An open letter to the Great Generation

Editor's note: A Spanish-language version of this letter is also available on Global Sisters Report. Please feel free to share this link


I feel compelled to write this letter in memory of Sr. Dorothy Ettling, CCVI, one of the most amazing women of your generation. She now rests in the peace of our God, but her vision remains.

Yes, Sr. Dot was a member of the Great Generation. You – the generation that heeded to the call of Vatican II, that transformed religious life with the energy you gave to renewal, that rewrote our constitutions, that learned we were all the “People of God” and celebrated this identity, that made the preferential option for the poor, that walked and lived among those in the margins, that wrote a theology that would help us learn about God, and creation and who we are as church – yes, you, the great generation of valiant, brave, bold, unafraid amazing women, open to risk and experimentation.

You, the ones who were willing to try new ways of living community and moved out of the big institutional convents to “dwell among” the people. The ones who learned to partner with the laity, transformed our ministries into health systems and advocacy offices, and closed the ones that were not congruent with our rediscovered charisms. The generation that marched for human rights and sometimes even got arrested. The generation that stood up to the hierarchical church: Could any of us ever forget that day in Washington, D.C., when you stood up with that arm band to demand that women be treated like people in our church? I close my eyes to remember those images on television, and the dignity I felt that day.

Yes, you the Great Generation of religious life – to you all I write today. First, I share my most sincere and profound gratitude. Thank you, thank you all. You may not know this, but your lives were the first catechism of my generation – yes, your lives! Your attempts, your quest for meaning and purpose, your questions, your guitar, your commitment to peace and justice, your new liturgies, your folk music, your theology, your poetry, your art. Your lives were indeed our first theology.

Born after Vatican II in those crazy decades when you were deciding the length of your habits, we grew up without a catechism; the new catechism would take almost 20 years to be developed – so as children and teenagers, all we had was you. We were the first students of your evolving search for the place of religious life. We sat in the classrooms when, for the first time, you talked about a church for justice, when you cried for the martyrs in El Salvador, when you were angered by a church that did not give women their rightful place. We prayed with the liturgies that were also new to you. We loved it when you took your habit off, got into those blue jeans and played kickball with us – you were people too. We were the kids in the pews, hearing that Jesus was our pal, and singing with you, “Someone is praying, Lord, kumbaya!” You, members of the Great Generation of Religious Life were our “model of the church” long before we knew who Avery Dulles was! And you have no idea how liberating, how beautiful our experience of church was because of you. Your journey was our textbook.

We have walked next to you in admiration. You were the heroes of our youth, martyrs for the cause of justice, when racism, the Cold War and ecological destruction clouded our childhoods making us feel our future would be as grey and bleak as the fatalistic movies we were watching in quiet desperation. When the Iran-Contra scandal, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the Exxon Valdez spill were in the news – that was when your unquenchable thirst for justice became the “hope for the flowers” in our lives. Your tenacious struggle, unselfish willingness to sacrifice reputation, friendship, and sometimes family, gave us the hope, the unfailing hope, that indeed another world is possible. If today you notice the support of all those who look for justice, who believe in tolerance and diversity, who care for our planet: Rejoice! These are the seeds you planted in our lives.

But I write this letter because you are slowing down; time has caught up with you. I am saddened when I see you leave your beloved ministries or watch you cry at the funerals of dear friends who fell to a sudden stroke; when you turn in your car keys or finally reach the last move. I see how painful that drive to our retirement facilities has been for you. I see the concern in your eyes: “Who will care for the poor and who will tend to the flowers?” Many of you have been the last sister in this school, that hospital, this parish, that peace-and-justice project. I feel the weight in your hearts when you turn off the lights of our presence in this city or that village and pack to go home at last. You are all returning from the faraway and local missions. I have seen you walk into your rooms and I have seen the tears in your eyes.

Yes, you are running out of time, and please, don’t be fooled by smoke screens of normalcy. You are running out of energy. We have noticed; please don’t be afraid to recognize it yourselves. Your health cannot take that much anymore. You want this mission to continue. You love the life you have chosen in our church. I have seen you pray for another year, for better health. I sometimes think you have wished time to stand still. Yet, the grains in the hour glass have held their steady pace. The fresh years after Vatican II may seem like yesterday, but it has been half a century, your half century. The most remarkable 50 years of our modern church have been fully yours – so totally and completely yours!

It is time. But you have one more thing left to do. It’s probably the greatest responsibility of your generation to religious life and the church, your most sacred responsibility to the future. Pretending time is not running out will not help us. You need to consider these years as the most precious of all – the years when you gift us with your wisdom. My Sr. Dot was starting to mentor the future, but she ran out of time. Please don’t you run out of time before passing it on!

I feel an obligation to share this with you. Please take care of yourselves – pretending nothing is happening will not help – this could be the worst stewardship of the precious time you have left. My generation needs your wisdom, we need you as mentors, to counsel us, to tell the stories, to pass on your passion, to stand by our side and assure us it is OK to make mistakes, to try again, to inspire us to carry on your legacy. I hear about what you see in my generation, we all do. I realize you are afraid. Yes, it is true there are fewer of us. We don’t have all your gifts. I know you are not sure about our commitment. But I know this, we are the ones God called. Yes, we don’t show your revolutionary zeal, and I am sure you wonder if what you have done will have been in vain. But here we are, ready or not, and we do not stand alone. Next to us are the laity of our ministries and our church.

Sisters of the Great Generation, it is time. It is time to pass the torch. Let God do the rest.

With sincere gratitude and admiration,
Your Sisters of the Next Generations.

[Sr. Teresa Maya is a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, San Antonio, Texas. Education has been her main ministry. She is currently serving on the leadership team of her congregation.]