“What I want to know is how do you Sisters do it? There’s no clinic in the colonias – and then all of a sudden it’s there. There’s no center for kids with special needs and their moms – and then it’s there! How does that happen?” This question and observation from a friend at a pre-holiday gathering has been on my mind as our congregation moves into the last weeks of preparation for Chapter. Every four years, or however often the constitution of the particular congregation specifies, women religious gather to assess their fidelity to the call in light of the signs of the times and to discern directions for the future. We call these gatherings “Chapter,” and the name is appropriate as we are, in a sense, writing a new chapter in our life together.
My friend’s question made me laugh because, of all people, he knew that our projects never just appear out of nowhere. He and his wife have collaborated in any number of our hare-brained schemes over the years! But it also made me appreciate the intentionality with which we women religious seek the will of God together. Serving as co-chairperson for our upcoming Chapter has increased my awareness of this commitment to discernment which is rooted in our vow of obedience. We strive to be deeply attentive to the movement of the Spirit, individually and communally, in order to steward the gifts entrusted to us and to respond to the needs that present themselves.
The Chapter Planning Committee of my congregation, the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, has been meeting each month for more than a year. Feeling a sense of urgency for this Chapter as we face the same issues as other congregations of our size and ministerial history, we chose as our theme the family motto of our foundress, St. Elizabeth Seton: “Hazard yet forward!” It captures well the urgency of the times in which we live and the many needs that press upon us. Immigration, climate change, human trafficking, violence . . . not to mention our traditional concerns for education, healthcare, pastoral and social service...and our membership aging but incredibly active. Whatever the risk, we press on to a future in God’s hands!
I resonate wholeheartedly with Teresa Maya’s “An open letter to the Great Generation.” Those sisters whose faith, vision and courage brought religious life into the modern (and postmodern) world have been my heroes, too. They are sources of wisdom, appreciated all the more this year when I have been at the Motherhouse for our monthly meetings. The few of us who entered our congregations in the decades following Vatican II were swept along in the transformation of a religious life we never experienced. Now we are stretched between a vast majority of elders and a small but definite surge of fresh energy in our initial formation programs. Recent GSR Horizons posts give voice to those younger generations.
We do not go forward one generation at a time. We are a multigenerational organism, each age having a distinct role to play. I share Teresa’s belief that “ready or not,” my generation and those courageous women who are joining us, will have the strength and vision to carry the charism forward. What is our call, individually and communally? What will our role be in the church and in the world? Chapters like the one we are preparing will help to clarify our direction. The dynamics can get complicated when we talk about what we need to let go in order to let the future come.
The prophet Joel proclaimed that the young would see visions and the old would dream dreams (Jl 2:28). What happens when the dreams and the visions seem to be at odds? This is where congregations call upon consultants in organizational change. Our consultants for this and the previous Chapter have been most helpful in offering ways of proceeding. A model they suggested we consider is the two-loop theory of change, originated by Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze. Organizations move through cycles of growth and decline and re-organization, a cycle we can easily connect to the Paschal mystery. Many congregations, like ours, are at a moment somewhere between Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The two-loop theory suggests that we are simultaneously called to hospice those things that are reaching their natural end, to repair and re-purpose what can still serve the mission, and to midwife the new that is gestating within us.
Placed as I am in the generation between young and old, I have some understanding of the grief at what we are losing and what we have already lost. I have experienced the exhilaration that comes with building a ministry from the ground up and the heartache of letting it go. I have benefitted from the legacy of our sisters in healthcare, education and social service. But through my 33 years as a Sister of Charity I have also longed to see the birth of a religious life free of institutional commitments, small and nimble as I imagine it was in the days of our founding.
At this time in our history, I believe that we need the Great Generation to use the skills they honed and the networks of relationships they nurtured over decades of service to plan for the responsible transition of our sponsored institutions. This will be an act of generosity and sacrifice, honoring our past and in service to the future.
Writing a new chapter of our history we need to ask our newest sisters, “Tell us, what is it that you envision?” Like mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers we must celebrate their commitment and help them to prepare to meet the needs of a future we may not be around to see.
Reading the signs of the times, aware of our responsibilities and capacities, but relying on the power of God at work in those of us who believe, we discern the way forward together. And that’s the way we do it.
[Sr. Janet Gildea is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. A retired family physician, she now serves with her sisters at Proyecto Santo Niño, a day program for children with special needs in Anapra, Mexico, as well as ministering with young adults in the Diocese of El Paso, Texas.]
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