I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland. (Is 43:19)
Really new things are both completely obvious and completely unimaginable. So when making something new, God finds it necessary to point it out – really, there’s something new here. See the pathway through the wilderness? See the rivers running in the wasteland? The destruction you feared is not the end of the story. It is merely a transition, a new chapter.
We are building relationships that will sustain us deep into the 21st century. With a firm grip on hope, we celebrate what has been, and we grieve its passing. With deepening confidence, we let our sisters go, one by one, into the great promise of death and resurrection. And we commit ourselves to this new thing that God is doing among us. … but wait, there’s more!
We live in challenging times. News of the coronavirus comes at a time when we are already facing signs of ecosystem collapse in the form of unprecedented weather, fires, floods and natural disasters, along with the attendent threat to key plants and animals that support our own human life on earth. Interlocking systems of oppression keep thousands of refugees camped at our southern border, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Systems of oppression keep black and brown bodies in jails and prisons, and out of adequate healthcare, education, financial resources and community support. Systems of oppression have whittled down the most diverse field of candidates for the US presidency down to three old white men. Systems of oppression hold the community of faith back from embracing and celebrating all the diversity that is in it, and mobilizing all their energies for community and for mission.
Where do I turn, as a person of faith? What can I do in the face of these overwhelming burdens that threaten the foundations of my faith? I turn to hope. I turn to God. I turn to that image of God that is at the heart of every human life. I turn to the resilience of all God has created. And I confess that it is good. I echo the words of our creator – it is very good! As the landscape gradually comes back to life, I commit to existential hope and say with the scriptures: “Is anything too marvelous for our God?”
I hold fast to this hope, as if holding fast to the hand of God. And I step out as a co-creator with my God and do what must be done.
I participated in a gathering of Sisters. It was a great celebration and an opportunity to connect with other Sisters from around the country and some from outside the US as well. I particularly appreciated the “meetings between the meetings” when some of the younger sisters, in various configurations, gathered to share a common experience and to dream a common future.
Coming back to St. Louis, I gathered with my own community for an opportunity to gather for prayer, conversation, and celebration. Still buoyed up by the earlier experience, this was another opportunity to share community, spirituality, and justice. The vocation team, of which I am a part, gave a presentation about our work. We talked about the current context of vocations in the US. We explained the model we are using to organize the work. I talked about how that model worked in practice in one of the events that we offered for vocations. Then we explained our new vocations website.
I also attended the national assembly of the LCWR, a gathering of sisters from various congregations from around the US. This is another opportunity to meet, share and celebrate.
All these gatherings have their specific focus, yet they are all related to the larger movement of religious life and Gospel living. Last night, I was on a web conference with other younger Sisters of St. Joseph, then some international sisters gathered to share foods from our own culture, to share prayer and conversation. It was creative and a glimpse into the local culture, a glimpse of how the world community could unite in our efforts for a more sustainable world.
So many gifts, so many experiences, so many gatherings, and networks. “All things work together for the good of those God loves,” for the good of each of us.
At the same time, we we continue to welcome a handful of women and men into our communities. I’ve had the opportunity to ask these newcomers and inquirers why they come, why they come now, at such a time. The response varies, but there is a resounding theme. I believe I am called. I believe I am called at this time. I know religious life is changing. I know my province/congregation/monastery is changing. And I want to be part of that change, part of that transition to the next phase of religious life.
The grand generations of religious who came in great numbers and accomplished great things had a place in the Church and society at the time. But the Church has changed and continues to change. Society has changed and continues to change. At one time, spirituality and mission were the exclusive territory of priests and religious. One of the most profound insights of the Second Vatican Council was remembering the universal call to holiness and to mission. Mission and spirituality are the task of privilege and responsibility of all the baptized.
Religious life exists in the Church, and as the Church deepens its self-understanding, so all those who live in and for the Church must deepen their self-understanding. Some believe that religious life has no place in this new Church, since mission and spirituality are the task of privilege and responsibility of all the baptized. They reason that mission and spirituality, formerly the exclusive territory of religious life is now given over to the laity, leaving no purpose for religious life to exist at all.
I would offer another perspective. For historical reasons, religious life had expanded its self-understanding to engulf mission and spirituality in a way that no longer fits. In an era of immense spiritual and social needs, religious had stepped up to meet the need and did so with remarkable courage and dedication. This occurred at a time in history of social and political upheaval which did not permit many lay persons, particularly lay women, they possibility of dedicating themselves to mission and spirituality. Religious communities expanded to fill these needs.
As society developed, more and more lay persons have the possibility to dedicate their lives to pastoral ministry, health-care, education, and social service. At the same time the Council provided the theological grounding for this shift. All this obviated the need for hordes of religious sisters and brothers to serve in these ministries.
So in this new Church, is there a place for religious life? I believe there is. …
“National Vocation Awareness Week, celebrated November 3-9, 2019, is an annual week-long celebration of the Catholic Church in the United States dedicated to promote vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life through prayer and education, and to renew our prayers and support for those who are considering one of these particular vocations. NVAW began in 1976. Beginning in 2014, NVAW was moved to the first full week of November. Each day during this week, take time to ask yourself, “What is it that I plan to do with my one wild and precious life?” [adapted from The Summer Day by Mary Oliver] “
Years ago, having finished college just a few months before, I tentatively stepped across the threshold into a large motherhouse complex. I stepped into a new world that has shaped me and colored my approach to life, to spirituality, to ministry, and to so many other things. I came with hopes and dreams, and with not a few misconceptions about the world that I was entering. In the early years of religious life, I learn about prayer from many early morning hours spent in chapel, from sisters who shared that experience with me, and from classes on prayer and spirituality. Several other young women entered with me and together, we navigated our first weeks and months of convent life, we built relationships and found our way in this strange new world we had all been drawn to by God and by our youthful notions of vocation. We took our places in the community’s ministries, according to our skills and interests, and from the start, we learned to integrate community, spirituality, and mission.
Several decades have passed since I first entered religious life. I have changed, religious life has changed around me and with me, the church has changed around us and with us, and the world has changed and continues to change. I have had amazing opportunities, studying and working in many places across the United States and beyond. I have worked with sisters and brothers from many religious communities, and in the course of our work together, we shared our maturing hopes and dreams for society, for justice, for the church, for our own communities, and for religious life itself.
As religious life evolves our congregations are smaller and our various networks will become more important. We will need different skills and we will be less institutional and closer to those we serve. Some years ago, I wrote Religious Life at the Crossroads to explore these currents in religious life. Orbis has just released my second book on this theme: Beyond the Crossroads: Religious Life in the 21st Century in which I continue this exploration.
I begin by drawing some lines of reflection from Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Sí on life in our common home on planet earth. I find the encyclical to be a parable of religious life. We are facing unprecedented challenges that could undermine the very future of religious life itself, as well as the future of individual communities and congregations. The challenge we face is multifaceted, with the decline in numbers being the most visible evidence. Many ask why people are joining religious life today in significantly smaller numbers. There are many reasons, the changing role of the laity, the changing understanding of religious life, the changing face of the church in society, the changing role of women in society and in the church, the changing nature of marriage and the family, and emerging needs of migrants, trafficking, and the environment.
In our rapidly changing global society, the identity of religious life is also shifting. Rapid social change strains the capacity of communities to respond, even as they tend to the urgent calls of mission and their own internal need to care for aging sisters and brothers. In this context, ongoing dialogue about the meaning of religious life can help us to pivot to a more authentic response in our lives and in our mission. In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, we are inviting co-creators who will join us to re-imagine religious life even as together we network in new ways and with new partners.
In the shifting sands of society, church and religious life, we need new images to help us to understand the changes that are occurring and how we might best position ourselves as individuals and as communities to do the great work to which we are called. We can understand it as a shift from institution to ecosystem, requiring a shift in our identity and in our way of doing community, spirituality, and mission. The overlapping circles of community will help to provide the resilience we need to nurture this evolutionary process.
My new book engages the public conversation about the evolution of religious life as we move beyond the crossroads into the heart of the twenty-first century. To order – click here.
I will also be giving an online presentation that will explore these currents religious life in the 21st century. Register here.