Q & A with Sr. Sharlet Wagner, new president-elect of LCWR

This story appears in the LCWR 2017 feature series. View the full series.

The new president-elect of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is Holy Cross Sr. Sharlet Wagner from Notre Dame, Indiana.

She was elected Aug. 9 at the annual assembly in Orlando and was inaugurated Aug. 11, joining the presidential trio alongside Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word Teresa Maya, president, and St. Joseph Sr. Mary Pellegrino, past-president.

Since 2014, Wagner has been serving as her congregation's first councilor, and before that served on Holy Cross' leadership team as general secretary. Wagner has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, which led to her main ministry work as an immigration attorney.

In her speech to the assembly as a presidential candidate, she shared an anecdote from being a new member in her 20s, having a conversation with 94-year-old Sister Coronada, who had come back to live at the motherhouse.

"I was talking with her shortly after her arrival and naively asked, 'Sister, how are you enjoying retirement?' She responded, 'Oh, honey, around here, you never retire. As long as there's spit on your tongue, they'll run stamps across it.' I did not recognize at the time the wisdom behind Corrie's words," Wagner told the assembly.

"We do face challenges, but these challenges can energize us rather than overwhelm us, and as I consider the challenges, I like to keep in mind that we still have a lot of spit on our tongues."

GSR: What about your background would you like our readers to know as you introduce yourself as the new president-elect?

Wagner: I've had experiences living in several different countries. I think of myself as a global citizen; as a child, we moved a lot. My dad was a geologist working for Exxon, and he got transferred a number of times as he worked in the company, so we lived in Michigan, Alabama, Maine, Texas, Arkansas, South Africa. In that sense, that moving around gave me a broader perspective, particularly living outside the United States.

Then in my congregation, I ministered in Uganda, Ghana, and in leadership in the congregation, and I have visited a number of countries visiting sisters. So I think that global perspective I hope will be helpful to me in LCWR, especially as I'm hearing a desire for greater inclusion, greater diversity, and greater connection across the globe.

Tell me about your work as an immigration attorney.

Being with others who are in, some of them, such desperate situations, calls forth a level of compassion and enlarged my own sense of compassion. It sounds a little corny, but it enlarged my heart, being with others. As I journeyed with people and did my work as an immigration attorney, I came to a deeper realization that my ministry was to help people in whatever they were doing: become citizens, get a work permit, bring a family member over, gain asylum.

What I did for that person was important, but much of my ministry, unfortunately, because of current immigration laws, was giving people bad news. Ninety percent of what I did was give bad news that there was nothing I could do to help them. There was nothing I could do to help them bring their son or daughter over to the U.S., there was no way to get a work permit, no way to help them to stay, that they were going to be deported.

I came to realize that while my ministry was to help them achieve what they wanted, the greater part of it was simply being with them to help them realize the presence of God in that interaction with one another, to treat the person with respect, with dignity, to listen to their story, and hopefully for them to leave my office, even if they could not name the presence of God, to have sensed that, to have felt God's compassion and presence in the interaction. I think immigrants so often are not treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve as children of God, and to do that with them became very important to us.

How has the assembly this week — and I'm thinking of Mary Pellegrino's address, especially — inspired you, or how do you think the presidential triumvirate will act on it?

In talking about my week, I probably wouldn't talk about the speeches (although every one of them was excellent, especially Mary Pellegrino's), but I would talk about the spirit of the assembly and what I heard from the sisters. There seemed to be a different spirit, a renewed spirit. I was not at the last two assemblies, but I have been to a number of assemblies, and those past assemblies were, out of necessity, dealing with the doctrinal assessment for LCWR.

This assembly seemed to be more focused on tending our spirits and looking to the future and looking outward to the world, and I found that very energizing. I think Mary's talk, especially, about letting go of the dying narrative of diminishment and looking at the emerging narrative of connection was really spot-on, and that's what I heard from the sisters: a very strong sense of wanting to look at connections across congregations, connections across the global sisterhood, connections with laypeople. That does seem to be an emerging narrative that I find energizing and that the sisters found energizing. It's something I believe — that sense of oneness of connectivity — that our church and world need right now.

Any other last thoughts or comments you'd like to share as you look to the three years you have ahead in the presidency?

As I was standing on the stage, I was very moved in the transfer of leadership, when we had the blessing of the board and then the blessing of the presidency. And standing on the stage, arms linked with Tere and Mary, I was looking out over the assembly of sisters, and first I felt in awe and was just thinking about the wealth of experience and the wealth of goodness in that room.

As I looked out, I have never felt so profoundly inadequate in my life. But I also never felt so held up and carried by my sisters as I felt, and I realize I can do this because this body of women is holding us up and carrying us, and as long as I can remain rooted in that, rooted in God, in my center, I think it's going to be an interesting journey. It'll be a wild ride. I'm looking forward to it and can say I feel exhilarated and terrified.

[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado.]