“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Recently I’ve been playing around with this familiar quotation attributed to Gandhi. While there is apparently some dispute as to whether Gandhi actually said these words, they nevertheless hold a surplus of meaning for those seeking to effect systemic change and make peace in a world where oppression and violence abound.
As a younger Catholic sister living religious life in the early 21st century, I have discovered a different surplus of meaning by substituting one word: “Be the present you want to see in the world.” This may become my new mantra, and speaks to me of the need to be fully engaged in religious life now, even as I join with my sisters in having an eye towards the future.
I have come to believe that change is one of the main constants of contemporary religious life. Change has been the name of the game ever since my sisters listened attentively to the call of the Second Vatican Council and embarked on the journey of renewal. Change continues to be part of our lived reality today, particularly as we navigate the shifting landscape of diminishment and demographic change and the subsequent impacts on both how we care for our own and how we meet the needs of a world thirsting for the presence of people committed to the Gospel.
Change can lead us to look to the past: where have we been, what have we let go of, what might we wish to reclaim? Change can lead us to look to the future horizon: Where is God calling us and how might we get there? Yet, change should also lead us to be fully present in the place and moment where we find ourselves, because that is where we will find God.
In early August I joined 70 other women religious in their 20s, 30s and 40s at the national Giving Voice gathering held in Kansas City, Kansas. Our speakers Holy Names Sr. Sophia Park and Incarnate Word Sr. Teresa Maya helped us to touch into the heart of our present experience as younger religious. Sophia Park named the reality that, as members of a very small age cohort, we are indeed on the margins of religious life. Yet, that is a privileged place to be. Where we stand leads us to see both the present and the future horizon differently. Teresa Maya noted that consequently, the present- and future-oriented questions of the dominant age cohort — generally centered on resources, institutions and the role of the laity — may not be the relevant questions for the newer generations. She challenged us, in light of our increasing intercultural, intergenerational, intercongregational and international reality, to name our own relevant questions.
There was tremendous energy at the Giving Voice gathering as we began to name our questions and claim our place in religious life today. Some of that energy has already seeped onto the virtual pages of Global Sisters Report.
Regular Horizons columnist Charity Sr. Tracy Kemme offers a beautiful multi-layered reflection, one aspect of which I would like to highlight here. In her 2014 LCWR Assembly address, Franciscan Sr. Nancy Schreck introduced a term — middle space — to name our present reality in religious life. Middle space represents this time as an almost Holy Saturday moment. Much is breaking down, we know something new is emerging, but this is a moment pregnant with not yet. Tracy’s column names her own struggle with this phrase from her standpoint as a 29-year-old newly professed sister: “But I personally am not in middle space! Nor should I be! The ‘familiar’ that may be breaking down was never familiar to me. . . . I was made for this time and this place. I and many of the Giving Voice sisters, am beyond middle space.”
Certainly our standpoint gives us a different — and perhaps privileged — view of the future horizon. Yet it also gives us a different perspective on our present reality, a crucial perspective which risks being lost when younger religious are labeled as the future of religious life. St. Joseph Sr. Linda Buck gives voices to this tension. “If I am relegated to the future, how can I create the future? The creation of a future is in the present. I am both the present of religious, and the future!”
Personally, I left the Giving Voice gathering challenged and committed to living more fully in the present moment. The next step on my journey, interestingly enough, was Houston, Texas, where I attended my first LCWR Assembly as member of my congregation leadership team.
I was challenged again to stay in the present moment, this time by Janet Mock, CSJ in her keynote address. “Notice that God does not say I WAS nor I WILL BE. God is I AM.” We only find God in the present moment. It was almost as if Janet had been with us at the Giving Voice gathering.
The synchronicity continued as Janet Mock dedicated a significant portion of her address to the presence of younger women in religious life. She offered a fresh perspective which embodied hope for the future, yet grounded that hope in the present reality of women who are choosing to enter religious life today. She did not lament that the numbers are smaller than they were during the vocation booms of earlier generations. Rather she began to discern what some of the needs might be for the younger religious among us. “They need a future to believe in and they need mentors who are excited about engaging and discerning our future as women religious. Are our household conversations about the past or are we discussing the present and the future? Do we engage new members in conversation about the essence of our lives?” Again, it was almost as if she has been eavesdropping on our conversations at Giving Voice.
As I have read and re-read Janet’s talk, I am particularly struck that she frames her conversation about meeting the needs of the newer generations of sisters in the context of naming the present moment as a prophetic act. If we truly believe in the future of religious life, then that future will grow out of how we live our present now. We are building the bridge as we are walking on it. I sometimes think of this bridge as a magic suspension bridge in the sky, because we have not yet reached the other side, nor do we have a firm idea of our destination.
My generation is known for its ability to multi-task, and perhaps that is a good thing. So much is happening in this present moment in religious life. We are tending to what is passing. We are discerning and nurturing what is emerging. We are building a bridge between the two. And all the while, as faithful women of the Gospel we are reading the signs of the times and seeking to meet the thirsts of the world. This is a moment which needs all hands on deck, all perspectives, all capacities, all wisdom. This moment needs us fully present.
The Spirit is certainly moving among us. That was clear both at Giving Voice and at LCWR. “Your task,” Janet Mock told the LCWR Assembly, “is discerning where and how to be in communion with the activity of God in our world now, at this present moment.” I believe this is the task of all who are living religious life today. It is the only way we will navigate this tremendous time of change and build the magic suspension bridge to the future of religious life.
[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]