Demographic collapse is tough ground to build a case for hope on. Yet, that's exactly where Marcia Allen, CSJ, began her presidential address, entitled "Transformation – An Experiment in Hope," to the Assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) last week.
She didn't talk about diminishment or downsizing, as women religious are apt to do. She didn't sugarcoat the facts or put on rose-colored glasses. No, she stood as a leader of the largest association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States and spoke the truth: Membership is collapsing.
"Our members are virtually evaporating!" Allen declared as she provided the statistics to support such a claim. What once served the leaders of 150,000 to 181,000 members will by 2025 serve the leadership of fewer than 29,000 sisters.
I can't imagine anyone in the room was shocked, but, as I read and reread Allen's remarks later, I was struck by the clarity and realism with which she spoke and wrote. What might at first seem tragic, struck me instead as awe-inspiring. This was real — and when we face reality, whether it is in ourselves or in the systems we are a part of, there is potential for growth. If demographic collapse was being so frankly discussed on a public stage, there might be hope. After all, the topic at hand was transformation, not desolation.
I have often said that as a young woman, I came to religious life knowing full well the reality of religious life. To the extent that I could, that is true. Yet, as with all things that we come to as an outsider, I could only know so much. At times, the reality of collapse is starker than I ever realized and in certain moments, it is actualized in ways I never would have imagined. In time, I've come to grapple with it more fully and to understand what exactly it means for me and the women I call sisters. Some days it spurs hope, other days it brings gratitude, and on even more days it causes me to wonder if change is possible.
The amalgamation of these thoughts and emotions is what Marcia Allen's poignant words struck on in me. And in her upfront naming of reality, I recognized that this, in fact, is the reality we need to move beyond.
Our task now is not to develop a new way of seeing the old. We're not meant to rearrange what we have, to make a new plan or to remodel what has been. The task at hand is to allow for a totally new view ― to recognize a new horizon.
The only way to see a new horizon, though, is to change where you are standing. Like falling asleep on a road trip, we awake to find that the cityscape we once saw has given way to fields of green and a flat horizon. Perhaps that is the way it is with hope and the transformation of religious life, too. For so many years, we've told ourselves numbers will increase and change will come. The change, though, has come in a different way, not in the form of new and abundant vocations, but in the inevitable impact of time. As we have waited and worked in hope, collapse has taken its toll.
So much has already changed, but still, no matter our numbers, we choose from where we see, and we have the opportunity to take in a new horizon. To see, as Allen puts it, "a whole horizon of possibility, a landscape filled with potential and unlimited opportunities." We cannot just sustain what was, we must develop questions that move us beyond now, meeting the needs of the future.
Reaching that new horizon, however, requires shifting our stance. It means approaching religious life in new ways, deconstructing systems, and gambling on the essence of our foundations. This isn't easy. No one ever said it would be.
In futility and desperation, we might shout out: "Tell me where to stand!" No one can, though. Like the Israelites in the desert, we wander. Taking in our surroundings and our reality, we keep our eyes on the horizon, bracing ourselves for what is to come. We remember too, that God works in the darkness. The wind blows through the night to part the Red Sea; in darkness, the Spirit hovers above the waters of Creation to bring forth life.
As a newer member in religious life, this wandering can be tiring but it is also formative. Just as Marcia Allen says that transformation is an experiment in hope, so is religious life today. It is an experiment that we take part in — that we give our whole selves to. In faith that leads to hope, we traverse the landscape.
And that is where Allen's words speak particularly to the new reality we face:
After all the rational has been tried; after the solutions have been articulated and failed; when old language turns to ashes in our mouths, then we are reduced to silence. That is when hope is activated. In the belief that something will come of the ravages of collapse, hope is forged. Against a far horizon, revealed obliquely in the periphery, the big question begins to emerge already articulate in new language. In the exchange with one another you began to see clearly what you are creating and why; that is, you began to see where the exploration of reinvention begins.
This is as true for elected congregational leaders as it is for sisters in the everyday.
In dialogue with one another and with God, reinvention begins. Collapse becomes the means for resurrection, and new life surfaces on a horizon you never saw before.
That is the life, however uncertain and imperfect, that we choose to live. It's an experiment in hope, a search for new horizons and a belief that faith can transform the world.
[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of St. 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.]