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Worker for the kingdom

30 November, 1999

The conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI) is a forum for over 80 religious congregations. Sarah Mac Donald spoke to its Director General, Sr Marianne O’Connor OSU.

Joy, we’re told is in short supply these days. Perhaps that’s why we prize those who can make us laugh so highly. But increasingly, comedians tend to opt for the salacious, the cynical, or the cruel to generate a cheap laugh – often leaving a bitter aftertaste.

Sr Marianne O’Connor, OSU, is one of the few people I know who can really make me laugh – not a wry chuckle but stomach-aching laughter accompanied by tears. Making fun out of nothing. I’ll never forget her account of her early years as an Ursuline novice coming to grips with the flour-dispensing machine in the convent bakery in Sligo. Hilarious! But there is a lot more to this Ursuline Sister than her sense of humour. Currently she holds the onerous position of Director General of CORI – the Conference of Religious of Ireland. Elected in September 2007, the organisation supports the country’s 80 or so religious congregations through 133 leaders of religious orders. They in turn represent some 9,000 religious men and women. It’s a measure of Marianne O’Connor’s spiritual conviction, intelligence, political savvy and adroitness, that she was selected to fill the shoes of the very capable Presentation Sister, Elizabeth Maxwell.

CORI’s literature underlines its role as a forum through which religious “can work together in the mission they hold in common”. Furthermore, as many of these congregations have members across all continents, “CORI has the capacity to network across the globe”. Its ethos is based on the mission of Jesus as outlined in John 20:21 and its work focuses on five main areas: education, healthcare, child protection, justice and Northern Ireland.

Fr Sean Healy, Director of the organisation’s Justice Commission and author of at least 18 books on public policy, represents the very obvious face of CORI. In Sr Marianne’s view, it is not surprising that the Justice desk has such a high profile, as CORI “believes strongly in Catholic Social Teaching and seeks to influence policy in areas aimed at bringing about a more equitable society.” She adds, “Fr Sean Healy and Sr Brigid Reynolds have built up a huge national and international reputation by doing something unique – establishing the credibility that allows economic policy be critiqued by social policy. It has taken 25 years of very hard work but look at one of their achievements – last year there were 120,000 less people at risk of poverty on account of CORI interventions.”

Education is another of those areas which is prominent on everyone’s agenda, from government to local communities and parents. As an Ursuline Sister, an order renowned for its excellence in teaching, she has a particular interest in this area and a good overview of how the system has evolved over the decades. She herself taught in Ireland and Kenya after her MA and HDip before she was appointed as a school principal. She later joined the staff of Lough Gill College in Sligo, where she served as president from 1983 to 2001. Just three years ago, she was conferred with an honorary doctorate in laws by the NUI.

One of the more contentious areas that Church bodies have been grappling with in recent years is the issue of child protection. Sr Marianne recognises that, “Only those who have suffered abuse will ever really understand the full horror and effect on a life of that abuse. The rest of us can only glimpse it and so we need to make sure as best we can of two things – that those who have suffered are helped to heal and that we keep our focus on the safeguarding of children so that it never occurs again; or if it does, given the dark side of human nature, that it is dealt with swiftly and properly.”

For over 10 years now Faoiseamh, an independent helpline set up and supported by CORI’s member congregations, has provided therapy to over 3,500 people in Ireland and overseas, wherever a victim has come forward for help. “Currently, CORI together with the Bishops and the Irish Missionary Union, is sponsoring the establishment of the Catholic National Board for Safeguarding Children. The Board, whose CEO is Ian Elliott, is set to publish standards and guidelines for the safe-
guarding of children that will, according to Sr Marianne, “bring about a ‘one church approach’ to the issue”. Asked about the impact which the abuse allegations has had on CORI’s membership, she explains that any new revelations could start a “whole new wave of criticism and that is very hard for everyone, not least for congregation leaders who have been subjected to ‘grillings’ at inquiries, trying to explain things that happened years ago and about which they had no hand, act or part.” She adds, “There are many victims in this whole sorry tale, but maybe we are a humbler church as a result.”

But lest the impression be given that CORI’s energies have been channelled solely into child protection, Sr Marianne outlines some of the other important work that the organisation is involved in. “CORI has a role in facilitating congregations with common interests to address issues such as Trafficking – APT: Act to Prevent Trafficking, which is focused on lobbying for legislative change and raising awareness of the trafficking of persons.” Elsewhere, CORI’s education desk has been “active recently over the changes to education in Northern Ireland and jointly with the Bishops in setting up what will hopefully be the Catholic Education Service (CES), an umbrella body for Catholic education.”

While the work of religious through CORI speaks for itself, many still wonder what exactly is the role of the religious in today’s society? “I think the fact that women and men opt to live a vowed life is an important witness to the reality of God – this silent witness is a reminder that there is more to life than consumerism etc. One of the things we are all aware of at the moment is the diminishing numbers in our churches and yet there is a real thirst for the spiritual – it is a search for the deeper and the ‘more’. Obviously one cannot gainsay the contribution made by religious especially to education and health in the past. However, as the number of religious declines the interesting question is what are they doing now or will do in the future?

Firstly, I see many religious orders investing huge amounts in training lay colleagues to carry on their work and in setting up new structures – e.g. the ongoing work in transferring school and hospital management to trustee associations and boards and the use of religious orders’ resources to support many projects – look at Clann Credo for example. Many religious are engaged in ministries not formally associated with them e.g. ministry with AIDS sufferers, working with immigrants, prisoners, etc. Perhaps the biggest contribution religious can make to Western society today is to witness, by their existence, to the transcendent and to gospel values. She believes the Church has not been good at “sharing its rich contemplative heritage with all. Somehow one got the impression that contemplation was reserved for a kind of elite – the inner circle. Religious don’t have a monopoly on prayer and contemplation, but they can facilitate people in coming together to deepen and explore this side of their faith.”

And why would she recommend religious life to any young woman? “Because it’s great! That is obviously not to say that it’s a bed of roses; like any other life it has its good and bad moments. But if you want a life that gives you an opportunity to touch into the sacred, and from there to reach out to others in a variety of ways – this is it!” Looking to the long-term, she explains that, “Religious themselves are reflecting on the big question of the future of religious life – and whether it has a future. I believe it has. There is an awareness that the large numbers of the last century was in itself a ‘blip’. After all, at the beginning of the 1800s there were only about 200 religious women in Ireland. The call will always be there and there will always be those who answer, however differently religious life may be lived in the future.”
But do women religious get something of a raw deal in the Church? “I think women religious are well able to hold their own! However, if the wider question is the role of women in the Church – then like child protection, it is a thorny question. I am very aware of the alienation of many women from the Church – not necessarily young women but perhaps more surprisingly – middle-aged women. I don’t think this is being recognised as yet. There is no doubt that for women in the West who enjoy equality in most other areas of life, it is difficult for them to reconcile that experience with the experience of Church. It would be great if there could be at least some kind of open conversation tha Would at least begin to air the issue.”

So, with obvious commitment and sense of joy in her faith in God, who are her inspirations? “There have been many in my life who have inspired and supported me – my parents and my family, patient accepting friends. It’s like a sort of parade of people going through my mind! St Angela Merici foundress of the Ursulines, continues to inspire after 463 years. She was a woman of God who really wanted to share her experience with other women. Her legacy is spiritual, unlike other congregations. The Ursulines were not founded for a specific work – that came later. There is a recently published book by Querciolo Mazzonis called, Spirituality, Gender and the Self in Renaissance Italy, which explores female spirituality at that time. The central character he highlights is Angela Merici. Two phrases of hers stand out for me, the ever practical and far seeing, ‘If through times and circumstances anything needs to be changed – do so, and ‘Let Jesus be your one and only treasure.”‘

This article first appeared in The Word (October 2008), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.