ON JUNE 24 a gaggle of elderly nuns, some clutching walking sticks and zimmer frames, will gather excitedly in the main concourse at Gatwick Airport, bound for the sunny (they hope) climes of picturesque Switzerland. The occasion is the departure day of the annual holiday of the Association of Senior Religious (ASR), a jamboree which regularly sees 25 or 30 sisters from a variety of orders packing their bags for ten fun-filled days of coach trips, high teas and sing-alongs.
Chatter about the forthcoming vacation filled the tea-room during an afternoon break at the ASR's annual conference, held a couple of weeks ago in Liverpool. There was talk, too, of other events the organisation is running in the near future — outings to stately homes, a canal boat cruise, a flower-arranging demonstration. In an age when we are bombarded with statistics about how top-heavy the church's religious orders are, the group which caters for their social needs is clearly one of the busiest of those listed in the annals of the Catholic Directory.
Sr Bernadette Holland, the grey-haired Lancastrian matriarch who presides over the ASR conference (her official title is that of national secretary, but there's no doubting that she's the person at the helm), agrees that hers is a busy lot. "Oh yes," she says, with feeling, "there's plenty going on. We're well known as an organisation which has activities galore. We've got lots of members, you see, and groups all around England."
Membership of the ASR, which was set up in 1974 for Notre Dame sisters and gradually expanded to include members of other religious orders, is open to any nun, brother or priest who is aged 50 or over, (although only one male — a de la Salle brother called John — was in evidence at the annual conference). At last count there were 400 plus names, overwhelmingly female, on the books, "though it's difficult to keep an accurate count, what with people dying and so on," remarks Sr Bernadette.
The aim of the organisation is to give retired and elderly religious the chance to get out and about, get to know new friends and have a bit of a social life — meeting needs which
become .apparent when aboveaverage numbers of senior nuns
coincided with the enhanced leisure opportunities afforded for religious after Vatican II.
"Basically, what happened was that about 15 years ago lots of nuns were retiring and they were at a bit of a loose end. Also, they had been given — often for the first time in their lives — the chance to go away on holiday, and many of them just didn't have anywhere to go. Their families and friends had all gone, and they were on their own. So the ASR was set up to provide elderly nuns with a group of like-minded companions for trips and holidays," explains Sr Odile, a Sister of St Mary of Namur who is press officer of the ASR.
There were spiritual needs, too, which the association could help meet. "What happened at Vatican II and after was that nuns tended to move out of their big convents into smaller houses, even flats, and of course in these places there weren't often resident priests to care for their spiritual needs," says Sr Odile. "So another thing we've been able to do is provide days of recollection and retreats geared to the needs of elderly religious, which helps stimulate their prayer lives." This approach has now moved further, to a look at the theology of ageing — a conference on spirituality and older people is to be held in May.
The ASR has become more concerned, in recent years, with issues surrounding their place in the church — many members feel very strongly, for example, that elderly nuns, brothers and priests have extremely valuable gifts to give to the church, and that they should not be dismissed or marginalised in old age. "Many of our members have discovered new gifts since they retired — and, of course, there are plenty of jobs we can do," explains Sr Odile.
"Among our members we've got parish workers, course instructors, someone who works for Amnesty International and someone else who records the talking newspaper for the blind. There's so much we can do. Most have lost count of the number of times we've retired, only to find ourselves being given a new job."
For an increasing proportion of older nuns, though, retirement from a teaching or social work job these days means all all-too-automatic transition to the role of carer of even older nuns (many bedridden, or severely disabled by strokes).
No community of female religious in this country is untouched by the phenomenon of large numbers of old members who need intensive, full-time attention. Finding new ways of looking after them which free the younger women for at least some of the time is an issue with which the ASR is increasingly concerned, and which Sr Bernadette is keen to air — she herself, a straightbacked Notre Dame sister with her Lancashire accent still strongly intact is, in her smart blue suit, a striking example of a sprightly, sharp 81-year-old. Oh yes, she agrees, of course many ASR members of her age aren't so fortunate with their health, and there really is a need for a forum for ideas about how best to look after them. "There are various things we've looked at and arc still looking at, such as convents and communities joining up when it comes to caring for elderly sisters," she says.
At the moment, though, the event dominating Sr Bernadette's calendar is the trip she's organising for 20 ASR members to Scotland. "I've been running a holiday up there for quite a few years now, and it's very popular," she says. "The scenery is quite breathtaking, and we have lots of day trips and outings. We do enjoy ourselves."