Pioneers in the 21st century: The Leadership Collaborative setting hearts ablaze

Women religious who have gone before us — our foremothers — are pioneers (are they not still with us?) Religious sisters have been in liminal space, or on the edge, for centuries, and this has not changed in the 21st century. Beyond discovering new lands to meet the direst needs and building society's safety net for healthcare and education, today's women religious continue to explore new, countercultural ways of being relational leaders and tending to the most critical issues of our time.

Travelling from the Philippines, Africa, Latin America and everywhere in between, sisters joined with their United States counterparts to share how to be "Leaders on the Edge…" This theme was the focus of the second biennial Leadership Collaborative held in Chicago May 26-29. The richness of diversity created dynamic and Spirit-led dialogue around what is most important for today's global society — and how we, the participants, desire to be present to this unfolding reality.

Early in the gathering, we spoke of seeking and having the faith to find the way. So often, when looking at journeys, the metaphor of pilgrimage is aptly used. However, with pilgrimage, the sojourner knows the endpoint. For pioneers, the unknown territory is as far as the eye can see, and the endpoint is having faith that the right place will emerge.

For the newer generation of women religious, our sojourning is being birthed. We do not know the endpoint, and yet our faith is something that keeps us steadfast, traversing over the rocky terrain — and doing so together — knowing that God is leading us to something beyond.

During our time together, it became clear that we are not re-creating, re-newing, re-founding, or for that matter re-anything. These concepts are placing patches on the old system. We are creating anew! Something is being birthed as the old systems come to their natural end. It is the paschal mystery being lived fully, and we must enter its dynamic with hope to suffer, die, let go and empty ourselves so new life is birthed. Sr. Eileen McKenzie, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, wrote a poem titled "Rebirth" that captures the essence of our time together:

Where are we?
Who knows?
We're here.
That's enough.

What're we doin'?
We're sharin' and carin'
and rarin' to go.
Go where?
Don't know.
Haven't been there before.
But we know the Way.
Caring and sharing
Questioning and praying
Laughing and dancing
Accompanying and crying
Witnessing and proclaiming
Healing and teaching
Trying and failing
Trying again and failing again
That there's no "right way"
There's only
The Way
and that Way is
Living and
Loving and
Dying and
Rising again to
New Life.

Where are we going again?
Don't know.
Haven't been there before.
But we DO know the Way.

Maryknoll and Felician Friends (2) (400x374).jpg
Maryknoll and Felician friends (GSR photo / Michele Morek)

Words are elusive when trying to name what is emerging. Maryknoll Sr. MiYoung Sung encouraged us to "Open the doors of our hearts. Leave the house and go out to embrace one another." These words spoke to our truth during these days.

There appears to be a deep knowing of the emergent and it is not yet formed. This middle space is a container in which we hold the tension between the past and the pull of the future, allowing the creative response of the Spirit to be nurtured and eventually emerge.

We opened our hearts to collaboration and networking — and at its essence, relationship. Working in this middle space together, we allow the birthing to be a collective voice rather than a single congregation or charism. We are moving toward a global sisterhood. All of our charisms are needed in the world and yet, we do not hold them so tightly as our own. Through their weaving the dream of God is made manifest in our world.

One aspect that spoke to my heart is the idea of radical availability. At one level, I have tried to live a life of presence and being available. Yet, there are things to which I continue to hold onto that do not speak to the radical. To what am I holding onto that creates even the slightest un-freedom? What keeps me from the centrality of God in my life? There are nuances and subtleties that I know I need to grow aware of so my life moves toward radical availability.

I also wonder how religious life itself is living a life of radical availability? Are we so trapped in our institutions, tending to the dying structures, and grieving the loss of so much (including our dear elders) that the structures themselves do not allow for a radical presence to what is most needed in our world today? Is there a way to tend to both?

It is in this middle space where transformation occurs. It is in the tension, the dying and rising, as well as in the unknowing that new and creative life is born. It is in this darkness that we can see each other's hearts ablaze with hope and passion. It is here that we can dare to imagine. My hope is that the burning of our hearts grows brighter and leads the way to birth religious life anew! We "haven't been there before. But we do know the Way."

[Linda Buck is a Sister of St. Joseph of Orange whose 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.]