For longer than I have been alive, let alone a vowed member of my religious congregation, religious life has been in a state of constant change, transformation and even chaos.
Most of my religious sisters entered during a more predictable and structured time, which was quickly blown into the air by the winds of change set loose by the Second Vatican Council. In contrast, women who choose to enter most apostolic congregations in the 21st century intentionally engage this changing context. Ignited by the spark of God's eternal love, they make a radical life choice to add their energy to the chaotic mix, in service of God's people in need.
I am reminded of one particular conversation I had with one of my sisters who has since gone home to God, Sister of St. Joseph of Peace Mary Byrnes. I was assigned to interview one of our elder sisters about her experience of renewal after Vatican II. Sister Mary was living in our infirmary, and when I first asked to interview her she was not sure she had much to share. Overnight however her memories came flooding back and she was overflowing with excitement to share them with me.
After she entered in 1950, she spent her first years in ministry as a primary school teacher. Later she was asked to be an administrator of our school for blind children and then of our retirement center. Sister Mary came most alive, however, when she spoke of her dynamic experiences as part of the Movement for a Better World. She traveled across the U.S. and to India and Rome to collaborate with lay Catholics, priests and other religious on how to make collective change in ways of thinking, relating and acting that would result in a better world. Sister Mary also became a practitioner of Christian Zen, and would later have Buddhist monks present at her wake service.
After Sister Mary shared her whirlwind of experiences with me, she paused and said seriously, "I am amazed at how brave you and others entering religious life today are." She was in tune with our demographics as an aging community and wondered at our faith to enter such an unknown future. "Sister Mary," I asked, "when you entered in 1950 did you have any idea you would be invited into so many different adventures as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace?" She had to admit she had not. "The only difference," I remember saying, "is that while you thought you knew the path ahead and then everything was thrown into the air, all those of us who enter today know is that we don't know."
Last week I attended the national Giving Voice gathering with 75 other newer women religious who, like me, know that we don't know what lies ahead. Then I made a retreat with the five other women who have made vows as Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace in the past 10 years. My heart is filled with the energy each of these women has for religious life, their commitment to be part of communities for mission, their deep love of God, and the joy we share in this life. We know that to an impartial outsider, our choice to enter aging communities on the precipice of yet another drastic change — as large-scale religious life shifts to something smaller — is perhaps a little bit crazy. And yet here we are, fools for Christ, called by something deeper and stronger than logic.
We also have our share of frustrations. For one thing, it is challenging to be in the generative stage of our lives when so much of our community resources and energies need to be directed toward the care of large numbers of our older sisters. There is confusion and uncertainty about how best to direct our own ministerial energy during this time of transition. There is a desire for common mission just when most sisters are no longer on mission. Some may be frustrated at the lack of resources in their community, or the lack of risk-taking by leaders or community, or the lack of x, y, z. There is enough joy, energy, hope and zeal present among us to keep alive the passion that drew us to this life, but we must tend the fire lest it burn out. We are grateful for the gift of community, encouraged by our elders in community, and building connections of support and collaboration across congregational lines.
I stand by my belief that religious life has a future and that we are living into that future now, but I have also found myself reflecting on the shared experience of frustration in this in-between time of "already" and "not yet." As a wise friend observed this past week, "Ultimately, frustration is just energy with nowhere to go."
I have an image in my mind's eye of all this collective concentrated energy: hope, love, desire for action and justice, uncertainty, anxiety, frustration and faith. It's like a bright ball of energy buzzing with the future potential of religious life, waiting for the Spirit to break us open at the right time and place — so that this energy can burst forth and seek new forms of expression.
Sr. Eleanor Quin, another of my wise sisters in community (who has already taken her energy home to God), had worked on Madison Avenue before she entered. Then as a sister she became a regular on the speaking tour, raising funds for our various ministries. Sister Ellie also wrote a memoir in 1969, Last on the Menu, in which she reflected on the future of religious life. "Religious life will never go out of style, but it can't very well continue in the structural sense of today. I think religious life will dwindle down to a nucleus and from that nucleus will emerge leadership for a new type of religious life that will be free to concentrate wherever needed. Global technological challenges are inevitable, and religious life will try to keep pace."
What we think is new is not new. The question faced by each generation is, what is ours to do in service of the Gospel? If we are faithful, if we offer our energy to our common life, I firmly believe God will help us figure out the rest.
[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]
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