Grief, play and friendship

by Susan Rose Francois

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I recently found myself playfully adapting the opening line from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Thinking about, and praying for, some younger Catholic sister friends who are grieving the loss of dear wisdom women in their religious communities, I repurposed the quote in my mind and heart: “It is a truth increasingly acknowledged, that a younger Catholic sister blessed with friendship in community, must be in want of religious life age peers.”

As I’ve written before, religious life is in the midst of rapid demographic change. The latest statistical report from the National Religious Retirement Office shows that 73.2 percent of Catholic sisters are over the age of 70. That number alone is dramatic, but the picture becomes clearer when you break down the 26.8 percent of us under 70: 16.9 percent are in their 60s; 4.7 percent in their 50s; 2.4 percent in their 40s; 1.8 percent in their 30s; and 1 percent in their 20s.

From experience, I know that simply naming this reality can be overwhelming. But it is reality.  And in many ways, it is a beautiful one because it means that religious life, as it is lived today by younger Catholic sisters, is always an intergenerational experience.

When I playfully say that a younger Catholic sister “must be in want of religious life age peers,” it is not because she can’t find good friends in community. Quite the contrary! Living in an intergenerational community is both a blessing and a joy. I love my sisters in community. They make me laugh. They beat me at cards. They pray for me. They challenge me. They quite honestly make me a better person. I believe that one gift that the present demographic reality of religious life can bring to the world is a demonstration that friendship does not have to carry an age limit. It does have limits however, because we are human and have a limited life span.

I recently spent two weeks with my religious community at our congregation chapter. One highlight was the profession liturgy, where Srs. Juliana, Katrina and Sheena professed their first vows, and Sr. Dorothy professed her perpetual vows. This was the first time that we have had a profession of vows at a congregation chapter meeting, and it was such a joyful experience with 150 sisters and associates present from across our three regions. 

Another highlight of our chapter experience was the day we celebrated the lives of the members of our community who have passed away since our last chapter six years ago. There was not a dry eye in the assembly room as we watched a simple video with pictures of these amazing women of peace. As their faces appeared on the big screen, I found myself remembering. There was Sr. Mary Rose who loved my brownies, Sr. Elizabeth Ann who embodied gracious hospitality, Sr. Mildred who was always ready to surprise you with a joke, and Sr. Mary Ann who invariably had a twinkle in her eye. I had lived with each of these women, shared community with them, and I am indeed a better person for it.

Perhaps another gift that contemporary religious life is poised to bring to the world is a collective experience of grieving while simultaneously facing the future with gratitude and hope. Certainly, our demographic reality means that younger Catholic sisters today not only have an unusual opportunity to develop intergenerational friendships, we also have a lot of experience in saying goodbye.

In 2009, I was invited to speak as part of a panel at the conference of Giving Voice, a grassroots national network of Catholic sisters under 50. Each of the panelists shared her deepest longings for community life. Given the reality that most of us are part of a very small age cohort in our own communities, I shared my longing to build relationships now with age peers across congregation lines so that we can support one another in the coming decades. I asked, “How do we help each other say goodbye to the wisdom women of our lives.”

Naming my own longing seemed to help others name their grief. During the open mic session that followed, Giving Voice sisters expressed their feelings of being blessed to be here at this time in religious life, and grateful for the women with whom they have shared community. It was a moment of grace, even if my panelist presentation also caused a younger sister friend of mine to playfully name me “Death Girl.”

We don’t often think of grief and play as going together, but my experience as a Catholic sister has helped me to realize that they must be intertwined. I recently read a book by Michael S. Koppel, a Presbyterian minister and professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, that has confirmed these instincts. In Open-Hearted Ministry: Play as Key to Pastoral Leadership (Fortress Press: 2008), Koppel observes that one cannot ignore the energy depleting aspects of ministry, but must instead play through them. We can only come to recognize ourselves as “deeply interconnected with God and one another” through the mix of “creative play as well as soul-absorbing grief” (pg. 35).

Increasingly, my experience of religious life friendship – both intergenerationally in community and with religious life age peers – has confirmed my belief that engaging in play together makes us better able to grieve and live into the unknown future of religious life. The future needs leaders, and Koppel believes that play can transform pastoral leaders. First, creative play opens us to the reality that just because something has been done a certain way in the past does not preclude other possibilities. Second, play fully immerses us in the present moment. Third, play (re)awakens our passion for God’s call. Finally, play gives us a chance to “practice trusting God, ourselves, and others” (pgs. 75-76).

My religious life friendships, with sisters of all ages, offer me countless opportunities to play, and thereby practice trusting God, myself, and others. As we face our smaller yet no less powerful future, I am grateful that the interplay of grief and play also helps open me up to new possibilities and reminds me that, in the end, all we have is now.

At the end of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, of course, the single man in question – Mr. Darcy – does realize he wants to marry Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and vice versa. The last line of Austen’s book finds Darcy and Elizabeth “ever sensible of the warmest gratitude” they hold toward those friends who “had been the means of uniting them.” As for me, the increasing depth and breadth of my religious life friendships, including those to whom I have already said goodbye, leave me sensible of my own warmest gratitude to God who called me to this crazy wonderful life in the first place, and excited about the adventures and friendships still to come.

[St. Joseph of Peace Sr. Susan Rose Francois is a Bernardin Scholar in Ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She has ministered as a justice educator and advocate and worked in local government prior to entering religious life. Read more of her work on her blog At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]