"See, I am doing something new!
Now it is emerging — can you not perceive it?"
- Isaiah 43:19
At the LCWR Assembly in August, I had the good fortune and distinct honor of being in a small discussion group of young leaders that inspired and challenged me, leaving me with a feeling of buoyancy. (Shout-out to Laura Bregar, OSU; Patricia Kremer, CPPS; Betsy Pawlicki, OP; Mary Pellegrino, CSJ; Maryanne Ruzzo, SC.) The most lasting aspect of our conversations, partnered with the other dialogues and addresses of the assembly, was the consistent and virtually universal sense that the changes occurring in women's religious life right now are demanding of us not just something new and different, but something transformative.
Something "new" is just around the corner that, like the prophet Isaiah, we can perceive but not necessarily articulate. Without being able to get a firm grasp on what "it" is, we found agreement in believing that the "new," the transformation to which we are being called, is the response that women religious can uniquely provide to the contemporary questions of our time. This in itself is not new, since this has been the function of religious life through the ages. So what exactly is the "new"?
It seems to me that right now, women's religious life in the United States resembles the return of the Space Shuttle to Earth's stratosphere. A curious metaphor, I know, but my nephew Joseph, an aerospace engineer, helped convince me of the aptness of this imagery and taught me quite a bit about the Space Shuttle program!
1 - The Space Shuttle had a very specific re-entry procedure, the intricacies of which determined safe return home or total destruction.
Religious life for women in the U.S. is moving toward a new paradigm of existence. With increasing median ages and decreasing vocations, we cannot continue to "orbit" in the same circles, with the same patterns as before. We need to find a new way home, a path to new, emerging life. Being deliberate about what that direction is, what "home" we are headed for, and how we will go about getting there is essential.
2 - The main reason the Space Shuttle program was so costly was because of the precautions and materials necessary to allow for safe re-entry through the burn phase (over 1,500 degrees Celcius).
Finding our way home to the "new," for as desirable a goal as it is, will be costly and will not at all be comfortable. The "burn phase" will help jettison the unhelpful, unnecessary accretions (material and attitudinal) that our life has accumulated over the years.
3 - The pilot was the primary "handler" of the re-entry navigation, and the crew spent their time monitoring the health of the instruments and holding on tight through the turbulence of the burn phase.
Let's be clear: God is the pilot for our future. God knows how to navigate our communities "through the tumult and the strife," and our vowed commitment to God will demand of us a trusting, faith-filled presence to what is happening; a vigilance in monitoring the good health of our sisters, ministries, and institutions; and a capacity to endure a great deal of turmoil as the "new" comes into sight.
4 - The trajectory and orientation of the shuttle when it approached re-entry was upside-down and backwards for the initial approach, followed by a series of "banking maneuvers" (similar to a skier going downhill) that allowed for proper positioning in the gravitational field.
If we are to chart the course in our communities for this kind of painful journey home, it will very likely be disorienting, chaotic, and even seemingly misdirected. Trust in the experience of the ages, the faithfulness of God, the vision of our leaders, and the long view of our founding mission and charism will provide our stability and bolster our endurance. Keeping attuned to the signs of the times and the realities of our communities will help us gauge the right timing and the best perspectives as we adjust and readjust in these transitional times.
5 - Once the shuttle made it to the atmosphere, its handling, movements, and flight patterns were different in character from those in space (flying like a glider rather than a spacecraft).
What is to come will not be qualitatively different from what has been in our religious communities. The charism and mission entrusted to our founders by God will live on in authentic and consistent ways, even in the midst of vastly different cultural, ecclesial, and social realities. The result of our fidelity to our past and our openness to the present needs of God's people, however, will likely be different in character — answering new questions with new answers, as Pope Francis exhorts. And it will require a new understanding of these "new realities" in order to be more faithful and authentic ministers of the Gospel.
What is required of us as leaders right now? My small group's insight was a simple but profound statement: "Transformation happens when we can stay in the intersection of contemplation and vulnerability." Contemplation is vital, but it is not an end in itself; it is a context out of which to "monitor the instruments," reading the signs of the times and heeding the Gospel call. Vulnerability is equally vital, and when partnered with contemplation, will orient us properly for the "burn phase". When we can open ourselves up to staying in the vulnerable places that are both painful and demanding — with a contemplative stance — then, and only then, will true transformation of our communities and our world occur. And we will find ourselves not orbiting in the same circles we always have, nor burning up by changing too abruptly or drastically . . . but coming safely and gratefully Home.
[Virginia Herbers is an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She has an M.A. in Pastoral Studies and has ministered in education at both the elementary and high school levels in Connecticut, New York, Missouri, and Taiwan. She currently serves as the Vice-Provincial and Vocation Director for the United States Province of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart.]