This is an exciting time to be a member of a congregation of women religious.
Like Sarah in Genesis 17:15, we have conceived in our old age. But the gestation period may take longer than 40 weeks. We "expectant mothers" are in our first trimester.
The good news is there will be absolutely no days of confinement. Our "embryo" is named "Rejuvenation," a nickname for "Rejuvenation of Religious Life in the 21st Century." The conception of Rejuvenation happened in the milieu of labor, love and prayer.
The development of Rejuvenation might be hastened by three exercises:
- We in congregations of women religious continue to dialogue in order to create a common charism identity that describes religious life in the 21st century.
- Congregations of women religious work together to create a mission statement describing the new group's goals and objectives. (Individual congregations who choose to preserve a semblance of "individuality" may prefer to set their own goals and objectives.)
- That congregations of women religious make it possible for sisters with individual ministry talents to move freely from congregation to congregation (and that they will include laywomen and men) in order to facilitate the enactment of the goals and objectives referenced in that group's mission statement.
Individual congregations are making efforts to redefine, rearrange and re-found, so that religious life survives and hopefully thrives. To thrive we must be willing to "let go" of the individualism that differentiates one congregation's charism identity from another's.
Historically religious congregations described our charisms in reference to our founder or foundress. We are Benedictine, Franciscan, Jesuit, or Poor Clares. And some charism statements sound like mission statements.
Mission statements, whether secular or religious, often describe a group's goals and objectives. They might read: We preach. We teach. We preserve. We conserve.
Ministry statements sometimes sound like mission statements but refer to individual talents and skills. They might read, I teach. I nurse. I preach. I cook. I administer.
Congregations of women religious have always adapted their mission to serve the global needs of the times. Adaptation today may take a quantum leap if congregations are willing to create a common charism identity, to be flexible in describing their mission statements, and to utilize individual ministry talents in order to ensure the healthy development of Rejuvenation.
We must be willing to risk accepting faith-filled members and/or affiliates, who might be vowed, non-vowed, of either gender, and who are willing to make a perpetual or temporary commitment to our group.
Jesus once said, "You know how to read the signs in the sky when the clouds and prevailing winds of a storm are visible."
We do know how to read the signs of the times, and the prevailing winds tell us change is inevitable and essential to thriving.
Change can be risky and evoke fear, which can be a healthy or an unhealthy emotion. Unhealthy fear can hinder healthy risk-taking.
When taking risks, we may need to discover and acknowledge that our fears can wear many masks. Fear may wear the mask of an uncertain future, of negative public opinion, of lack of human and material resources, of consequences imposed by ecclesiastical hierarchy, of limits imposed by canons, constitutions, statutes or laws.
The good news is that canons and other rules that are made by humans can be changed by humans. Jesus reminds us that, "The Sabbath is made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath."
Therefore, we do have choices as we face the prevailing winds of change. We can choose to stand rigid like an oak tree and crack, lament the past and fear the future like weeping willows, shimmer and shake like quaking aspens, or be flexible like pines that can bend in the wind.
Flexible trees can be a steadfast support system and shelter for Rejuvenation. I'm thinking here too of my experience on the Crow and Cheyenne reservations in Montana, where they build their sweat lodges and dance lodges from flexible lodgepole pine trees.
Some scholars have suggested that structured religious life is passé and we must discern if death is inevitable at this time. But we do not need to die to give birth to Rejuvenation. We may choose a temporary state of being, a "transfiguration."
Transfiguration suggests a change in external appearance. There are at least two times in Scripture where Jesus is "transfigured." First on a mountaintop, when Jesus' appearance dazzles his three disciples. A second time is on the road to Emmaus when Jesus' changed appearance prevented immediate recognition by his disciples.
Jesus' appearance may have changed but his essence (or charism?) does not change. There must have been a good reason for Jesus to be transfigured in his appearance to his followers.
Perhaps transfiguration for us might also be good! We may not dazzle anybody in our state of transfiguration; but slowly and definitely we would be changing our appearance — but not our charism essence.
How can we do this? Begin with leadership.
I think it was Ralph Nader who reminded us that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not followers.
And Roger Schwarz, in his "Leading from Every Chair," says leadership is also the responsibility of non-elected leaders.
In their book, The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair, Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea suggest that we can glean ideas from all members at the table.
And Midy Aponte says, "If you don't have a seat at the table, bring your own chair."
Congregations of women religious modeled The Circle Way, when the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States, was underway. Congregations increased intercongregational and intracongregational dialogue.
In some congregations, dialogue included a concern about lack of human resources, especially sisters who are willing and able to serve as elected leaders. Many congregations are addressing this deficit by "recycling" former elected leaders.
But there are other models for designated leadership. Sharing leadership resources has been a common solution practiced in secular society. College presidents and school principals have served in institutions sponsored by other congregations. Could we consider sharing "credentialed" leaders from one or multiple congregations?
We do have to make choices in order for Rejuvenation to survive and thrive. How will we respond to the choices to unify our charism, diversify our mission, and intensify our ministry?
Will we choose to respond as: Rigid oaks? Weeping willows? Quaking aspens? Or as flexible Lodge Pole pines?
Together we could labor down the path of the 21st century, to birth Rejuvenation. As the three bullocks learned when they faced the lion in Aesop's Fables, "In unity is strength."
[Sr. Annamarie Marcalus is a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Clinton, Iowa.]