Having seen the well-reviewed film Novitiate, I can’t imagine why anyone without a Catholic background would care in the least how nuns in the early 1960’s navigated the changes from a traditional Roman Catholic church to a post-Vatican II one.
But I do have a Catholic upbringing, and I was a student at the College of St. Elizabeth, run by the Sisters of Charity, in that era. Some of my college classmates entered the Sister of Charity, exactly during that period. I found Novitiate fascinating.
The larger theme of the film is how people who have tied their identity to a set of traditional norms and beliefs adapt, or fail to adapt, to an evolving understanding of “the rules” as the world moves along. On the “fail to adapt” side is Reverend Mother, played brilliantly by Melissa Leo. If your idea of movie nuns came from Peggy Wood as the kindly Mother Abbess in 1965 version of Sound of Music, forget all of that. Leo’s Reverend Mother is angry, rigid, patronizing, anguished over the changes, cruelly sadistic to the Sisters under her rule, resistant to the attempts of the Archbishop to move her along, arrogantly sure that hers is the Voice of God within the walls of her convent. Bravo to Melissa Leo for giving her character depth while making her so universally unlikeable. Juliane Nicholson plays the hard edged single mother of the newly entered Sister Cathleen, and I all but cheered out loud when Nicholson, demanding an interview to talk about her daughter’s shocking loss of weight, tells the smug Reverend Mother, “Lady, I don’t care who you think you are, but I’m not calling you Mother.”
The process of religious formation as depicted in the film rang true to me, based on what I know from my close-up view. One of my classmates who entered the convent was turfed out by just such a sadistic Novice Mistress as the one portrayed in the film. The experience caused my friend mental anguish from which she had not fully recovered some 50 years later, when we talked about coming to our college reunion. I also recall the tension among the College faculty during our era — then mostly nuns — between the traditionalists and those who welcomed the changes brought by Vatican II. I don’t know what those responsible for forming young Sisters thought they were doing years ago, but looked at 50 years later and with more life experience, religious formation prior to Vatican II looks like a lot of intentional psychic torment and cruelty. The convent was an unfortunately fertile environment for older women with a sadistic bent wanting to act out their misplaced sense of power.
As we got up to leave the theater, a couple next to us also arose. The man, apparently not someone with much prior exposure to nuns, said to his wife, “Jeez, they were kinda cult-y, weren’t they?” Yep. Kinda cult-y.
I had some dear friends, now dead, who remained Sisters of Charity. I suspect they went through that sort of formation, and yet they stayed. They felt called to religious life, loved living in a community of women, and did a lot of good in the world. They were really happy about the more open and emotionally healthy life nuns were able to lead after the turmoil of the early 1960’s.
I can hardly reconcile the loving, intelligent, emotionally mature women I knew later with who they may have had to be, much younger, to get through that Novitiate year.