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Interview: Sister Una Coogan IBVM, student and university chaplain

13 August 2021

‘George Clooney films are good for use on retreats. People identify with characters and talk about how they act’

I’m studying for a licence in canon law at the Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven, in Belgium, which is under the authority of the Holy See.

Canon law affects most aspects of church life — from church goods, buildings, laity, religious and clergy, and sacraments, particularly ordination and marriage. It also covers the rights and obligations of all people in the Latin Church. It gives us a practical way of putting our theology into practice; so I study what we do and why we do it. Canon law is for life, not just for a crisis, and it offers a pastoral approach to problems — and, hopefully, offers solutions.

My interests are in marriage law and religious-life law. The Catholic Church is clear in what it believes marriage to be, as stated in canon law. The Marriage Tribunal is the Church’s court that looks at cases where an individual is questioning the validity of their marriage. Usually people come to us after they have separated from their spouse and are seeking to remarry; or to become a Catholic and often have a civil divorce. Many wish to receive sacraments and be in right standing with the Church. This work is very pastoral, as we try to find the truth in their relationships. I work in the tribunal as often as I can.

Boris Johnson? It’s really hard to know the ins and outs of that case unless you see the case papers. In any tribunal, it’s not about new developments or changes: it’s examining the moment when you gave consent. Did you intend the marriage to be for ever, to have children, to look after your spouse?

I think the Church has progress to make in the pastoral handling of people whose marriages have fallen apart, and I’d encourage them to talk to their priest and canon lawyers to see what pastoral remedies are possible. Pope Francis is encouraging a much more pastoral understanding of the situation divorced Catholics find themselves in. I hope that the situation improves for those people.

I’ve been a university chaplain for nine years. Birmingham is a Russell Group university, and they don’t employ their chaplains; so we’re independent and have the privilege of supporting staff and students.

Just being around, or sharing a cup of coffee can help. I’m constantly amazed as students or staff repeat my own words back to me as something they found helpful.

We offer Ignatian teaching: weeks of guided prayer, teaching about prayer, spiritual direction. A major part of chaplaincy is giving students opportunities to make friends with people who also have a faith, and supporting student faith groups.

My congregation is the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an international, apostolic, Ignatian order, also known as Loreto Sisters. We were founded in 1609 by Mary Ward, a Yorkshirewoman. We’re mainly involved in education and spirituality, and work among refugees and asylum-seekers. We go to where the need is greatest, where we can help.

We’re celebrating the 200th anniversary, in August, of Teresa Ball’s bringing the Institute to Dublin. She was sent to the Bar Convent, in York, which was governed under a set of constitutions written by a French Jesuit. After seven years, she returned to Dublin to found Loreto Abbey. She caused uproar in the Church because she’d been given a copy of Mary Ward’s original constitutions which was more Ignatian, and wanted her own Sisters to follow the apostolic charism of Ignatius, though after the Council of Trent all women under permanent vows had to be monastic.

Mary Ward’s intention was to found one order; so we’re now joining up with our sister order, the Congregation of Jesus [CJ]. When the Institute went to Canada, the bishop wanted it to be a diocesan order, with governance from Toronto, not Dublin, but the North American branch was able to rejoin us some years ago, and soon we shall all be one order again.

We have a lot of CJ sisters in Eastern Europe, and Loreto tended to go to the West to meet our Sisters again: it’s very exciting. One Romanian sister said: “When I look into your eyes, I see that we are the same. We live a slightly different life, culturally, but our values and how we view the world is exactly the same.” We haven’t been able to get to know them till recently because of Communism, but now we can, via Zoom.

It will revitalise the order and create greater resources for the Institute as a whole. We have NGO status and have a rep at the UN office, and when the CJs have joined us, we’ll speak not from 24 but from 42 countries around the world. Because our call is to go where the need is greatest, the greater capacity we have round the world, the easier it is to meet that challenge.

Loretos take a corporate fourth vow to mission. The General puts all her members at the disposal of the Holy Father, and the CJs take that as a personal vow. We can be moved within the province or the order, or the larger order that will come out of union.

It can be lonely. I came to Birmingham knowing that there was no Loreto community near by; but I wouldn’t request a move just because I feel lonely. I’d have to be called to another job. We have a Sister who lives in Albania, and another works in the Philippines. We try to find communities where we can; so at present I live in the Catholic residency with students and two Jesuit priests, so we form a community together; and I’m attached to a Loreto “cluster” with other Sisters who live alone.

I was born in the south of England, into an Irish Catholic family; so faith was always part of my life. We lived in a small village with a Catholic church which was an important part of our social and domestic life.

I can’t remember one single experience of God, but remember being taught to trust God, and experienced God as a loving Father. I was encouraged to view Jesus as a friend who had done wonderful things for me. I’m very lucky to have had such a start in life. Ignatian spirituality helped me develop a personal relationship with Jesus. I hope I spend more time, now, trying to discern where God is calling me rather than following my own path.

I’d encourage more people to join religious life. It’s been a good life for me, and one I’d share with others.

I’m happiest in the company of friends and family, in nature, having time to contemplate.

The sound of water always brings my mind to God.

I’m a Liverpool supporter — of course. And it’s been a great summer for athletics: the Olympics, the European Championships, golf, the Tour de France.

I like any film that’s got a good story, and I often use them on retreats. People identify with characters and talk about how they act. George Clooney films are good for this: Up in the Air, Syriana, Michael Clayton. The Michael Clayton film asks big questions: how do you interpret the moment with the horse? How explain that pivotal moment for him? 

The opportunities for reflection during the pandemic bring hope for the future of all of us. People are realising that there are more important things in life than work and money, and being limited in what we can do has allowed us all to revaluate things.

I pray most for peace, both public and personal; for wisdom and guidance.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Mary Ward. I admire her for her struggles and how she coped with them. She was called by God to live a different form of religious life, unenclosed. She understood that women could have deep relationships with God and the value of those relationships. She was criticised by the church leadership, and yet always remained faithful to the Church. She developed a feminine way of living Ignatian spirituality. She was brave, compassionate, suffered with ill health, was misjudged and abused, and yet faithful even in the face of failure. A woman for our times.

Sister Una was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


Forthcoming Events

20 October 2021
Does the parish need saving?
Warnings that the parish is under threat date back decades. But are claims that it is now being dismantled accurate? Join our panel for a lively online debate.

21 October 2021
Transgressing Theology
From SCM Press: authors Natalie Wigg-Stevenson and Thia Cooper in conversation.

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