A panoramic view of Cincinnati.
Last Thursday’s posting related how in the fall of 1967, nearly a year after I moved to Dayton on a leave of absence from the convent, I sent a letter to Rome asking to be released from my final—solemn—vows. The Roman prelate refused my request because of its vacillation. Then, in the spring of 1968, the archbishop of Cincinnati set up a meeting for the following Saturday morning.
A friend picked me up in his Volkswagen beetle. George had studied for the priesthood, but had left before ordination. So he and I shared a mutual interest in the religious life as well as the arts. Our conversation never lagged as he drove the fifty miles from Dayton to the larger city.
The cathedral of St. Peter in Chains in downtown Cincinnati.
After entering the downtown area of Cincinnati and passing the cathedral, which occupied the corner of 8th and Plum, we came to the chancery. George waited in the car as I went inside. Upon entering the bishop’s office, I kissed his ring and then, at his request, sat on the sofa while he stood in front of his desk. I do not remember the exact words exchanged between us. Thus, the dialogue that follows gives you only the gist of our conversation.
To begin he asked, “How did you get here today? By bus?”
“A friend brought me.”
“Male or female.”
“I have but I’m not dating now.”
“What about your vow of chastity?”
That startled me. This will be hard to believe, but in the fifteen months I’d been out of the convent on a leave of absence I hadn’t once thought about my vows and about the fact that I hadn’t been released from them. Even when I wrote the letter asking to be released from my vows it didn’t occur to me that I was supposed to be living them. And yet that’s what a leave of absence was: I was away from the convent, but I hadn’t left my vows behind.
I spent a moment berating myself: How could I have been so dense? But then my common sense took hold and I said, “How can I decide if I want to return to the convent if I don’t date and enjoy a normal life outside?”
“You don’t need to date to lead a normal life. Stop dating until you’ve been released from your vows.”
He continued his interrogation. “Do you have a job?”
“I worked for Pflaum Publishing for a year and now I’m teaching religion at Julianne Academy.” (Julianne was a Catholic high school for girls in Dayton.)
“So why haven’t we received your paychecks all this time?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your paychecks should be sent here to the chancery.”
“Why?” I asked. “I need money for clothes. Rent. Utilities. Transportation around Dayton. All kinds of things.”
“I remind you again—you are under vows. You made a vow of poverty. Have Julianne send your paychecks here and we will give you a stipend to live on.”
Something within me rebelled. Abruptly I rose from the sofa and moved a step closer. “No. I’m saving for grad school. I will not ask Julianne to send you my checks.”
“You will. You’ve broken your vows of chastity and poverty already. And now you’re refusing to follow my orders. This is a serious breach of your vow of obedience.”
I simply stared at him. What he said was true: I’d forgotten I was still under vows. Yet I’d done nothing wrong. In many ways I was still living both the vows of chastity and poverty because deep down I had long ago, even before entering the convent, found contentment in living simply. Once again, however, the vow of obedience was proving difficult.
Cassock worn by Roman Catholic bishops.
When I didn’t respond to his command, the bishop pointed his right index finger at the floor in front of where he stood and said, “Kneel. I want you to recommit to your vows. Your checks will come here. You will do no more dating or driving in cars with men. You will obey my dictates. And you will come back here every month and report to me.”
I didn’t move. I could feel myself crossing the Rubicon.
“Kneel!” he said, his voice rising.
I picked up my purse and walked toward the door.
“Come back here and kneel down,” he commanded.
I turned toward him and said, “I’m never coming here again. And if you have trouble with that then get in touch with the prelate for Benedictine convents in Rome and denounce me. Maybe then I’ll be released from my vows.”
With those parting words, I left the chancery. George drove me back to my apartment in Dayton. I cried; he sympathized. I never again heard from the bishop. But it took two more years to finalize my decision. That’s next week’s post.
A 1966 Volkswagen Beetle.
Photographs from Wikipedia.