Twelve Questions: Sister Jane Frances O'Carroll

Sister Jane Frances O'Carroll is the first New Zealand head of the Marist Sisters worldwide, based in Rome but responsible for nuns in 15 countries. She was home for a holiday in Auckland when news of Pope Benedict's retirement broke.

Jane O'Carroll finds the religious life 'freeing'.  Photo / Brett Phibbs
Jane O'Carroll finds the religious life 'freeing'. Photo / Brett Phibbs

1. You have been missing from Rome for the biggest news in 600 years. Bad timing?

In these days of technology and instant communication, not bad timing! It will be more interesting to be in Rome during the Conclave in March, to be in St Peter's Square when the white smoke goes up.

2. What have you heard from colleagues regarding Pope Benedict's decision?

Everyone I've heard from is positive about the decision because they think he has made a wise health decision. One of the titles of the Pope is to be "The Servant of the Servants of God" . If your spiritual and mental energy runs low, it is difficult to maintain this role and the wise thing is to step aside for another young man to take up this leadership.

3. Are you surprised that in our secular age, the news has generated so many international headlines?

Quite the contrary. The Pope is an international figure and spiritual leader in our world today, of course he generates headlines.

4. Is it difficult being the female head of a religious order in such a patriarchal hierarchy?

Different people want different things and most of us want to do what we feel we are called by God to do. I have no interest in being a priest, let alone a cardinal, a bishop or a pope - That's not what I'm here for. The church gives us [sisters] legitimacy to exist but they don't interfere too much.

5. What is the biggest misconception about religious life?

One of the biggest, I think, is that somehow religious life is "restrictive" and you lose your "freedom". My experience has been quite the opposite. Religious life is a way of life centred in faith and the belief that God has called me to it. It is not for everyone, but for those who respond to this call it is a very satisfying and freeing way of life - it is not a career choice that I buy into for a few years and then drop to take up something else, it is a way of life. I am free to stay or to go, no one makes me stay, I commit myself each day to this.

6. Nuns seem quite different these days - what happened to the habits?

Our outward appearance had to change both for the perception we had of ourselves and that others had. We must be relevant to the people we are working with and don't want to do anything that causes separation. In some places we were becoming the objects of ridicule - like those Hollywood nuns who always seem to be a bit stupid and know nothing. The religious women I know are highly intelligent, highly qualified, really committed, capable and strong.

7. What is your day-to-day life like in Rome?

There are religious houses like ours dotted all over Rome. The Marist Sisters house is in an ordinary street about 20 minutes walk from the Vatican. We've got an Italian cook who has been there for 21 years and makes the best pasta you would find anywhere in the world. Great with Italian red wines.

8. Is it difficult to recruit nuns these days?

You need to understand the meaning of "recruit" - it is not like the armed forces. I believe that it is God who calls; we don't give young women their vocation to religious life, God does that. Our Congregation of Marist Sisters is still receiving young women in countries like Senegal, the Gambia, Venezuela, Fiji, Tonga, Brazil and the Philippines. Women responding to religious life from countries such as New Zealand, Australia, England, USA, Canada are few.

9. What are the benefits of a celibate life?

For me a major benefit of my vow of chastity is the freedom and impetus it gives me to go and to be among people anywhere I am called in a reconciling role, to share the gentleness and compassion of God with others in a way that is unencumbered. Being married with a husband and family may not give me quite this degree of freedom. I have the deepest respect for the married/single states of life - I just didn't choose them, I chose the one I have.

10. What changes would you like to see a new pope promote?

I would like to see "further developments" rather than "changes". The Gospel message is timeless, it's how we apply it to life today. To me, there's an awful lot of conflict in the world and big justice issues - the distribution of food and health care, the dignity of women, the protection of children. These issues are much more important to me than whether I can be a priest or not.

11. What do you miss most about New Zealand?

Tender lamb chops with mint sauce and roasted kumara.

12. Will the Catholic Church still exist in 50 years?

I believe it would take a lot more than 50 years to wind down the Catholic Church and there are so many committed people who would work hard to make sure that didn't happen. It might look from the outside like a patriarchy but it is really made up of ordinary people like us and that's where the strength is.

- NZ Herald

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