Being a young religious sister means you represent a lot of things to a lot of people. You are an anomaly; you are the image of a teacher/counselor/nurse/confidant/relative from the past; you are a beacon of hope or a bearer of harsh realities. You come to embody the church. And, whether you like it or not, you will be called upon, time and time again, to represent issues and viewpoints much larger than yourself.
In many ways, you can get lost behind the title and qualifier of “sister.” Before they know you, people will read their opinions on to you. And even after they’ve engaged with you, many will make assumptions about where you stand on subjects. Marriage Equality. Women’s Ordination. Pope Francis. No matter the topic, there are presumptions of how I feel and think.
I don’t know if it’s a reality that I will ever get used to, yet I know that this is my reality: I am in the unique possession of two voices – my own and that of an authority far greater than just me.
I speak for myself, but I also speak on behalf of my congregation, my church and my faith. The responsibility is as tremendous as it is ridiculous. It is a position that requires prudence and humility, as well as a healthy dose of humor.
How can one person embody a whole system, its values and its truth? How can she be held accountable for the actions of an institution she finds herself a faithful member of? How does one reconcile the two voices they hold in tandem? These are the questions I find myself beholden to.
The answers to these questions aren’t easy, first and foremost, because our world isn’t so starkly binary. We operate in a world of in-betweens, a world of grey. Anyone who ministers, be they a committed lay person, a religious brother, a priest or a woman religious, knows this reality. We have to uphold our obligations and commitments to those we serve, both the organizations we belong to and those who place their trust in us as representatives. That trust gives us a distinct authority and responsibility in our interactions with others. It (whether rightfully or not) makes us agents of truth.
As a result, we must respond and act with compassion. A pastoral response is the only response.
The nature of such a response can be complicated. To be pastoral does not mean dismissing doctrine. It does, however, mean vowing to do no harm. That is the trust others place in us, that we will act responsibly, love fully, embrace vulnerability, and embody compassion. And that’s where having two voices takes on another dimension.
Recently, while I was away taking theology classes for the summer, a fellow student and friend pulled me aside before class. “Did you hear the news?” she asked looking at me wide eyed, “About the teacher in Philadelphia?”
I nodded. I knew the story; the head of the religious education department at an academy run by a group of women religious hadn’t had her contract renewed after a complaint was filed by a parent about her same-sex marriage. The school had cited the upholding of its Catholic identity in its letter to the community, a defense applauded by the bishop and supported by the congregation. My friend spoke vehemently about what she saw as the injustice of it all. How could this happen? What could be done? Why stay in the church? Is there any hope?
She looked deep into my eyes as I listened to the pain and struggle she shared. Suddenly, she took a step back. “I’m sorry,” she said breaking eye contact, shaking her head to loosen her focus. “I know you deal with this all the time . . . it’s your life . . . I just needed to say something to someone.”
I thanked her for trusting me and offered what I could: compassion, hope and understanding.
I could hear my voice speaking – a mix of my own desires for the church, my deep belief in God’s love, and an active attentiveness to and acknowledgement of her feelings. The two voices within me intertwining in response.
“I don’t know what more I can say,” I uttered softly, focusing with empathy on her eyes. This is my life. I thought to myself.
No matter what we say, in whatever voice, speaking with reverence is pivotal. In that moment (like so many other moments), I had the opportunity to give voice to the love of God for all people.
That love knows no bounds.
It is patient; it is kind; it is not rude; it does not seek its own interests. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It is the love of Christ. A love that has embraced us and so we are able to embrace others.
Ultimately, it is a love that creates the space for dialogue both within ourselves and with the world. We enter into this conversation with true humility. Secure in who we are, we are able to open ourselves to the conflict, nuance and discovery inherently present in conversation. We do not fear change, but prayerfully allow the Spirit to work in and among us. I can be who I am with integrity and openness. This does not silence any one voice, but listens attentively for the voice I’ve given myself to, the One who seeks union in all things.
I may speak with two voices, but there is only one voice I need to be listening for, the voice of the one who called me and continues to call: God.
Listening attentively to God in prayer and in action, we emerge from a place of compassion, where we can critically consider the situations and opinions before us. This may mean responding in a way that steps outside of our bounds, to a place where we must reach out to the other, making ourselves just as vulnerable as the one we serve.
On a large scale, there is perhaps no better example of this than the Leadership Council of Women Religious’ response to the doctrinal assessment. With time and prayer, the group came to a place where union was possible, where all voices could be heard, and the voice of the Spirit could be heard. On the smaller scale, this happens each time we make the space for another to share with us. Standing with my friend before class, I could hear her and acknowledge all she needed to say in word and in feeling. I couldn’t solve the problem, but I could respond to it with compassion. The voice was my own, a gift of God and a reflection, I pray, of the voice of the Divine I seek to follow each day.
That is the voice I listen for, the voice that reverberates in my bones. It is the voice that I fell in love with and that called me once and continues to call. It is the voice that teaches me each day how to speak, not in a scripted way but from the heart. Creating harmony between the voices of my being and my vocation in a way that speaks far beyond me and also deep within me . . . to the heart of the true heart of the matter.
[Colleen Gibson, SSJ, is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]
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