Religious life in our own words: A delicate balance
A few years ago, I was asked to sit in on a class at Aquinas Institute of Theology about religious life and the vows, both for my own formation as I prepare for my perpetual profession, and in order to consider teaching the course when the current professor retires. The course was designed for novices of different communities, and that year the students were all women. As the professor and I were talking, she spoke to me of the lack of materials available on the topic. Of course, there are the massive volumes written by Sandra Schneiders over the last decade and other older sources from a variety of authors. But few women religious have written at depth about the vows in the last 10 years.
These conversations pointed to a desperate hole in the informational and reflection materials available for those of us who are preparing for final or first profession. There is so much to learn about religious life from the writings that exist, primarily written by our older sisters. But for those of us who did not experience the profoundly transformative time of the Second Vatican Council, works that refer to the "changes" and the way that religious life is "different from how it used to be" do not really help us live today. In fact, it is rare to find an expression of the attitudes and reality of religious life that is not referring to the past in that way.
I get it — as a historian, I know from my studies how transformative the council was for our church and for religious life. But as a young woman who did not live through the 1960s, I cannot relate to the passion other sisters hold for their experience of the council.
We need younger voices writing about their experience of religious life and the vows. Women (and men!) are still entering religious orders, and often the narrative we hear in the wider Catholic world is that we are dying off, or that there is a "crisis" of vocations to religious life. That is simply not the case, and I refuse to see it that way! We are outnumbered by our elders in nearly every religious congregation, but our voice is important, and it needs to be shared. Why? Because other men and women are being called, and they need to hear from those of us who are already here! We need to share our joy and enthusiasm for the life we have chosen.
With all that in mind, Franciscan Sr. Sarah Kohles and I decided to do something about it. After lots of behind-the-scenes conversations with younger sisters of a variety of congregations, we came up with a plan. We want to write a collaborative book on religious life from a diversity of perspectives. We are inviting a group of younger women religious, under the age of 50 (or maybe 51 by the time we get going), from various charisms, congregations, and cultures who will be coming together over the course of six months.
Following four months of phone conversations about the resources available to us, this group of 14 women will gather at a retreat house in January 2017 with a facilitator who can also serve as a writing coach. We will follow a daily routine of prayer, conversation, and quiet writing time. At the end of that week we hope to have a draft of a book of essays on religious life; the fruit of our conversation, shared prayer, and collaborative efforts.
Nothing is more satisfying than being affirmed by others, and we have experienced affirmation from every corner. When I mentioned the idea to Sarah last December, she immediately began thinking about the details and the big picture — including the suggestion that we seek funding. The sisters we talked with before we had a clear plan in mind were enthusiastic about the idea of a book written by younger sisters. Every sister we asked to join our project was completely supportive, even the few who could not actually commit to it. Most importantly, when we sought funding from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, we were offered a grant to cover all expenses, plus assistance in some of the practical elements of the project.
What great confirmation — we are so blessed!
As we begin to consider the conversations we want to have and the way we want to organize ourselves, there are many areas of interest that are emerging. What can we learn from the tradition of religious life? From Scripture? What does "community" mean in a world where individualism is valued above dependence on one another? How do we live poverty when we are bombarded by advertisements designed to reinforce patterns of consumerism? When a young woman enters a religious order today, in the midst of a profound paradigm shift, what is she saying "yes" to? As many congregations are moving out of their institutional ministries, where do we turn our attention? Where do we find the peripheries today? How do we show our joy (as Pope Francis calls us to do) in the midst of the sorrows and tragedies of this world? What does it mean to be a woman in the church today?
In addition, there are very practical questions: How do we live in communities that are intergenerational? How do we collaborate with one another in ministry and community life, across charisms? What can we do to encourage young adults today to listen for God's voice and God's call? And, how do we harness our corporate voice to speak the needs of those who are poor to those in positions of power?
As this small group of women religious comes together in the fall and next January, we hope to begin exploring these questions together. Sarah and I know that we will all learn from each other and root ourselves in the Spirit of God working through us. Pray for us, that we will be open to the Spirit's breath and fire!
At the end of the day, Sarah and I hope for several outcomes. We will publish a book on religious life written for young women today. This book will be an example of collaborative ministry, as each of us brings our own gifts to the table and recognizes the gifts and perspectives of one another. We hope this project encourages other young women to share their perspectives on this beautiful call of God to religious life. Finally, we hope to witness the "joy that is within us," a lively joy that shows in everything we do.
[Juliet Mousseau, a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart sisters community, is associate professor of church history at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. She writes on medieval Christian history and theology as well as contemporary issues in religious life.]
Editor's note: The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation also provides funding to Global Sisters Report.