GLASGOW — Founding a religious order has never been an easy task. But it must be twice as difficult under the full-time gaze of the mass media.
Ever since Sister Roseann Reddy, 37, broke the news of the foundation of the Sisters of The Gospel of Life, in Glasgow, Scotland, in January 2000, the camera, the notebook and the microphone have never been far away.
The British Broadcasting Corporation even devoted one of its flagship documentaries on the birth of the first new British congregation since the 19th century.
Reddy had already been a high-profile figure, coordinator of the late Cardinal Thomas Winning's controversial pro-life initiative which was dubbed “cash for babies” by the media, when it was set up in March 1997 to help any woman with a crisis pregnancy.
But as the initiative developed — it has helped 374 babies and their moms — so did a deeper stirring in her soul, which had started five years earlier.
“In 1992, a priest friend of mine who was involved in the Faith Movement (a U.K. Catholic youth movement) asked me if I had ever thought of being a nun. I just laughed and said, ‘Why would I want to be a nun?” He said, ‘Because you love God and you want to serve him.’”
She recalled, “I have never been a person for half measures. When my priest friend said that, it struck something.”
Yet it was later that decade she took time out from the Pro Life Initiative, with the cardinal's blessing, and spent time with the Sisters of Life in New York.
“I had a very good experience with the sisters but I was convinced that we needed something similar in the U.K.”
The result was an informal gathering of women, who met under the watchful eye of the cardinal, a noted canon lawyer, and started meeting together to pray, reflect and study the Church's teaching on religious life.
“The Church has such rich and wise teaching on the religious life — we got most of the documents off the Internet,” she recalled.
Another essential text for the fledgling order was Pope John Paul's encyclical Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life, which is studied with the rigor that novices in long-standing orders explore the charism of their founder.
One scene filmed by the BBC summed up the order for primetime viewers. Would-be sisters discussing their habit in a trendy wine bar with the immortal words, “We don't want anything too frumpy.”
This combination of media exposure and respect for Church norms has proved a great witness.
She laughed, “I have to go shopping late at night sometimes, as we cannot go to the supermarket without people stopping to talk to us either because of the habit or because they have seen us on TV.”
Armed with a lethal combination of sharp intellect and a stand-up comedian's gift of timing, she can give a robust, but compassionate, apologetic for the Church's teaching on sexuality and pro-life issues to any audience from the most cynical media sophisticate to hormone-charged teens.
Sister Roseann admits she too, once fell for the pro-choice line.
“I used to believe it was a woman's right to choose when I was a teen-ager. Like many people, I didn't know what I was talking about! But that didn't stop me holding these opinions.”
Her views started to shift radically following Pope John Paul II's visit to Scotland in 1982.
“He spoke about the need, when you choose for your future, not to choose for yourself alone. He said whatever decision you make, you should make a decision that will last,” she said. “This had quite an impact on me, I had left high school and was unemployed. My mum had died the year before and I had given up my job to look after my dad and my three brothers.
“Mother Teresa came to a big pro-life rally the same year. She made it seem so simple and so important that we did something.”
Over a period of time she ended up working for the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (known as SPUC) and later for the Glasgow Archdiocese Pastoral Care Department.
One of her former bosses, John Smeaton, Director of SPUC, has no doubt about the significance of both the pro-life initiative and the formation of the Sisters of the Gospel of Life.
“I think both the pro-life initiative and the work of Sister Roseann Reddy are prophetic. The Pope said in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae that we have to build a culture of life in the face of the current culture of death and the pro-life initiative and the sisters are part of this.”
Pro-choice groups have given a curious reaction to the initiative and the sisters with a marked absence of feminist rancor against celibate women engaging in pro-life counselling.
More Than Choice
Even Amanda Callaghan, Public Affairs Manager of British Pregnancy Advisory Service, one of the United Kingdom's main abortion promoters, seemed unwilling to criticize the foundress.
“Sister Roseann, whatever her religious beliefs are,” said Callaghan, “is not trying to stop anybody having an abortion. She is just helping women who have already made that decision to go through with the pregnancy and are looking for help.”
But the nun's ministry is more than that. Take “Bernadette,” who gave this testimony on the BBC documentary.
“It was actually my boyfriend that contacted the Pro-life Initiative as I wanted an abortion and he had strong views against it,” she said.
“I was frightened, guilty and devastated.
“I am not stupid or easily influenced but I am so grateful that people actually tried to stop this and help and support people by listening. So many babies die because of fear. I feel so guilty that mine was very nearly one of them.”
The sisters currently number Sister Roseann and cofounder Sister Andrea Fraile; they are due to be joined another novice in September.
They are opting for slow but sustained growth underpinned by a sustained community prayer life, including daily Mass, eucharistic adoration and the recital of the Pope's prayer from Evangelium Vitae.
The sisters are currently undergoing the painstaking but vital work of writing their constitution and for three years will scale down their role with the Pro-Life Initiative for the intense spiritual stage of their formation.
Their only regret is that their mentor, Cardinal Winning, died June 17 this year, and will not be able to celebrate Mass for their final vows.
“He celebrated Mass in our oratory for our first vows. He gave a 25-minute homily for just the two of us, it was amazing,” recalled Sister Roseann.
They are preparing for the long haul yet paradoxically Sister Roseann has this vision: “I pray for the day when an order like ours will not be needed because all life is respected from conception to natural death.”
But she added, “I cannot see it happening just yet.”
Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.