Catholic sisters network, share hope on social justice issues

by Jeannine Gramick


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About 150 women, and a sprinkling of men, from more than 100 congregations in 26 states and Canada, gathered in Cleveland, Ohio, for a national convocation, entitled “Entering the Transforming Future: Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Ministry in the Coming Age of Religious Life.” It marked the first time that social justice advocates from congregations of women religious met together.

The timing of the conference, November 11-13, coincided with the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. Although scheduling was coincidental, Dorothy Pagosa, SSJ-TOSF, one of the event planners, felt it was “an example of evolutionary consciousness.”

Evolutionary consciousness was a major theme of the keynote speaker, Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International. The context in which we are living, Dennis said, is constantly changing. She singled out “amazing scientific discoveries at a super macro and super micro level that are completely changing our understanding of the human’s place in the universe.”

“Cosmic consciousness,” she said, “has to affect who we are, how we live, everything we do. The ground has shifted; the context for all our work is different.”

We need to transform our way of life so that it is in harmony with the universe, she said.

Dennis challenged participants to recognize that “all the solutions we seek must be sustainable in the deepest sense. [They] must contribute to the integrity of creation.”

She called for a new look at the economic system, so that it becomes socially just and sustainable. 

Dennis also called for a new way of thinking about security by shifting from the rhetoric of national security to a language using “shalom” or effective peacemaking.

“Our security is intrinsically interconnected with that of the families in that little village in Afghanistan,” she said. “In the soil surrounding the village are planted the landmines of further violence” or “the seeds of peace.”

To understand the seeds of peace, Dennis said, we must acknowledge “the interdependence of communities around the world.” We need to relinquish a security based on “global control by the United States or any other nation,” and move to a security based on the “well-being of every human being and the rest of creation.” This is a shift from a “fear-driven security” to a “security of shalom,” she said.

The convocation also featured eight different “Transformation Talks” on topics such as economic justice, social media, gender justice and the Bluegrass Pipeline. Tables lining one side of the assembly room displayed resources brought by religious congregations and organizations such as 8th Day Center, NETWORK, U.S. Sisters Against Human Trafficking, Advocates for Children at the Southern Border, New Ways Ministry, Global Sisters Report, and Catholic Mobilizing Network.

To deal with some of the issues addressed in the talks and at the resource tables, participants shared innovative strategies and best practices. For example, Kathleen Ryan, SND, from the Cleveland Diocesan Social Action Office, revealed a strategy she learned from a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. She noticed that a legislative aide had piles of printed e-mails stacked high on a table against a wall. The aide told her that representatives gauge the seriousness of an issue by the height of the pile of emails they receive. Kathleen immediately initiated an “Add to the inch” e-mail campaign in the diocese.

Mary Jo Nelson, OLVM, facilitated the formation of “open space” sessions, dealing with themes such as women in society and church, shifts in theology, new economic models, connecting justice issues, the death penalty, human trafficking, LGBT issues and church reform, and investment/divestment in climate solutions. Seeing so many sisters committed deeply to so many justice issues, a laywoman named Tena Dellaca-Hedrick was amazed.

Dellaca-Hedrick, the social justice promoter for the Victory Noll Sisters, stood up and said, “Last night before I went to bed, I estimated that the length of service in community and social justice was 50 years per person. With 150 people here, that came to a minimum of 7,500 years of experience. For me, this is a baptism of immersion into the charism of religious women. I am in awe at the wisdom and experience assembled at this conference!”

At the final session participants decided to send a letter to President Obama asking for the broadest relief possible for immigrants. The President’s subsequent executive order regarding immigrants may have been influenced by the letter drafted by Ann Scholz, SSND, Associate Director for Social Mission for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious or by video on YouTube of participants’ comments, produced by Shantha Ready Alonso of Network. To view the video: Click Here.

The participants will continue to network in the future under the tag line, Justice Conference of Women Religious. Ann Oestreich, IHM, co-chair of the convocation, called this continued commitment “a sign of hope for all.”

[Sr. Jeannine Gramick is a Sister of Loretto who has been involved in a pastoral ministry for lesbian and gay Catholics since 1971. She co-founded New Ways Ministry and has been an Executive Coordinator of the National Coalition of American Nuns since 2003.]