Women religious understand essential role of church

by Thomas C. Fox

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My colleague, NCR Vatican Correspondent Joshua McElwee, and I met Feb. 2 with several dozen women religious leaders at the headquarters of the International Union of Superiors General here in Rome, updating them on some of the latest Global Sisters Report efforts. We spoke to an appreciative audience. 

Among the ideas bounced around during a question-and-answer period were these:

  • The importance of congregational sustainability – and the very meaning of the concept itself. Said one sister: It involves passing on ministries to those living in areas where other sisters used to minister. She cautioned about imagining some future end and then being limited to a predetermined program. “Sometimes to know the finished project of an idea limits us,” she said. “Better to remain flexible and let needs move us forward.”
  • One sister noted that she had worked in an African country for many years with orphaned children. She said, however, that some of her most important work (and similarly some of the most important work of other women religious) involves changes that occurred from working with government officials on policy matters regarding orphans. She stressed the importance of structural change, as a means of dealing with poverty and social injustices. “Working for structural change may be the greatest contribution that we can make,” she said.
  • Another sister talked about the need for someone to take the time to gather the many unpublished files of women religious that rest in computers around the world. She explained that a rich history of the work of women religious is hidden in computers files, including reports of the many gatherings of women religious leaders. “It would be helpful for many sisters to have someone to go through their files to find the stories that are already there,” she said. 
  • Another sister spoke of the need for us to begin a French language page. (This idea has not been overlooked by GSR staff, and is on the “to do” list, when resources allow. 
  • Another sister offered praise for recent editorials, particularly concerning the U.S. apostolic visitation. “NCR editorials,” she said, “echoed the little voice inside me. They resonated deep inside. I heard my own voice being affirmed." She added with gratitude: “You don't back down."

Our readers generally agree the work of sisters worldwide does not get anywhere near the media coverage it deserves. Our women religious work with the most needy and marginalized of the world. They have been building the “Francis church” going back to the Vatican Council of the mid-1960s. While the official church remains a pyramid structure with men at the top, the working church is most often made up of a network of networks of women around the world who, because of advances in recent technology, are increasingly connected and, in a way, represent an alternative – or complementary – model of church. 

Women religious, north and south, I like to say, are the proverbial canaries in the mineshaft. How they do (and how the people they work with do), so the rest of the church and wider human community will fare in the years ahead. Since Catholic sisters work close to the most vulnerable of the world, since they toil along the fault lines of the globe, what they experience now is almost certainly going to be what the rest of the human community will experience in some form in the decades ahead – for better or worse. This is because we are an interconnected global human community and the women are at the base of this community.

War, terror, hunger, global climate change, poverty – these are greatest social challenges to the human family. These are the pressing and taxed social, economic and political contexts in which most of the women religious work today. 

Education, meanwhile, has significantly changed the roles of women – and women religious – in society in the past century. Opportunities for Catholic sisters to develop educational skills, from matters dealing with advanced theology degrees to modern business leadership skills, have also helped shape the roles women are playing in our church and wider world today. These changes, meanwhile, are pressuring a traditional male clerical order to change its ways, however reluctant it is to do so.

Women religious get it. 

The women religious superiors who gather and work in Rome, heading their orders “get it” in droves, as much or more than any others in the church. 

I’d like to think NCR “gets it” as well. And certainly the mission of the Global Sisters Report – to report the work and lives of women religious around the world and to help give them a platform to tell their own stories – operates within a common mission shared by women religious and NCR.  

Our common understandings of church are founded in the Gospels and most recently have grown out of the Second Vatican Council, which redirected the work of the church to be “out in the world,” among the People of God. 

It was a pleasure to be with the women religious superiors at the USIG headquarters. Before I left I asked if any wanted to share thoughts about the Global Sisters Report project. Here’s what a few had to say:

[Tom Fox is publisher of National Catholic Reporter and project manager for Global Sisters Report.]