An elder reflects on the transformation of religious life

by Helen Cahill


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After reading and rereading Ted Dunn's article, "The transformation of religious life: contemplative reflections of younger members" (LCWR Occasional Papers, Winter Issue), in which he presented the results of a major survey he did with younger professed members of religious communities, I felt compelled to put something in writing.

I had the privilege of meeting Ted Dunn when he and his wife, Beth, facilitated a significant meeting for my congregation. At the time — prior to our joining with eight other Congregations to form a union, the Dominican Sisters of Peace — I was a Kentucky Dominican.

After a career in teaching and 21 years in elected leadership as a Kentucky Dominican, I am happily enjoying my 64th year of religious life. I am also continuing a 20-year career as a spiritual director and a group supervisor for formation personnel for about 25 different congregations of women and men. Even though it was quite challenging and sometimes painful, I liked being in leadership because it was a way for me to participate in the transformation of religious life. I believe that religious life has a future as one of God's creative works.

Many of us elders in community today have longed for and have worked for the transformation of religious community, as many younger members do today; we have been experiencing community life in ways similar to those that younger members are describing their experience in Dunn's article. We know what it means to have our voices muted by the prevailing culture of the majority of members, not just the "older" members. This reality is not, as Dunn's article suggests, a difference between younger and older members. For decades, women religious of all ages have been resistant to changing the status quo for fear of being forced out of their comfort zones. At the same time, among many of us who are elders today, there has always been a yearning for something more. As Dunn asserts, "The transformation of religious life has been on the minds and hearts of those who are living it for decades. …" A challenge for many of us today is not to give up hope of its happening some day!

There is no question that congregations are faced with many critical issues today. For example:

  1. Are members of local communities willing to let go of the dysfunctional behavior that characterizes many local communities?
  2. Will the current composition and structures of religious life allow transformation to happen?

In response to the first question, some local communities put effort into this area by engaging outside facilitation to develop healthy patterns of relationships among themselves. The difficulty, as I perceive it, is that these communities are not a "critical mass." As a result, practically all congregations have difficulty finding local communities healthy enough to nurture the vocations of younger members.

The research claims that a majority of younger members experience their communities as having "unbridgeable differences, unresolved conflicts, and old grudges that seem to be insurmountable." They experience a great deal of resistance in communities to face these conflicts and do something about them. The sad reality, according to the survey, is that younger members do not hold out much hope for this to change. They see the patterns as entrenched.

I share the fear of younger members that their religious communities are stuck. We are set in our ways and it is not exclusively that the "hierarchy won't let us change;" it is because we choose not to change. Will this entrenchment change without a deeper attention to primary relationships, a different commitment to common prayer, and a movement away from individualism to interdependence? On a very practical level, the age gap is enormous — which translates into different life styles and energy levels. Change will require a gigantic leap! Are we willing and able to make it?

My response to the second question of whether the current composition and structures of religious life will allow transformation to happen: I don't think so! I question whether sticking to our current structures and patterns of relationships will lead the way to vibrant communities for the future. Transformation is very slow work. Sr. Marcia Allen, a Sister of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas, asserted in her presidential address at LCWR, August 2016, we have tried everything and it hasn't worked.

Younger members are looking for more permeable and flexible boundaries, according to the survey. Dunn comments that some communities are proactively opening boundaries. I wonder if this means moving outside current structures — or does it refer to new forms of membership within the current structures? If adapting structures internally hasn't worked up to the present, what gives us hope that it will happen in the future? I don't have answers, but I wonder if congregations can let go enough to create new structures apart from current structures to allow something new to emerge?

One suggestion is to invite younger members from all religious congregations to form a new group. Such an approach raises a host of questions, but we cannot afford to let the absence of answers keep us from daring to risk something radically new. For example: Would communities have a "claim" on their members in the new group; would the members maintain ties with the communities that originally attracted them? I assume that the support, guidance, experience and wisdom of women who have lived religious life with integrity would be critical to the ongoing formation of the group. We cannot assume that all new members would want to be part of this experiment, nor can we assume that all younger members desire the transformation we are talking about.

As I put this idea — forming a new group composed of younger members — into writing, I am aware of my own resistance to it. Imagine putting our resources into attracting new members and then setting them free to create new structures! It is a revolutionary idea that will require a real letting go. We all want our communities to continue into the future. Are we willing to let go of even this? In our own experience of creating a union with eight other congregations, I know the wrenching pain of having to vote on bringing closure to the Kentucky Dominicans in order to enter into a bigger reality, the Dominican Sisters of Peace.

Without new members, religious communities will cease to exist. However, we must invite women to the life who are passionate about God in their lives, women with courage who are willing to take initiative and women who dare to risk. Though networking and new models of cooperation and interdependence are needed, they are not the complete answer. Whatever happens is God's work, but maybe God depends on us to give it a nudge. Something radical is needed — could it be calling a new group into being?

[Helen Cahill is a Dominican Sister of Peace who serves on the staff at the Claret Center in Chicago. Helen does spiritual direction, gives directed retreats, supervises formation personnel and offers workshops on a variety of topics. She has a doctorate of ministry degree and is an adjunct faculty member at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.]