Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 11, 2008
Local professor takes vows as consecrated woman
Years of discernment led Caroline Nolan to make this spiritual commitment
By ALICIA AMBROSIO
“I didn’t just wake up one morning and have this idea.”
- Caroline Nolan
In 1965, Vatican II reaffirmed the consecrated single life as a vocation. Although the number of consecrated women in the world is relatively small when compared to other vocations, it is on the rise.
Nolan was the first woman to be consecrated in the Archdiocese of Edmonton. While a second consecrated woman lives and works in Edmonton, that woman was consecrated in another diocese.
A consecrated woman takes a vow of chastity and implicit vows of obedience and poverty.
She is to obey the archbishop or bishop of her diocese and live simply, which may mean donating part of her salary to those in need.
To many, Nolan’s decision might sound like a drastic life choice— choosing to stay single for the rest of her life, obey the Archbishop of Edmonton, and live simply. Nolan, however, doesn’t see it that way. Dedicating her life to Christ, being set apart as a sacred person in the world to do God’s work, feels like the final piece of a puzzle clicking into place, she said.
“I didn’t just wake up one morning and have this idea,” she said, “I feel like it’s always been there, percolating.”
Nolan grew up in a “typical Irish-Catholic home” in Cork, Ireland. The family went to Mass regularly and said the occasional rosary. They were also friends with the local priests, who would stop by to visit the family at home.
“One of these priests gave me a book about the history of Israel. I was scared that he would ask me about it, so I read the book,” Nolan recalls. She said the story of Israel struck her and stayed with her. In school, when asked to write essays, biblical themes always found their way into her writing.
“My reaction was ‘God, you’ve got to be kidding!‘”
- Caroline Nolan
Her religion teacher saw this as a sign and encouraged Nolan to pursue theological studies after high school.
“I did business instead,” Nolan said. At the age of 17, having finished her studies, she went to work for the government. Despite working in the corporate world, Nolan read books about theology in her spare time. She said something drew her to read about theology. She also discovered part-time theology courses and signed up, studying on the side while still working with the government.
In Ireland, government employees are entitled to a “career break” after two years of work. Nolan used that “career break” to study theology full-time.
Studying side-by-side with seminarians, she started hearing about something called “spiritual directors.” This whole concept of spiritual direction interested her. In 1993, after some research, and realizing that anyone can have a spiritual director, not just priests, she found her own spiritual director and started searching for her vocation.
Nolan said that was exactly what she needed because “I felt that I was being called for something, but I didn’t know what.”
Her director helped her begin discerning what that call might be. She explored the possibility that her calling might have been to the religious life as a sister. She went on a vocation weekend, visiting several religious communities, but none of the communities felt like a good fit, none of them “called” to her. She realized the religious life was not her path.
“You naturally assume then that if it’s not being a nun, it must be marriage and kids. So when my friends would say ‘I know someone you should meet’ I’d let them set me up. I did the whole blind-date thing, and I had fun, but that wasn’t it either.”
Nolan kept going with her studies, focusing on Scripture studies. She finished her Bachelor’s Degree in Theology in Ireland and went to Rome to pursue a licentiate at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. She then returned to Ireland to get her doctorate.
Having completed the doctorate, she moved to Edmonton to teach at Newman Theological College. Through it all, she continued going for spiritual direction and kept searching for her calling.
“It took a long time to find, and when I first found it I wasn’t impressed. My reaction was ‘God, you’ve got to be kidding! What kind of vocation is this?’”
She would be the first woman to be consecrated in Edmonton and one of a handful in Canada. “I don’t like being the first to do anything, I’m not one to want to be in front,” Nolan said.
At the same time, however, Nolan said she felt a sense of peace. It all made sense, the feeling of being called, the searching, and finally the realization that she was being called to the consecrated life.
Nolan admits it wasn’t easy, her peace was punctuated by moments of self-doubt, of wondering, “am I mad?” and of feeling overwhelmed.
“There’s no manual to tell you that this is all normal,” she said.
Through the roller-coaster of emotions she always found peace again and always came back to the same security that she was being called by God.
The formation process, from the time Archbishop Thomas Collins approved her request to be consecrated, took about two years. Nolan said the long formation period, after such a long discernment process, was a blessing because it gave her the chance to do “a lot of interior work” and feel that she had done proper discernment, that her discernment had been tested, and that in the end this really was God’s call for her.
Nolan has completed a three month internship as a chaplain at an Ottawa hospital forensic unit and has been accepted into the chaplaincy residency program at the University of Alberta. Chaplaincy in hospital settings will be her specific ministry, in addition to her “day job” as a professor of Scripture.
“I will live my consecrated life with people where they’re at,” she said.
“It is wonderful that she was able to discern, recognize and commit to this vocation. This is a sign of what John Paul II referred to as a ‘new springtime’, a sign of the constant work of the Holy Spirit. It shows that God is still working, still calling people,” said Father Greg Bittman, one of Nolan’s formators.
“If you have a receptive heart, great things can happen.”
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