There are rare moments when one experiences a fullness of time. A time and place where the previous years' hopes and desires emerge as an intensified whole deeper and more grounded than one could have hoped. That was my experience of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious' (LCWR) Assembly this year.
This year's assembly was a profound experience of the power of communal contemplation and its invitation to deep sharing. The tone and atmosphere of our gathering reflected a stillness of deep silence. It was not empty or passive but held potentiality and a readiness to step into the future. Or at least that is how I felt.
It is as if these previous years, decades really, in which we grappled with how to engage ecclesiastical authority committed to contemplation and dialogue have come to a fullness. It is hard for me to describe, but I feel we are grounded so firmly that we do not have to convince each other that this is the way to be; rather, we know it and in knowing it we now move from that place hopefully with greater freedom and capacity to risk.
I started thinking about these past years as LCWR members spoke to me about the Engaging Impasse Circles and my 2000 LCWR presidential address. I was curious to recall that time as it was another moment in which LCWR experienced quite painfully the consequence of ecclesial authority. The years 1999 and 2000 brought us into heightened conflict among ourselves over a notification issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith regarding the ministry of Jeannine Gramick and Bob Nugent with gay and lesbian Catholics.
Although the notification was directed to the respective congregational leaders and as such was an internal issue, LCWR entered into the conversation primarily because the 1999 assembly had passed a special resolution. It said: "After research and reflection, the LCWR presidency and members will initiate conversations with official leaders at all levels of the Roman Catholic Church to address a pattern in the exercise of ecclesiastical authority experienced as a source of suffering and division by many within the Catholic community."
In the participant packet for the 2000 assembly, the context and actions for implementation were delineated as well as issues to be discussed at various meetings with bishops and Vatican congregations.
When the notification became public, it generated lots of responses by religious to the Vatican supporting the two individual religious. Seeing the notification as an example of this pattern of authority, some LCWR members submitted a resolution for the 2000 assembly that had the potential of dividing the membership.
Interestingly we had planned a contemplative process for this Assembly. A few years earlier we had committed ourselves to integrate contemplation and action on behalf of our work for social justice. Now our conference goals were to address the transformation of religious life. We were ready to deepen our commitment to contemplation on behalf of justice within the church.
It was within this context that I prepared my address. It was an affirmation of religious life as it had evolved since Vatican II as well as an acknowledgment that women religious were at an impasse with many in the hierarchy. What was clear to me from our visit to the Vatican offices in spring of 2000 was that all the ways that we knew how to respond to what we perceived as an injustice did not work. We had to respond in new ways. We needed to respond from our deepest core. Inspired by Constance FitzGerald's work, I knew that only contemplation would allow us to imagine new ways rooted in love. "And, that we must do so individually and together. We need to stay in contemplation long enough and then to see with our hearts how we can respond."
That same desire to stay with the impasse not only with the church but with each other as we engaged around the difficult issue facing us as an assembly was strongly affirmed. At the end of the assembly one of the members from the floor proposed that we make a commitment to contemplation as a way of implementing the 1999 resolution. It was overwhelmingly adopted, and LCWR leadership organized a year of contemplation and fasting. Members began a rolling fast where women religious in various cities took a day and hosted an hour of contemplation inviting bishops, priests, religious and other laity to come together in a day of contemplation and fasting for the healing of broken relationships in our church and our world.
I began my address singing, "Everything before us, brought us to this moment standing on the threshold of a brand new day." I felt then that 2000 only happened because of all that went before it. The year 2000 was an intensified moment in time for the conference, but it was not the fullness of time. The intervening years brought greater pain and suffering. We experienced impasse profoundly with the Vatican investigation and the doctrinal assessment.
Through those years, however, we were also deepening our understanding and practice of contemplation, the power of communal contemplation and the skills needed to engage in dialogue. That brought us to the moment when LCWR members and the presidency were ready to engage the Vatican's allegations with profound love and commitment to fostering right relationships. The power of communal contemplation was seen as strength not weakness. It led us to transformation of heart and of consciousness.
I sense that this year's assembly brings us to another new moment. Like particle/wave no longer either/or but both/and, women religious embraced contemplation and action. It is the ground of our being. We don't have to second guess it anymore. Of course, for many, one has always flowed from the other, but I sense that after Vatican II some of us believed our actions were more effective than our prayer. Now we believe in the power of communal contemplation and strive for dialogue to understand our differences.
It is out of that place of fullness that I believe we must move forward. Contemplation invites a transformation of consciousness which in turn transforms how we live and act. The world is hungry for a new way of being that reflects more profoundly Gospel values. Women religious are hungry to live the rest of our lives full of passion worthy of one's original vocation.
I sense so strongly that women religious are ready to embrace the future with all the joy and suffering it holds from this contemplative space with a renewed heart and a new zeal for transformation. As we move into the future we join our energy with so many others who believe in the transformation of our world. Indeed, we do not do this alone. Let us remember . . .
"Everything Before Us Brought Us to this Moment Standing on the Threshold of a Brand New Day."
[Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan as well as in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]
To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.