Reconfiguring my discipleship

This story appears in the Crisis in the Church feature series. View the full series.

The sisters and I are finished with eating our dinner, but remain seated at the table. I am sharing from a vulnerable place, telling a story about my struggles, growth and the challenge of being a healthy and balanced human. Then, our conversation is interrupted by a strange, loud squawking noise coming from the top of one of the tall pines on the nearby lakeshore. Together, we jump up from the table, a mix of curiosity and concern moving us outward.

The youngest and the quickest, I am the first to make my way to the end of the dock and turn my gaze upward to the treetops. There, I see two giant birds on neighboring branches. One is a mix of brown and white, a hawk; the other black and white with a golden beak, an eagle. The hawk is the one screaming, yelling at the eagle like a human toddler claiming its toy, its territory: "Mine! Mine!"

From my vantage point, the eagle seems to be staring at the other. Perhaps glaring. Possibly stubborn. Definitely quiet and bold. The deafening hawk continues screaming, unfazed by the humans crowding on the shore and staring upward at the spectacle. Eventually, the birds take flight, the eagle first going in one direction and then the hawk in the other. As they go, the only sound heard is the movement of their expansive wings moving through the air. With wonder all over our faces, the sisters and I head back to our home, to our dining table, and to tasks of washing dishes and praying together — our shared life.

When my heart aches because of the scandals of the church, I think of those powerful birds having a territorial fight in the treetops and the way that my housemates and I continued onward with our lives. The birds squabbled and fought, they towered over us little sisters gaping upward, unfazed by our presence and power. Quieter than the birds, we tended to the mundane and sacred matters of our humanity: community building, cleaning things up, steadfast prayer and devotion to Christ. We remained small and calm.

I never before thought the division in my beloved church would get so bad that some bishops would be asking for my beloved pope's resignation; such a circumstance was unimaginable less than six years ago when loyalty to the Holy Father was the mark of a good Catholic. The allegations toward Pope Francis by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò cannot be Spirit-led — although the Holy Spirit can be fiery, its glow is always mercy and hope. The division made manifest by this act of sinful use of power ought to be seen as an attack on the Body of Christ, as a gaping wound cut close to its heart.

The heartache of scandals and infighting is dizzying, confusing, painful. Not long ago, I felt the hurt so deeply that my prayer life spiraled into a place of frustration, a tunnel of confusion leading to collapse. I wasn't sure how to be a Franciscan Sister anymore, how to be a public face of the church. I felt paralyzed by the pain.

I went away on a retreat and silenced the news of scandals of heartache so I could reconfigure my discipleship, so I could reimagine what it means to be a woman of the church. Within hours of my arrival, I found myself returning my gaze to Jesus — and ignoring arguments from treetops and towers. With my gaze turned back to Christ, I was quickly healed and gained much strength and peace.

In the past, certain injustices and encounters of human suffering in church and society have compelled me to raise my voice, my angry fist, my megaphone. When it comes to the current corruption of the church that I have dedicated my life to, however, the call of this moment is different. Now I want to remember my minority, not my might.

I have grown convinced that the broken ones need us sisters to be companions holding them in their pain, offering shoulders to sob on and sanctuaries for expressing their anger. By the offering of our feminine energy we can tend to the heart of Christ who is beaten and bloody in our midst; we can be instruments of healing, peace and strength.

When I think of those birds having a territorial fight in the treetops and the scandals of this time, I am reminded of the human tendency to build and destroy, to lift up and tear down. Construction and destruction have been our pattern since before there was an Incarnation, since the days when borders were blurred. And in this hard and sacred time, during this era of disillusionment and crumbling institutions, we are invited to reconfigure who we are and how we are in relation with every living being around us.

The wildness of creatures around us — whether it is beasts screaming at others, the might of predators, the interruptions of the loud cries — can cause us to naturally feel our smallness, as we ought. The birds squabbling in the tree helped me understand that I am a daily visitor to the habitat of several species.

This sacred time that we are in now together may be crammed with challenge, but we have no need to despair. When I was with Jesus in the quiet of my retreat, my concern for the sorrows of church and society didn't decrease, but my trust in Jesus increased. Christ's love and power are bigger than any human-made heartache, failure or sin. Christ is redeeming and healing the splits near his heart, the divides over territory. Jesus is showing us all that there is enough for everyone. And we are called to quietly aid and assist in this mission of compassion, to embrace the sacredness of smallness. This is a path to peace.

[Now on staff at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in northern Wisconsin, Julia Walsh is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, a Catholic youth minister, a committed social justice activist, and a graduate of Catholic Theological Union. Her award-winning writing has appeared in AmericaGlobal Sisters ReportLiving Faith, and PILGRIM Journal. Visit her online at and follow her on Twitter @juliafspa.]