Apostolic visitation: Sisters learn from the starlings

This story appears in the LCWR and Apostolic Visitation feature series.

by Kathleen Duffy


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The announcement six years ago of an apostolic visitation of United States congregations of women religious caused a stir among many sisters. According to the Vatican office, some congregations had become too secularized, too feminist, and were thus not attracting new members. Moreover, the sisters, especially those who work with marginalized persons and organize for justice, were becoming a nuisance and needed to be assessed. This attempt by the Vatican to exert unwanted control posed a threat to the identity and mission of the congregations and initiated a crisis. However, a good number of the congregations faced the challenge head on with a response reminiscent of the swarming behavior of starlings.

Starlings are relatively drab birds — short and dark with light speckles — but, when they catch the light, their pearly feather tips shine and, like oil on water, their bodies give off an iridescent purple and green glow. Like the sisters, they too are often considered a nuisance: Flocks roost where they are not wanted, devour fruit in open orchards, and sometimes even collide with airplanes. However, when frightened by the approach of a predator, starlings exhibit exquisite swarming behavior. The flock defends itself by swirling, pulsating and sailing through the sky, behaving like a huge single organism, creating one of the most graceful patterns in nature.

Starlings engage in collective behavior as an effective strategy for survival. A pressing need, escape from a predator, drives the starlings to interact coherently. The organic movements of the flock enhance its compactness, so that it presents itself as a large single bird and mesmerizes the approaching falcon. Each individual bird accepts a goal larger than its own and thus encourages the flock as a whole to cooperate in a highly organized way. Clearly, the flock is more than the sum of thousands of starlings; instead, it is a self-organized dynamical system exhibiting intelligent behavior.

Recent YouTube videos of starling swarms have heightened public interest in the mechanism that holds the flock together. Scientists have learned that the swarming flock has no single leader. Instead, the flock’s cohesive movement is created by interaction among the birds in the flock as a whole. When threatened, the flock becomes a decentralized, self-organized dynamical system in which cohesive movement is not controlled by external forces; rather, each bird cooperates to maintain order.

To attempt to understand swarm intelligence in nature and its similarities to human group behaviors, a group of Italian researchers recently spent three years photographing and analyzing the movements of a very large flock of starlings that swarms each evening for about one-half hour over its roosting spot in Rome, Italy. Using stereo photography and sophisticated software, they determined the three-dimensional positions of the individual birds in each frame, and with a computer model, simulated their movement to study how the flight of a given bird is affected by its neighbors. The group found that the birds follow two simple “rules.” The first rule: Birds stay equally distant from their five to 10 nearest neighbors and keep a safe distance from the bird in front. Each time one bird turns or speeds up, the flock responds. Since the distance between birds is not fixed, flock shape is flexible, capable of expanding and contracting as needed. The second rule: Birds at the edge of the flock tend to bunch closer together, actually constricting the flock so that it tends to fly as a whole in the same general direction.

Like the starlings, the sisters neither ignored the predator nor ran away. Instead, they developed survival strategies. Already well-organized within their congregations and within larger groupings of congregations such as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and steeped in the practice of contemplative dialogue, congregational leaders came together to pray, to define clearly the problem at hand, and to consider possible approaches to the impending threat. Strategies were freely chosen by each congregation. Some decided to comply with Vatican requests for information in full and to welcome the visitors in a spirit of hospitality that they would show to any person; others refused to participate in a process that seemed unjust; still others found it more prudent to reject only certain parts of the process. However, no matter what the approach, all were dedicated to proceeding as one. Although the consequences of their actions were not predictable, a sense of peace began to replace the initial highly charged atmosphere.

With the help of friends who took to the streets to rally for the sisters’ cause, the United States congregations began to appear as a huge single entity with a common goal rather than as a disparate collection of sisters with different missions and ministries. Like the starlings, they were following simple but relational “rules”: Each leader was aware of the threat to her entire congregation; she was in touch with her members and other leaders; and the congregations communicated well during the process.

Rather than discouraging those congregations with forward-looking approaches to community living and mission, the experience of the apostolic visitation created an unprecedented sense of solidarity among all of the congregations. Eventually, leadership in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith changed, and the process became friendlier. But the greatest thrill came as the final report was read. Somehow, the tone of the visitation process had changed to one of collegiality, friendship and cooperation. Like starlings, the United States congregations of women religious had headed off the predator and exuded an iridescent glow.

[Kathleen Duffy is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania. She is professor of physics at Chestnut Hill College, where she directs the Interdisciplinary Honors Program and the Institute for Religion and Science. She is editor of Teilhard Studies and the author of Teilhard’s Mysticism: Seeing the Inner Face of Evolution (Orbis Books, 2014).]