UISG assembly shows we share a global charism of religious and apostolic life

About 900 women religious representing nearly 500,000 sisters are meeting in Rome for the International Union of Superiors General 2016 plenary assembly. (Joyce Meyer))

As a guest, I represented Global Sisters Report at the Union of Superiors General (UISG) assembly in Rome; it was mind and heart expanding to be in the company of 900 sister leaders from around the world. The diversity of languages — 11 were in translation throughout the days — the variety of faces and dress spoke loudly of the colorful imagination of God and liveliness of the Spirit. These numerous women represented many forms and ways of having lives committed wholly to God and service to the world and universe. I only had one disappointment and that was not having enough time to talk to all the people I wanted to engage. Promoting Global Sisters Report at every 30-minute break and beyond, then rushing back to the assembly hall for the next session was an exercise in dexterity.

However, I was lucky to have a meeting before the assembly with sisters I have known over the years from several countries in East and West Africa and also to meet up with sisters I had made contact with this past year for projects I was working on from Haiti, Fiji, Belgium, Ireland and Germany.

My assigned table included guests from Democratic Republic of Congo, Germany, Ukraine, Myanmar, Kenya, Scotland and the United States. Two were on a panel of young religious one of the days. I found it a privilege to listen to their perspectives on the questions given for table discussion. Our conversations had to be translated from/into French or Spanish so that all at the table could participate. This was an added richness we had over the UISG member tables grouped by language.

Having also been a guest in 2013, I noticed many new faces and recognized others from former gatherings. At that assembly Vietnamese and Chinese leaders were basically absent, except for two or three who were students in Rome. However, this year six new Vietnamese leaders appeared with the help of a bilingual friend in Vietnam. It took a lot of perseverance on her part translating letters from the UISG administration, finding a system to contact congregational leaders in the country, helping some of the sisters navigate the process of obtaining visas, and encouraging others of the importance their presence would make at the meeting.

In spite of many obstacles, all were ultimately overcome, albeit some at the last minute. One sister arrived mid-week of the meetings because her visa application had been stalled. The UISG administration bent the rule of deadlines to accommodate the sisters, searched for translators and assisted the sisters with transportation and finding accommodation in convents nearby. They were all thrilled with this unique opportunity to attend an international meeting.

Coming from a country where they are required to submit meeting agendas to local government officials ahead of time and have their meetings monitored, the sisters were able at the plenary to have a very different experience of openness and free conversation.

Sisters who came to the assembly from Vietnam. (Joyce Meyer)

I had a chance to visit briefly with them and asked if they might share what meaning the experience was having for them. One of the sisters who spoke English captured the following comments:.

Sr. Pham Thi Bich Thuy, Daughter of Mary Immaculate, said: "I am very happy to be here with the sisters of the UISG plenary. All of us are in solidarity and simplicity."

Sr. Maria Dihn Thi Sang , Dominican of Tam Hiep commented:  "UISG plenary has opened my narrow vision and calmed my worries from the moment I entered the auditorium. There I found a warm welcome from UISG leaders, the positive activities, the solidarity and collaboration between the congregations and the boundless mission of the world."

Sr. Angela M. Pham Thi Cuc (Hung), Missionary Sister of Mary Queen of the World, said she learned that "as women religious we are called to 'Sequela Christi' to become like Jesus, the first necessity; from there, we are to be witnesses of Christ, able to change and heal the world."

Sr. Mary Quach Thi Minh Hoa, Dominican Sister of Phy Cuon commented: "It's a great joy for me to attend the UISG plenary. The sharing about religious life in the modern day is very interesting. It helps us to question ourselves about how we should live and how we witness to the people about a good God, and to experience the love of God."

Sr. Mary Therese Hoang, Thi Ngoc, Lover of the Holy Cross of Phan Thiet said, "Thank God, Thank you very much."

And Sr. Tran Thi Kim, Lover of the Holy Cross of Dalat, said her experience is one of "unity in diversity for the life of the world."

The sisters said that they found the presentations challenging because they heard many ideas new to them about religious life and the global mission we all share.

Seven Chinese sisters, leaders from diocesan congregations from mainland China were also present this year, accompanied by a bishop. Only one of them spoke English as she had studied in the Philippines. Unfortunately, I did not have much opportunity to speak with them. Later, someone told me that they had no trouble getting visas to come to the meeting because it gave them opportunity to meet Pope Francis. This was surprising to me considering the conflicts the church and government seem to have.

Seven Chinese sisters, leaders from diocesan congregations from mainland China were also present this year, accompanied by a bishop. (Joyce Meyer)

Of course the audience with Pope Francis was a great attraction for everyone. Much has been written about the possible meaning of his promise to set up a commission to study the diaconate for women. As we know, much will depend on who is invited to participate in the commission and on the theology out of which the study is done. I personally did not find Pope Francis' description of the role of deaconesses very encouraging. He told us that their major task was to assist with women being baptized by immersion. He also commented that he does not favor clericalizing services in parish life. Of course, all of my memories are based on the translation at the time, so I may not have understood all of his meanings. 

For me and others, more publicity needed to focus on the process of interaction of Pope Francis and the sisters. It was a ground-breaking moment to steer free from traditional protocol and enter into personal, public dialogue with us. The UISG leadership had been given options of having the pope present a formal address or to answer prepared questions. Happily, the second option was welcomed. A precedent of this new openness had been set at a UISG constellation meeting 18 months earlier with Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. In the UISG council's usual spirit of inclusiveness, a few weeks before the assembly, Sr. Carmen Sammut, Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, invited UISG members who had registered to send in questions they would like answered. The executive committee collated the questions into categories and then formulated five questions. Four were read aloud for the Pope to answer, which he did in conversational style. The fifth, which was about sisters' being paid for their work, he spontaneously read himself and answered. This kind of openness and willingness to dialogue about issues brought from the group was most encouraging and hope-filled  for the assembled sisters because it gave their voices direct access to the pope himself.

This session with Pope Francis also strengthened our sense of global sisterhood that Pat Murray, the executive director of UISG and the council who works with her are trying to build. We share a global charism of religious and apostolic life, even though the ways we live out our charisms day to day may be very different as are our national or regional geographical and political contexts. It was clear throughout the assembly that commitment to living and breathing the life of Christ and the Spirit is central to all of us. We listened to reflective, challenging presentations, shared our concerns and hopes, sang and danced the joy of the Spirit of Pentecost and prayed together for peace in the many troubled parts of our one world. I think most of us left in a spirit of shared joy in our vocations with hope and confidence that God is still leading us wherever the future lies.

Our guest table. (Joyce Meyer)

[Joyce Meyer, PBVM, is international liaison to women religious outside of the United States for Global Sisters Report.]