Mother Suzanne Guillemin and the Vatican II "Revolution"

Monday, June 13, 2011

Being just 25 years old, I was born well after the Councils of Vatican II. It wasn't until college when I started studying theology and discerning did Vatican II really come into my life.

Internally, without thinking, every time I met a religious community, I evaluated in my head their faithfulness to the spirit of Vatican II – on both sides of the spectrum, too much change or too little. Outside of my own thoughts, the actual topic wasn't brought up again until I was handed a book on Mother Suzanne Guillemin, Superioress General of the Daughters of Charity during Vatican II. She was not only that but, after the second session of the Council, she was one of only eight religious women invited by the Pope as auditors to the Council. She was integrated fully in the Third and Fourth session, sharing her opinion.

Mother Guillemin did a lot for the Community and I want to say she “revolutionized” religious life in the community but I feel as if she wouldn't like that I will say instead that she helped guide the Daughters of Charity into an evolution to fit today's world, to be daughters of Saint Vincent in a world that is utterly changed from when he was alive. She changed the governance of the Daughters, modified the habit, encouraged cooperation with the laity, and pushed Sisters to be professionally trained in their ministry. As I read her reflections, I can imagine the strength it must have taken to write this and perhaps the fear she must have had to take away something that had existed from the very beginning, the cornette:
“Tomorrow, everyone should be able to recognize without the help of the cornette, the Daughter of Charity, humble without affectation, attentive to everyone, disengaged from herself, truly available, an outcome of the love of God in order to give this love to all. We should be obsessed by this true charity and examine and revise our interior and exterior attitude continually to readjust it to charity. Wherever we are, we ourselves should be the expression of charity.
On a less serious note, the cornette
inspired a certain 1960s TV show...
Why take away something like the cornette, the basic symbol of the Daughters of Charity? Mother Guillemin and the rest of the Daughters didn't implement this change for the sake of change itself, but rather to evolve the life of a Sister in today's world. St. Vincent and St. Louise founded the Daughters of Charity essentially with no specific habit. They all wore the cornette so as to blend in with the French peasants, the poor they were serving. Over the years, French fashion among the poor changed but the Daughters never did.

Before anyone thinks Mother Guillemin changed too many things or was too radical, let it be known that she, in my opinion, embodies that perfect “in between” of Vatican II that I was searching for. She did not change so much that her community left the ideals of the Catholic Church or their Founders behind, but rather she clung more tightly unto the two. She remained always faithful to the Roman Catholic Church and her fidelity to the Pope was impeccable, obedient (and pushing all the Sisters to do the same) to all the decrees of the Holy Father. Of all the changes happening during Vatican II, she wrote: “let us acknowledge clearly that evolution is not revolution, renovation is not innovation. It is not a question of making a clean sweep of the past, of rebuilding everything into something new.”

The Daughters of Charity today live on Mother Guillemin's legacy. They no longer wear the cornette, yet they continue on a “uniformity” as Mother Guillemin wanted for the community. The Sisters wear their “uniform” of blue with pride. Though the clothes themselves may be different, the blue color and the skirt/blouse combination unites them all. As an alternative to the scratchy starchy cornette, Sisters may also choose to wear a dark blue coiffe, a short veil. The governance Mother Guillemin set in place continues today, allowing for a wider and greater communication between the Motherhouse in France and countries all around the world. Her push for Sisters to complete professional training in their field evolved into what it is today, an encouragement to pursue higher education for the sake of better serving the poor.

The Sisters also follow her example of charity, which she had followed from St. Vincent and St. Louise and Sisters before her. Mother Guillemin did everything from work in an orphanage, heal and comfort the wounded of World War II as air raids played out all around her, and serve her fellow Sisters as a Sister Servant (superior of a house), Visitatrix (superior of a province), and Superioress General.

Mother Guillemin died unexpectedly in March 1968, shortly after being nominated by the Pope as a consultor of the Congregation of Religious and before the end of her term as Superioress General. Yet, I believe what St. Vincent said to the Sisters about St. Louise's death can ring true for Mother Guillemin as well: “Mademoiselle Le Gras is praying for you in Heaven, and she will not be less useful to you now than she was before, nay, more so, provided you are faithful to God”

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