Before the Council
Post-war modernity and religious vocations
in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age
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Chapter 1 provides a snapshot of the Catholic Church engaging with the modern world in the 1940s and 1950s. It examines both the global and the national Church and is the backstory to the remaining chapters, asserting a significant prehistory to the Second Vatican Council. It surveys young women’s place in the modern world of the 1940s and 1950s, considering their opportunities and their decision to enter religious life through an analysis of the ‘vocation story’. It links the specificities of their life histories to the growing global, national and institutional awareness that fewer women were saying ‘yes’ to religious life. The 1950s was often remembered as a golden age ‘when novitiates were bursting’. The archives suggest a different story that features the paucity of women crossing the monastic threshold. This phenomenon was addressed in various ways. Pope Pius XII’s apostolic constitution Sponsa Christi (1950) and subsequent international congresses advocated a renewal of religious life. Modern approaches were employed to develop a more sophisticated means of vocation promotion that was direct, public-facing and professional. The new religious discourse on the ‘modern world’ acknowledged that religious life must modernise to become more relevant and attractive to Catholic women.

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