Global sisterhood. Vibrant collaboration. Unity in diversity for Jesus' mission.
These were the phrases that stayed with me as I listened to a panel of sister-peers in March. The event was Profundo Encuentro, a national discernment retreat for Hispanic young adult women, at which I was a guest. The question was, "How do you envision the future of religious life?"
My fellow younger, newer sisters responded with enthusiasm and conviction. They love religious life, and they believe it will thrive as our congregational stories interweave in new ways. What is already evident will become even more so as we evolve: "Global sisterhood. Vibrant collaboration. Unity in diversity for Jesus' mission."
It's no secret that religious life in the United States is changing. Recent statistics from CARA, as reported in LCWR's April 2019 newsletter, illustrate this starkly:
- It is predicted that the most radical changes will occur in U.S. religious life in the next 5 to 10 years as significant demographic shifts take place.
- 80% of finally professed women religious today in the U.S. are 70 years of age or older.
- While there are approximately 45,000 women religious in the U.S. today, by 2024, it is predicted that there will be 23,000. Of those, 6,900 will be under 70.
- 300 of the 420 institutes of religious life in the United States will move to completion in the next several decades.
Whew! Taken alone, those stats are apt to knock the wind out of us. They seem to support a "diminishment" ideology. But Easter offers us a different lens. We are Christians; we are resurrection people. The paschal mystery allows us to face our reality with honesty and hope.
First, honesty. It means we don't ignore pain and fear. The numbers listed above, of course, are not numbers. They are people, beloved members of our community. We have already buried so many good women, and we will bury so many more. This is something that newer members hold with reverence. In some ways, we have entered at a truly favored time, a time when we can learn the deep stories of our congregations from the great generation of wisdom figures. On the other hand, we carry the weight of too many goodbyes.
Indeed, there is much grieving to be done across the generations. And for those sisters who have grown up in a large U.S. religious life, the impending smallness and letting go entailed may be scary. This is all normal, and it is okay. It will only hold us back if it stays under the surface. If we name pain, fear and grief, if we are honest about it, we can move forward together with rooted resilience.
Second, hope. The central story of our faith leads from brutal crucifixion to wondrous, previously unimaginable, new life. Can we believe that this story continues in our midst? Religious life has always been a shape-shifting lifeform — and God has always been the shaper. As the pottery wheel of time whizzes on, God lovingly molds us with expert hands into what — and who — is needed for the present. Even as we grieve, we can rejoice in the goodness emerging. Instead of "diminishment," I choose a paradigm of "transformation."
There is power in smallness. With fewer sisters, U.S. religious life will be nimble, flexible and adaptable, perhaps uniquely positioning us to respond to the complex issues of our time. With fewer congregations, we increasingly know each other — and need each other. Thanks be to God, our circumstances are propelling us into the vision articulated by my sister-peer panelists: "Global sisterhood. Vibrant collaboration. Unity in diversity for Jesus' mission."
Profundo Encuentro itself was a powerful example of new life, planned by the intercongregational Vocaciones Hispanas committee of the National Catholic Sisters Project. The 36 Latina young adult retreatants were accompanied by sister-supporters like myself from at least 14 different congregations. The programming focused on discernment and religious life in general, and smaller groups and informal gatherings allowed for encounters with diverse charisms. For me, the retreat proclaimed loud and clear that we are on the same team, united in gratitude for our vocation and in the desire to support young women earnestly seeking God's call, wherever that leads.
Intercongregational collaboration has profoundly impacted my experience of religious life. My peers in Giving Voice and the Future of Charity are the "band" that I wouldn't have otherwise: women who get religious life and who get what it's like to be 32 in 2019. Currently, I live in the intercongregational Together collaborative at Catholic Theological Union. We recently vowed sisters share intentional community and formation experiences while studying graduate-level theology or ministry. I am away from my congregation, but I am surely at home.
The beauty of it is that it is never a choice between my congregation and intercongregational relationships. It is a both-and. I am, at my core, a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, drawn and impelled by the charism of charity. I love my sisters. And I am a global sister, united with other sisters in our glorious diversity, committed to vibrant collaboration for the mission of Jesus. I love them, too. I need both to be healthy and hope-filled in my vocation.
On Saturday, May 4, the two worlds I love so dearly will come together at our Sisters of Charity Motherhouse for an In Our Own Words book panel and conversation. I was part of a team of 13 authors, sisters under age 50 from diverse communities and cultures, who created the book in 2017. Since its release last spring, we've hosted 15 panels all over the country (and even in Ireland!) to continue the conversation about religious life. This will be the 16th. As we sit around tables together, old and young and in between, from different congregations, I pray that we touch into the joy of what God might have in store for religious life:
A future of global sisterhood, vibrant collaboration and unity in diversity for Jesus' mission.
A future full of hope.
Author's note: The May 4 panel will be livestreamed at srcharitycinti.org from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. EDT
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati who authored the blog Diary of a Sister-in-Training during formation. After a decade in social justice and Hispanic ministry, she is working toward her master's degree in pastoral ministry at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.]