Multicultural is not intercultural: GSR talks to sister leaders

by Gail DeGeorge

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A recent conversation between Global Sisters Report and leaders from the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) covered a wide range of topics important to religious life today, including civil discourse in an era of political polarization, helping congregations to be intercultural and learning from those that are, and the importance of moving from narratives about numbers to the conviction that there are enough women religious for God's plan.

We talked to Sr. Pat Murray, executive secretary of UISG, Sr. Teresa Maya, president of LCWR, and Sr. Joan-Marie Steadman, executive director of LCWR, on Nov. 29 as part of our annual planning process for topics to cover in the coming year. An edited version of the conversation is available here.

We asked how the political swing in many countries to the right and toward anti-immigration sentiment affected the work sisters do with refugees and migrants.

"What is very dangerous is not the swing to the right, but the polarization, the inability to have a conversation, so what LCWR has focused on is civil discourse," Maya said.

There is much for congregations to do, including active prayer, letter-writing and advocacy, she said.

"But in every case, there is space for us to talk about civil discourse," she said. "Whatever the politics we're dealing with, the critical thing is that we live our Gospel values."

LCWR has been active with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other interfaith groups to help "create a country of welcome," Steadman said, working especially on issues surrounding recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and those with temporary protected status.

Maya said it's important for congregations to be engaged locally, so LCWR has been sending packets to members to help them write public statements, engage with local governments and work with area agencies.

"There's many things we've done around this, but we do think it's critical to who we are," she said.

Murray said that, in Europe, many religious congregations have opened their doors to migrants and families, working with local organizations to offer support. UISG also set up an international desk for migration and to identify sisters working with migrants.

UISG's Migrant Project/Sicily, in which sisters from various congregations assist migrants on the island, is an example of an intercongregational initiative that could be replicated elsewhere, Murray said.

"Maybe that's another way religious orders can help support each other," Murray said. "They may not have sisters on the front line, but they can offer their houses, their retreat houses or other resources to support those who are."

Changing demographics in the global sisterhood — vocations are growing in Africa and Asia and shrinking in the United States and Europe — requires a greater emphasis on interculturality, learning to have different cultures interact and enrich the community, the sisters said.

"We've all realized that putting people together in a multicultural context doesn't make them intercultural," Murray said.

"You have to understand that culturally, we operate in very different ways and that our communication tools are quite different."

UISG's recent delegates meeting was focused on the theme of moving to interculturality, which will be a focus for the future, Murray added.

Incoming vocations in the United States are more diverse, as are leadership teams, Maya said. LCWR partners with other religious vocation organizations, such as the Religious Formation Conference and National Religious Formation Conference, that are also addressing this change, she said.

"There's a real need to develop skills for intercultural living, intercultural ministry," said Steadman, who noted that her experience has been shaped by being in an international congregation. "It's not just goodwill … It has to be a mutual journey, and that's very challenging. The dominant culture has to be able to step back and be able to learn from another culture."

Women religious have had input on the update to Mutuae Relationes, which sets parameters for the relationship between bishops and religious, that the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life is working on, the sister leaders said.

"For many religious women in different parts of the world, the highlight for them was that their voice could be heard," Murray said.

At a meeting in November of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, chaired by Cardinal Joseph Tobin, there was a short conversation about the document, Maya said. When it is released, "we need to be proactive in terms of having conversations and study sessions so we can really embrace what's in it and take the opportunity for bridging some conversations with our bishops," she said.

Maya said Tobin said the document would be "critical to the conversation about cooperation and collaboration."

"The key word that we're all talking about is 'coessentiality'; to understand that religious life is a critical component to what the essence of what the church is," Maya said. "It's distinct from clerical and lay and every other form of commitment and involvement. It's a question of identity in the church."

There will be parts of the document "that are critical and probably some that are legal. What's important is that we have a conversation around the document. How we use it so that we build a sense of unity in the diversity of the church will be just as critical as whatever it says," she said.

Murray agreed, noting that "the conversations and the relationship-building" are important: "We can be honest with each other in saying [there are] difficulties because the difficulties don't all come from one side. There's an honesty we have from both sides in terms of how we build relationships of coessentiality."

Congregations are engaging in a number of solutions to a leadership crisis that some communities face because of age and health, Steadman said.

"There's a lot of dialogue and discernment going on about how to move through that kind of situation," she said.

For some congregations, the issue is not leadership, but managing the services that members need, she said. Some have formed covenants with other congregations; others have pontifical commissaries, Vatican-appointed heads of religious institutes.

"Those are all ways of enabling the members of the congregation to still be engaged," Steadman said. "That's the critical piece for me, that these structures, opportunities — whatever you want to call them as they emerge — are trying to be attentive that the members continue to be engaged in the life of the congregation as it unfolds and for as long as it's there as a particular charism in the church. There are some uncharted waters here."

Maya noted the "American obsession" with numbers has created a narrative that isn't useful for religious congregations.

"It's not about numbers," she said. "We're learning in this process that we are enough for the Gospel."

Changes in religious life are creating opportunities for intercongregational cooperation, to model care and respect for elders, and the process of aging, she said.

"It will also make us collaborate with other places around the world more. It is one of the reasons we're becoming more intercultural," she said.

"Big is not better than small, and a lot is not better than a few. It's just what God needs. We are enough. … We need to talk about mission. We need to talk about what is alive. We need to talk about what we can do with who we are right now and into the future."

[Gail DeGeorge is editor of Global Sisters Report. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter: @GailDeGeorge.]