by Joan Mitchell, CSJ
Rarely does one have a front row seat for big historical events, but I participated in the 2007 Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) meeting that has so enflamed Vatican officials. LCWR is an organization for heads of religious communities. In 2007 I was a member of our Province Leadership Team. At that meeting Dominican Sister Laurie Brink outlined four possible futures for religious communities, scenarios that seemed useful and far from incendiary. During 2012, the Vatican has pursued an investigation into the LCWR executive office and seeks to supervise our organization and approve our choices of future speakers for conferences. The investigating bishops see the sisters in the third of four scenarios Laurie Brink describes—sojourning in a strange land, moving outside the box of the Church. Most of us at the 2007 conference saw ourselves in the fourth scenario—in the work of dialogue and reconciliation with the Church, trying to hold our strained communion together.
Sister Laurie set the scene for each scenario with a scripture passage, which I use to ponder the future in the next four blogs. Interestingly, what is happening to sisters is happening in parish communities, too.
Scenario 1: Death with Dignity
In Genesis 23, Abraham buys a burial place for his wife Sarah. Sarah dies near Hebron, a site sacred to this today. A wanderer and keeper of flocks, her husband buys the first and only bit of promised land he ever owns to bury her. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faith traditions all claim Sarah as an ancestor. When God calls Sarah and Abraham to a far off land, God promises descendants. The two travel north from Ur near the Persian Gulf up the Tigris River into Syria and then south down along the Mediterranean coast to the land of Israel. Faith in God’s promise draws them on and opens their perception of the world from repeated, fixed cycles to pregnant promise. Like Sarah many religious sisters come from other lands in their life journeys, many in our community from Ireland. Faith has stirred them to move, settle, and work to hand on Jesus’ good news in a new land. They have given their lives to schools and hospitals, to people without enough, to people who do make it with a leg up, to people who never make it and require care.
We buried a sister recently whose early years in ministry were at the Children’s Home. A woman came to the funeral who had been an orphan at the home decades earlier. She and this sister established a friendship that lasted a lifetime. But if the work is done and the energy spent, if no one any longer comes to join in the sisters’ mission, then a community faces death; its last members must find a place of burial. This is a practical matter of facing the end and planning it, bargaining as Abraham does for a burial plot. People in parishes have experienced this scenario, facing their end as a community or a merger with a larger parish. Whose work is done? What keeps communities alive? When is nostalgia harder to bury than bricks and mortar are to rededicate? When is a mission over?
I have to wonder if women’s communities would be facing death if the Church had no stained-glass ceiling. Today women can integrate family and mission in ways impossible in earlier times. What will those we have taught generate in their lives?
What is ending?
What is beginning?
Check back on Sunday, November 18th for the second scenario.