In the static convent setting of the 1950's, a rigid schedule prescribed daily life down to the minute. The goal for the sisters was to achieve perfection and holiness, and the best way to do this was to remove oneself from the world to the furthest extent possible.
Everything changed in the aftermath of Vatican II, a 1962-65 council meeting in Rome of all the world's Catholic bishops, convened by Pope John XXIII to bring the church into the modern world. After the council, Pope Paul VI directed women's congregations to reach back to the wisdom of their founders to find inspiration for renewal.
The more the sisters dug into their past, the more they re-engaged with the present world. They recaptured the spirit of their original mission: to serve where there was the greatest need. And they found this need with the poor.
Seeing that charity wasn’t enough, and inspired by the great social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, sisters began seeking social justice through systemic change. They wrote their representatives, testified before Congress, held public office, marched in protest, engaged in civil disobedience, and spent time in jail. They formed model institutions such as NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, whose letter of support was instrumental in winning the last holdout votes on healthcare reform in 2010, and whose “nuns on the bus” tour in the early summer of 2012 to protest the harsh-on-the-poor Ryan Budget captured the public’s imagination.
Vatican II set into motion an unstoppable transformation of Catholic sisters that continues to this day, much to the dismay of powerful and conservative figures in the church. In early 2009, U.S. nuns learned they were to be subjected to two unprecedented investigations from Rome: an Apostolic Visitation of approximately 340 active congregations, and a doctrinal assessment of LCWR, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80% of the 57,000 sisters in the U.S. In response to this reining in by the church, sisters in the U.S. now see themselves fighting on two fronts: to change and help heal the world, and to preserve their freedom to do so.