The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is currently meeting in St. Louis, discussing how to respond to Vatican accusations. Naturally I wish I was part of the conversation. I did hear in person Sister Laurie Brink’s keynote address at the 2007 LCWR meeting that has given rise to accusation that sisters are post Christian and have left the Church behind.
Actually that was a useful presentation. Repeatedly I have reflected on the four futures she saw for religious communities, especially on the fourth. I attended the meetings because I was one of three sisters elected to our Province Leadership Team.
Laurie is a Dominican sister and theologian. She presented each of the four futures in the context of a biblical story. The four futures I think about for our community:
- death with dignity
- sojourning in a strange land
Death with dignity. Religious as a life form seems in danger of extinction like whales. Some small congregations have joined larger communities. Recently seven congregations merged into one new Congregation of St. Joseph. This first option recognizes communities have to deal with their numbers. One community reported at LCWR that just 18 sisters remained when they had to evacuate New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina, two sisters died on the way to skilled care with another community, and the opportunity to choose their future was swept away with the wind.
Acquiesence. Rome has greater comfort dealing with the sisters still in the habit than with the 80% of sisters that belong to LCWR. In this future sisters return to pre-Vatican II religious life. In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Rome returned sisters to their cloisters and obligated them to monastic prayer life of the Divine Office. Ironically this was just three years before the first wave of the women’s movement finally achieved the vote for women in 1920.
Vatican II directed religious communities to rediscover our founding charisms. So we did. Many like my community worked with the poor and lift up women especially through educating them in ways to make a living. In fact my community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, was the first apostolic community approved by Rome, apostolic meaning noncloistered, out and about doing the works of mercy. The first sisters lived among the poor and taught women to make lace to support themselves. We rediscovered these first sisters and the active, prophetic pioneer sisters in America. Acquiesence seems an unlikely option for most communities.
Sojourning in a strange land. This is the part of the talk that is controversial. However, sojourning is a very biblical experience. The descendants of Joseph sojourn in Egypt and become slaves. The Hebrew slaves sojourn for 40-years in the desert and become a people. Captive Israelites sojourn in Babylon for 70 years before the Persian King Cyrus sends them home to rebuild. Some sisters are sojourning with people who have broken with Christianity in its current forms, who are post Christians seeking new forms of spirituality. Sisters may dissent on some Church positions but most haven’t given up on Christianity.
Sisters may be more comfortable in the secular world than bishops. It’s where we live and work. It’s not a strange land. We have little nostalgia for holy Roman times when church and state were one. Specifically as Sisters of St. Joseph, we are daughters of the American Revolution and survivors of the French Reign of Terror. One of our foundresses missed the guillotine by day.
Most women’s communities have thankfully shed our versions of matriarchy. We have no reverend mothers, we govern by consensus with all participating; we choose our ministries rather than be assigned. We dress in the ordinary street clothes of our day as we did in our beginnings. I suspect most sisters are feminist enough to think women and men are equal, not that women are complementary and subordinate to men.
Reconciliation. This is the future that challenged me and the future that Laurie Brink espoused. This is the future in which sisters don’t give up on the Church’s hierarchy but persist in seeking dialogue. Note that the three LCWR presidents (past, present, future) have gone to Rome for dialogue annually for the past 20 years without achieving this end. Currently Bishop Leonard Blair says the sisters must submit in order to resolve the conflict.
I have just read William O’Malley’s book What Happened at Vatican II? Over the four-year course of the council, some 2,800 bishops dialogued with each other and with theologians. The Spirit went to work. Dialogue and learning from each other can transform the future but only if participants in dialogue engage as equals.
What is so threatening about real dialogue?
Sister Joan Mitchell, CSJ is the editor of Sunday by Sunday and Spirit for Teens – weekly faith sharing magazines – and the author of Beyond Fear and Silence and Mark’s Gospel: The Whole Story. In 2004, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet, St. Paul Province, elected Sister Joan to the community’s leadership team. During this five year commitment, Sister Joan connected with Catholics from around the country.