The Prodigal Daughters

The Prodigal Daughters

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prodical1Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church,  By Donna Steichen (1999) Published by Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA

He said: How many hired servants in my father's house abound with bread, and I here perish with hunger? I will arise, and will go to my father, and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee: I am not worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.  And rising up he came to his father. And when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and running to him fell upon his neck, and kissed him.” (Luke 15:17-20)

Baby Boomers are a much-covered phenomenon, famous for their rebellion and independence. In the aftermath of the Boomers’ tumultuous coming-of-age in the 1960’s and 70’s, millions of young Catholics embarked on spiritual paths that took them light-years from the Church.

In Prodigal Daughters, Editor Donna Steichen brings together the stories of seventeen women who found their way home again. Fellow Baby Boomer Robert Beaurivage talks about his reaction to the stories of his spiritual sisters, in this review.

What gives our lives meaning?  Prodigal Daughters presents us with the beguiling stories of seventeen women writers of my generation who grappled with this existential challenge successfully. We Baby Boomers can relate to them, because their struggles are our struggles.

A good story needs a compelling setting, and there is no more compelling period in recent Catholic and American history than the great social upheaval of the 1960’s and their aftermath.  Indeed, we all deal with the consequences of those times every day.

Christ Himself told such stories to illustrate and reinforce the great Truths He was teaching. Today, even people who do not know the Bible know about the “Prodigal Son.” Prodigal Daughters invokes this most compelling theme: finding one’s way back home against great odds.

Today, even people who do not know the Bible know about the “Prodigal Son.” Prodigal Daughters invokes this most compelling theme: finding one’s way back home against great odds.

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In each of these stories, we meet these engaging women so like our sisters and friends — with backgrounds ranging from the ultra-feminist to the new age aficionado, to the recovering alcoholic.  The roads they navigated differ broadly, but they all led back to the bosom of the Father: salvation through His Son, a sacramental life and the grace abounding in the Catholic Church.

In Prodigal Daughters, each woman recounts her way home, a story both delightful and moving for us in the retelling. The baby-boomer generation’s formative years were the time of Vatican II, Vietnam, race and war riots, “free love” and the “New Feminism.”  It was also the age in which Pope Paul VI said “the smoke of Satan” had entered the Church.  Dietrich von Hildebrand, an intellectual giant whose genius was recognized by various Popes, authored a book about this time period entitled “The Devastated Vineyard.”

And a devastated vineyard it was. Boomers across the U.S. studied the ordered certainties of the Baltimore Catechism one year, and the next were presented with “catechisms” entirely denuded of the supernatural. One year Boomers had First Friday Devotions, the Rosary and the study of the “Four Last Things.” Then suddenly, like a clap of thunder, these were summarily replaced by guitar Masses in the school basement and revolutionary “missionaries” giving lectures to Catholic school kids.

As anyone who lived through those times can recount, there was no place to hide. In my own experience, I can look back and realize that if anyone attending my school kept the Catholic Faith through that time, theirs would be a miracle of grace.

The Baby Boomer generation’s formative years were the time of Vatican II, Vietnam, race and war riots, “free love” and the “New Feminism.”  It was also the age in which Pope Paul VI averred that “the smoke of Satan” had entered the Church. 

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There was no place to hide. In my own experience, I can look back and realize that if anyone attending my grammar school kept the Catholic Faith through that time, theirs would be a miracle of grace. 

These unsettling years of the devastated vineyard were the formative times of these writers. As Leila Habra Miller so succinctly put it:

“We were robbed…The overwhelming majority of young Catholics don’t have even a rudimentary understanding of their faith.  As a direct result of their tragic ignorance, a steady stream of young Catholics has poured out of the Church.”

I would hazard that Prodigal Daughters is a great book for a skeptic, as well. (After all, what a great opportunity to gain an inside look at how these intelligent women could inexplicably return to the source of so much ignorance, patriarchal repression and superstition!) One of the writers, Constance Buck, relates her musings concerning a devout Catholic, a daily communicant she worked with on Capitol Hill.   Mrs. Buck was bewildered by her colleague’s cheerfulness.

“… I regarded cheerfulness as a quality suited to morons.  Knowing about male violence, the loss of our precious environment, the trampling on human rights around the globe, not to mention the incalculable tally of sexual and racial discrimination in our own capitalist country, what intelligent person could be cheerful?”

Mrs. Buck could not understand it: she had never met anyone as cheerful as her Catholic coworker who though possessed of her own ideas, always based these on a bedrock “God-given principle.”  (Perhaps the irony of the situation escaped Constance at the time: while she had followed a path towards an illusory promise of fulfillment, it was she who grew to regard cheerfulness as the province of the unthinking.)

It is so easy for us to bring our own basic assumptions to bear on others.  Since these women have been on both sides of the fence, we can learn a great deal from their experience.  Juli Loesch Wiley is a notable example.  A former member of Pax Christi, she rubbed elbows with many feminist media figures such as Sr. Joan Chittister and Bishop Thomas Gumbleton.

“My habitual effort to look happy – or as happy as was consistent with the knowledge that the world in general is not going well – was replaced by actual hope and soaring joy. I realized how much despair I had been carrying around as a skeptic.”

As a wise priest once said, ‘be kind to the person sitting next to you, as he/she could be the next saint.’  Juli was such a person – a liberal feminist, but truly well intentioned, with a desire to protect innocent human life which eventually brought her into sharp conflict with her fellow travelers of the religious sisters at Pax Christi.

Had we met Juli in her early days, we might have judged her harshly. As we learn from her story, she was on the path back home, though we might

have missed that point entirely.  Even many of her companions had very fine qualities, and deserve our sympathy, if not our support. Juli relates the kindness and devotion of the Sisters: “the Pax Sisters are so good: brave, warm-hearted, justice-loving, prayerful, loyal. That's what makes conflict with them so difficult.”

Yet, Juli Wiley did not let her attachment to the Sisters get in the way of her devotion to the unborn. She recognized the incongruity of the nuns observing Tisha b'Av (the Jewish day of mourning the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem) to commemorate the “injustices” done to the pro-abortion nun Sr. Mansour:

“What desecrates the Temple of the child's body, if not abortion?  What destroys the Temple of the Church, if not organized defiance of the Church's too-infrequent attempts to guard her moral integrity?  (I realized) that these Benedictines are true daughters of those who destroyed the Temples – not those who mourn them.”

For the believer, this book provides hope in large helpings.  As the story of the Prodigal Son illustrates, there is always a road back.  Light overcomes darkness, Truth ultimately wins over error, and the infinitely merciful Heart of Christ is greater than any sin that He has already vanquished.

If the great truths of our existence, if true knowledge is to be found in Divine Revelation – even in our modern age – then the stories of these intelligent, brave women are surely a cause for us to take note and rejoice.  They were so far away, yet made the improbable journey home.

The stories of these intelligent, brave women are surely a cause for us to take note and rejoice.  They were so far away, yet made the improbable journey home. 

Catholicism presupposes an objective truth, as a religion based on the historical Person of Jesus Christ, and a commitment to Him. He calls Himself in Scripture, “The Truth.” (John 14:6)

In the intellectual environment of the day, finding Him can be so very difficult, because the concept of “truth” seems foreign to so many, as it did to writer Maureen Quakenbush:

“Truth”, for me, had been a very limited notion, insofar as I had had a notion of it at all. Long before that time, I had accepted the principle that there is no truth, that all is relative in this world of mirrors. People who divide the world into the true and the false, I thought, fail to see all the gray areas – which are chiefly in the moral realm. I think this is the natural conclusion of a mind that hasn't learned to reason clearly, whenever the resolution of two conflicting views would mean that one reputable person's deeply held conviction must be wrong. Or, worse, that someone would have to change what he is doing.

Yet, the mere realization that there actually is a truth changed everything for her: “My habitual effort to look happy – or as happy as was consistent with the knowledge that the world in general is not going well – was replaced by actual hope and soaring joy. I realized how much despair I had been carrying around as a skeptic.”

Having imparted a small sampling of the many surprises in “Prodigal Daughters”, I will leave you with one more: an insight in the form of a prayer from Constance Buck who, after receiving this awesome gift of truth, realized at the same time her responsibility to proclaim the truth always with love:

“O God, first make me a good person, a virtuous person, a loving person. Then give me the truth.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Beaurivage,  himself a “prodigal son” obtained a law degree as a second career, and has a special interest in traditional Catholic liturgy and theology. He currently lives in Southern Maine.

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