The paradigm of age: Shifting perceptions of ‘old’ and ‘young’

The first week of August, I attended the Giving Voice National Conference, which was a gathering of United States-based women religious under the age of 50. We shared our hopes for the future and our common struggles in this emergent reality of being women religious in the 21st century. Gratitude remains as I continue to experience solidarity with my companion sisters.

While Sr. Teresa Maya was talking about the changing paradigms of religious life and the three types of leadership needed at this time, I realized that my current role, or lived reality, is that of a bridge builder. I am part of, yet not central to, the dying paradigm of apostolic religious life.

During the conference, I met sisters much younger than I (in their 20s and 30s) who belong to the emerging paradigm. They struggle for something beyond, for something more. I am eager to witness what these sisters will bring to birth.

While I find myself wanting to move toward the emerging paradigm and find my home there, my work at this time is to build a bridge that allows for the dying and the rising.

Aging in religious life can be confusing. At the age of 46, I am not “young” in the world of my profession, friends and family. However, I am deemed “young” in religious life.

The developmental task of women in their late 40s and early 50s is generativity, according to Erik Erikson, with the primary task of producing something that makes a difference to society. I think it is appropriate for my age cohort, the Gen-Xers, to embrace the generative stance that our developmental age requires.

As a sister who is in her generative years, I am struck that in my professional ministerial work I am working, appropriately so, as a mentor, clinical supervisor and educator for therapists-in-training. This same reality is echoed by many of my peers. However, in speaking with numerous sisters in their 40s and 50s, this kind of generative energy is not realized within religious life. We have wonderful opportunities to engage in leadership roles and to grow and develop but our developmental culture within religious life does not match the realities experienced outside of our communities. In speaking with many of my peers, there is a consensus that we are not viewed as agents of generativity, but rather as young adults, just figuring out our futures.

The question that keeps filling my head is: If I am relegated to the future, how can I create that future? The creation of a future is in the present. I am both the present of religious life, and the future!

I agree with Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders’ overview of the shifting human lifespan, as outlined in her address to the Irish Conference of Religious Life in April 2014. Whereas in the 1950s a woman who was 55 or 60 years old was considered to be old, and someone in her late 70s and early 80s was elderly, this is definitely not the case today. I understand her perspective that people are working longer and are more productive later in life. However, I am concerned about the implications of this shift.

By focusing on the large cohort of sisters in their 70s and 80s, are we not forgetting the dynamic energy of those sisters in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s? As we look to the emerging future, are these not the sisters, especially those ages 20 through 55, who will develop this future over the next 20 years? If these sisters are relegated to the future, how can they create that future?

Schneiders poses a question in her address: “I wonder if we are not, to a large extent, living individually and as communities in a ‘normal’ that no longer exists?”

But I offer a few follow-up questions: Does this warrant a grieving process for sisters in the older generation? Is this loss creating a culture of fear and stagnation in our congregations? And: Is this fear and stagnation claiming the vitality of the younger generations within our congregations?

Our reality is changing. We will likely not see the huge numbers of sisters entering as we did in the past. From a developmental and cultural standpoint, we need to shift our way of thinking around vocations and formation (initial and ongoing). Many of us entering at a later age have diverse work experience and have held leadership positions within our professions. Our experiences are different than how sisters in their 70s and 80s were formed. However, just because they are different does not mean they are not valid. Perhaps we have a different way of approaching a situation because of our diverse background. Is there room for this difference of approach or, as Sr. Sophia Park so eloquently states, is the wine ready but the wineskin is not? It is a result of what we experience as normal (e.g., the dying paradigm) that is creating fear and stagnation.

One thing I know for sure, after spending time with many sisters under the age of 50, the future is strong and emerging. We are called, as a newer generation to create the future now! We are called to take on the questions of our generation! We are called to be leaders and guides, bridging the dying paradigm to the emerging paradigm.

[Linda Buck is a Sister of St. Joseph of Orange and, as a psychotherapist and spiritual director, her ministry focuses on the integration of psychology and spirituality, providing services, consultation and training in both of these areas. She is passionate about issues surrounding systemic injustice as well as mental health advocacy.]