“We do well to take up the dreams of our elders, so that we can prophesy in our day and once more encounter what originally set our hearts afire. Dreams and prophecies together. The remembrance of how our elders, our fathers and mothers, dreamed, and the courage prophetically to carry on those dreams. This attitude will make us fruitful. Most importantly, it will protect us from a temptation that can make our consecrated life barren: the temptation of survival.” This text from Pope Francis’ homily on the World Day for Consecrated Life is a call to courageous remembering to guide future-oriented action.
On retreat over Martin Luther King weekend with seventeen other sisters in our twenties and thirties, one sister shared a question posed to her community: “What was the best time in your community’s history? What was the most inspirational time? Why are the answers to these two questions different?” While many of the sisters, in answer to the first question, automatically thought of the decades with huge entering classes, droves of sisters, and massive institutions, they typically then thought of, perhaps, the story of their founding, a time when the community took a risk on a new mission, or something comparable as the answer to the second. Inspiration does not require numbers. Prophetic work on behalf of the Gospel does not require numbers.
In our society we too often get stuck in deficit-based rather than asset-based thinking. We see smaller numbers as a deficit, not as a very real asset. While it is true that our congregations cannot be run with the same leadership model, structures, and institutions they were once able to maintain, I am excited about the relational, nimble, collaborative model that is being birthed. It’s not something that will happen, it’s something that is happening now.
One example is Giving Voice (G.V.). Giving Voice is an organization for sisters under fifty from across the United States. It maintains a core leadership team comprised of five finally professed, young sisters with staggered, three-year terms. All of these sisters are in full-time ministry or are full-time students. Our work is done via monthly Zoom meetings and one annual face-to-face weekend with e-mail and shared Google documents doing the trick in between. In addition to the core team, other young, G.V. sisters are discerned and invited to lead things like the annual retreat, biannual national summer conference, and other committees as needed. Everyone takes a turn and never have I been disappointed with an event or outcome. I would name deep listening and shared leadership as two deeply seeded values of the organization. We believe strongly that, “There is a leader in every chair,” and we consistently call each other to that reality.
This leadership model is how our vocation team functions and is comparable to other designs young sisters are developing across the country.
Pope Francis calls us, in the same Day of Consecrated Life homily on the Presentation to, “…go back to the Gospel passage and once more contemplate that scene. Surely, the song of Simeon and Anna was not the fruit of self-absorption or an analysis and review of their personal situation. It did not ring out because they were caught up in themselves and were worried that something bad might happen to them. Their song was born of hope, the hope that sustained them in their old age. That hope was rewarded when they encountered Jesus. When Mary let Simeon take the Son of the Promise into his arms, the old man began to sing of his dreams. Whenever she puts Jesus in the midst of his people, they encounter joy. For this alone will bring back our joy and hope, this alone will save us from living in a survival mentality. Only this will make our lives fruitful and keep our hearts alive: putting Jesus where he belongs, in the midst of his people.”
So, whether you are discerning religious life and concerned about the rhetoric that “religious life is dying”, or whether you have been in religious life for many years, Pope Francis and I challenge you to asset-based thinking, to possibilities, to hope, to the joy of encountering Jesus and into the inspiration the Spirit is birthing among us.