changes that occurred as a result of Vatican II, changes which transformed Catholic religious congregations out of all recognition. Under the directives of the new Presentation constitution, the ‘mission of the congregation was now to be the responsibility of the whole community’ (p. 151) and the purpose of the government was restructured to provide leadership as opposed to imposing obedience. As O’Reilly concludes, this transformation was ‘a huge development in the Presentation history’ (p. 150).

Through the removal of notions that ‘superiors are superiors and subjects are subjects’(p. 30) a new sense of freedom and agency for every sister was realised. This idea of female religious agency was completely at odds with the authoritarian system of governance which had prescribed the lives of the Presentation Sisters for almost 200 years. Indeed, agency was advocated by Vatican II through Perfectae Caritatis which stated that ‘the institutes themselves . . . [should] have responsibility for renewal and adaptation’ (p. 35). According to O’Reilly, ‘for many women religious this was the first time ever to exercise such authority over their lives’ (p. 35). It might be expected that the Presentations would struggle in comprehending this new agency, however, it appears that the opposite was the case. In general, the Presentations responded positively to the recommendations of Vatican II and moved quickly to assert their newfound authority. Notable agency can be seen in their readiness to organise meetings and general chapters to discuss how they might implement the recommendations of Vatican II. Moreover, they were among the first Catholic religious order to actively consider, and ultimately achieve, union. Through O’Reilly’s examination of these events a more radical agency emerges, particularly in terms of the altered relationship between the Presentations and the Catholic hierarchy. Although Rome, through its Vatican II documents, appeared to support female agency, O’Reilly argues that ‘the freedom given to religious, especially in regard to drafting their own rule and constitution, was met with caution by some bishops and open hostility by others’ (p. 173). While historians of women religious would not be unfamiliar with such interactions and tensions, O’Reilly’s discussion of how the Presentations managed these situations illustrates the break with traditional modes of governance and administration. Indeed, their diminishing of the traditional role of the local ordinary to that of ‘advisor’ (p. 36), and their open objection to local bishops dictating the revision of their constitutions (pp. 44-6), provides an illuminating insight into the changing roles of women religious and the Catholic hierarchy in the post Vatican II period. Through O’Reilly’s examination of the impact of Vatican II on the lives of the Presentation Sisters there emerges an obvious sense of agency and a freedom to decide and envisage what their future might look like.

From the late 1960s, ‘interest among the sisters in the re-organisation and re-structuring of the congregation’ began to emerge (p. 39). Regional amalgamation, provincial amalgamation, and national federation were initially presented as possible options for the future structure of the order (p. 39). O’Reilly chronicles the subsequent discussions and events that eventually led to union from the Green Hills seminar in July 1972 where the idea of union was fostered through to when the last convent joined the union in 1984. O’Reilly has suggested that the Presentations themselves felt that union was necessary ‘for its (the congregation’s) future survival’ (p. 69). However, the structured analysis to this study clearly indicates that the road towards union was a far more complex affair and was affected by a number of factors including ‘changes to the rule and constitution, changes in Irish education, ecclesiastical pressure from within Ireland and Rome and far-reaching changes brought by the Second Vatican Council’ (p. 171). Moreover, some sisters were hesitant about change and cited ‘the loss of independence and fear of losing traditions’ among their main concerns if union were achieved (p. 65). In examining both the positive and negative reactions to union, O’Reilly creates a new body of resource material that incorporates the voices of female religious themselves. To the uninformed, O’Reilly’s examination of the movement towards union might, as one commentator of Lyons’ comparable study on the union of the Mercy Sisters, be described as ‘boring’.[1] However, when one considers the radical nature of this development, in that for almost two hundred years the Presentation convents of Ireland and the world were independent and autonomous, a greater appreciation for the complexities involved in documenting this venture is recognised. O’Reilly’s ability to gather extensive research from archives in Ireland, England, and Rome, and to present her findings in a clear and comprehensive narrative is testament to her skills as a historian.

O’Reilly’s exploration of the impact of Vatican II on the lives of female religious through the prism of the Presentation Sisters adds a new dimension to academic enquiry in the field. Her careful consideration of themes such as governance, agency, and amalgamation provide a clear exploration of how the Catholic Church and its religious institutes were reimagined in the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, the chronological approach to this study, which covers the period 1965-84, allows for a detailed and comprehensive investigation of the main events which transformed the mission, purpose, and lived experience of an eighteenth-century religious community and brought them in line with the needs and requirements of modern times. In much the same way that the Union of the Irish Presentation Sisters was at the forefront of Catholic religious amalgamations, this seminal study should serve as a hallmark for further research on the broader impact of Vatican II, the history of the Presentation Sisters, and the lives of female religious more generally.

[1] See Mary Lyons, Governance Structures of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy. Becoming One, The Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston, 2005. $109.95 / £ 69.95, ISBN 0-7734-6186-8 (hardcover), pp. xiii +264. Reviewed by Dr. Joos van Vugt, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands.