Franciscan Sister Jacinta Pollard, one of the women profiled in the BBC's new documentary “Young Nuns,” hopes her community's prayers and sacrifices can help bring Britain back to the Catholic faith.
“It's like living in pagan Rome, actually! It must have been very similar, for the early Christians,” said Sister Jacinta, head of St. Clare's Convent in Leeds.
Her growing community consists of five women with an average age of 30. They are a missionary project of the New York-based Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, who evangelize through service to the poor under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Filmmaker Vicky Mitchell highlighted Sr. Jacinta and her community, along with other young women of the Benedictine and Dominican orders, in a documentary that premiered Oct. 25 on the BBC.
Sr. Jacinta spoke highly of Mitchell's work in an Oct. 31 CNA interview. She said the producer and director of “Young Nuns” was “extremely sympathetic and understanding of our life” and “did not try to 'tabloid' it.”
The friendly coverage may come as a welcome surprise in England, where both the government and the press have been accused of an anti-Christian bias.
Sr. Jacinta says England now has only “a very small population of Christians.” And some young people there have not taken well to the sight of religious sisters in full habits.
“We are certainly heckled more in Britain, than in the U.S., and laughed at on the street,” said the head of St. Clare's convent, who spent her years of formation in New York before returning to her native country.
“It's not that unusual to be laughed at, out loud. It's mostly the teenagers and young adults that would be most openly aggressive. It feels like they're just very insecure.”
“Anything that approaches them that they don't understand, or that they think is threatening their understanding of life and who they are – they have to react to it. And they unfortunately experience us as threatening.”
“We just smile at them, love them, and pray for them. And we hope that we can enter into some kind of dialogue with them, to show them that actually we're really concerned about them and can offer them something.”
Despite these outbursts of hostility, Sr. Jacinta has found that monks and nuns still have a hold on the British imagination.
“We find there's definitely an attraction, even among non-believers,” she observed. “There's a certain something there, that no one quite understands.”
“There's this fascination with nuns: 'Who are nuns? What do they do?'”
“That's why I think the documentary was something people were really interested in and excited to see.”
In the film, Sr. Jacinta recalls that the prospect of becoming a nun seemed “so radical, so different from what a lot of my peers were doing” with their lives – as she described it, “out-of-the-stratosphere kind of different.”
A lifelong Catholic, she worked as an occupational therapist before joining the Franciscan Sisters in her late 20s. The first hints of her vocation came on a pilgrimage to Rome for World Youth Day in 2000.
“I heard the Holy Father speak, at the closing Mass,” the Franciscan sister remembered. “I very much sensed that I wasn't doing a great job with my life, making myself happy. It was very clear to me, at that moment.”
“At the last Mass, with the Holy Father, I simply said in my heart as a prayer: 'Lord, you take over. Take my life, and I'll follow you. I won't follow me.'”
“I didn't know I was meant to be a nun. I just opened my heart to God's will.”
“Then I came back to England. What do you do then? I had to find something that would keep this kind of flame burning. I knew that I would die without it.”
A prayer group and the Legion of Mary apostolate became “lifelines” for the young professional, who came to see “the difference between my life in the world and my life of faith.”
She later left her job and worked as a full-time youth minister. “In that time, I really felt the Lord asking me to be his alone,” she said. “But I also realized that I was being called to community.”
“It just made sense. But it was very scary!”
As a child, the future Franciscan sister had listened to bedtime stories about the saints. She had trouble imagining herself in a lifestyle radically geared toward holiness.
“I felt so far from the nuns I'd heard of, or even met. I thought they were kind of perfect, and beautiful, and amazing, and great evangelists.”
“I thought, 'That doesn't seem right for me – I'm not there yet, I'm very imperfect.'”
“But the Lord broke through that rubbish! If he calls, you answer, and you go and listen.”
Sr. Jacinta said the biggest sacrifice for her was not the loss of her possessions or the prospect of marriage.
“It has to be the separation from family,” she reflected. “For most of us, that's the biggest sacrifice. And it is a daily sacrifice.”
Sr. Jacinta's parents accepted her decision. But other young women have faced opposition from family.
“There have been some really hard situations, with some parents not accepting a vocation, getting really angry and thinking: 'Where are my grandchildren coming from?'”
“I'm sure it's a lot of hopes and dreams smashed for parents, if they never envisioned their children taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It seems so absurd to them – and to most people!”
But Sr. Jacinta's own father sees a growing need for the sisters' service to the poor.
“My dad keeps telling me that England's going bankrupt soon. He keeps telling me: 'You're gonna have your work cut out for you!'”
“Maybe the need for religious life will increase, because the needs will increase,” she speculated.
“That's what we've seen in past centuries. Religious communities spring up, where there is great poverty and great need.”
“The Lord is merciful, so he'll draw us back to himself by any means possible.”
Sr. Jacinta longs to see her country return to its historic faith. She thinks the “Young Nuns” documentary could help the cause, despite its origins as a “totally secular project.”
“Many, many people have seen it. Who knows the effects it's having?”
Meanwhile, the Franciscan Sisters will continue to preach the Gospel to a troubled country through their words and deeds.
“I see a lot of awful things around me,” Sr. Jacinta said. “I see my own country torn apart by a culture that is devastating to it, that is one big lie.”
“What does that mean for me? All I know is that God has asked me to live this life, and I have said yes. He's asking me now to go back to England and say yes to the little things that I'm asked to do there, even if it is simply to live a life of sacrifice and prayer.”
God's grace, she said, can bring unforeseen results out of humble work.
“We can see someone like Mother Teresa and say, 'Well, she changed the world!' And yet, what did she do? She just did the next thing that God asked.”
“God can do the same with us. He can make us great saints, if we allow him to do that.”