Now what?

This story appears in the LCWR feature series. View the full series.

by Helen Garvey


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Catholic Sisters in the United States . . .

There is a restless peace among women religious. The Vatican and the congregations of women religious in the United States have completed the apostolic visitation process initiated by the Vatican. The Congregation for the Faith (CDF) and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) have concluded the doctrinal investigation. Some people will continue to debate the terms of the settlement between LCWR and CDF, but sisters are moving to other issues. Sisters were passionately involved in other issues before and during these events.

But before we squander this moment, it would be a loss not to seek its fullest meanings, its learnings. What can we discover in these events? What we will take with us from this crucible? How do we navigate an environment relatively free from conflict between the official church and women religious in the United States?

Indeed this process is well underway. With historic significance, Margaret Cain McCarthy and Mary Ann Zollmann, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, tell the compelling story of the apostolic visitation, in their text, Power of Sisterhood. They identify solidarity among the sisters as an essential outcome of the visitation.

In like manner Sr. Joseph Sr. Janet Mock and Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sharon Holland and other leaders at the LCWR Assembly 2015, described the struggle for understanding as they participated in the doctrinal assessment, a three-year dialogue with the bishops. Their presentations, vivid in candor, emotion, suffering and joy, are classics for those who study conflict resolution and spirituality. Central to their experience was discernment.

First, solidarity. Evolving from 1950s with the Sister Formation Conference (SFC) and the LCWR, solidarity among women religious was not a new experience. But in the visitation, facing uncertainly, feeling anger and anxiety and seeking understanding, the sisters intensified their bonds of affection and collaboration. They realized a deeper solidarity.

Such bonds developed in a different way through the struggle with the doctrinal assessment. It involved fewer persons in the actual negotiations, but it incorporated the entire LCWR membership in setting its direction. As noted by participants, the keynote of this decision making was discernment. Silence, listening and dialogue characterized the process. In the deliberations between LCWR and the bishops, a new way of addressing disputes, discernment evolved.

So solidarity and discernment rise from these events. How do these values relate to women religious negotiating loss, working iPads, experiencing aging, fighting for immigration reform, settling property questions, protesting sex trafficking? What do these regional, national and international values of solidarity and discernment have to do with us? How does a pastoral administrator or a justice advocate or a retirement coordinator respond to these initiatives?

Solidarity. The bonds we have nourished over the past 50 years and especially in these past five years are not just timely; they are essential. It may be the season to cultivate this solidarity with fresh questions.

• How do we strengthen this affection and collaboration without developing agendas that exhaust rather than refresh?

• How do we demonstrate inclusivity without losing a sense of identity?

• How do we encourage others to do what we can no longer do effectively?

• How do we regularly ask the question, “Why are we doing this?”

• How do we remember that there is nothing so foolish as to do more efficiently what no longer needs to be done?

• How do we change structures while deepening our charism and vision?

• How do we involve our members appropriately in the critical decisions for our future?

• How do we remember on hard days that, “The public processing of pain is the beginning of an alternative future.” (Walter Brueggemann)

Discernment. The unique role of discernment in LCWR’s and the bishops’ resolution of conflict evoked praise for U.S. women religious. Since discernment is a hallmark of religious life dating back its earliest foundations, women religious have always contemplated; they have always prayed. Bringing the art of contemplation into the daily work of conflict resolution charted a different course. Observers admired a basic integrity married to the art of dialogue.

Sometimes such praise embarrassed me. I have not always been so discerning, so contemplative. How do I, how do we, live up to the honor accorded us? How do we shift from the tension of this conflict to the ongoing unromantic commitment to a contemplative spirit? How do we foster a deeper receptivity to the divine?

Since renewal, sisters have moved from an environment of regulated silence to a large capacity for talk. All to the good, but perhaps there is a new call for balance, a call to bring back the silence. At a recent meeting of a leadership team, one member suggested that the planning for the year include significant time for contemplation before the meetings. Janet Mock tells us that, “Your task is discerning where and how to be in communion with the activity of God in our world now, at this present moment.”

Perhaps we search the silence of the poet?

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

- Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Habit of Perfection

Now what? Discernment and solidarity light our paths and warm our hearts.

[Sr. Helen Maher Garvey, BVM, is an organizational consultant for religious congregations. Presently she serves on the Board of the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company. She held the position of Director of the Office of Pastoral Services for the Diocese of Lexington for 10 years and served in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) from 1986 to 1989.]