My dream is to recognize that the movements we see emerging in the world around us — new ways of being community, finding spirituality and engaging in social responsibility — could also lead to the emergence of new ways of living religious life. Online communities like Monasteries of the Heart and social movements like Occupy Wall Street and even fitness/spirituality movements like SoulCycle are ways people connect and find meaning today. "Our imaginations haven't caught up with this world we inhabit yet," Krista Tippet wrote in Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. My hope is that women religious help us catch up, help us see what wants to emerge and help it evolve even when that means letting go of the familiar and risking the new.
How can religious women today be spiritual trailblazers for our times in the ways that the founders of our communities were in theirs and that our elders, the women who guided the church through the renewal of Vatican II, were in theirs?
At 57, I am still considered a "young sister" because there are so few younger than me. At meetings, around the dinner table, in small group discussions, I refute the charge: "I am not young. I am middle-aged. My little brother is a grandfather. We do not have young sisters." I choose my words carefully in my attempt to wake us from a reality-blurring slumber that often ignores the fact of an aging and shrinking membership. As if by choosing to not name it, not talk about it, we could simply keep on keeping on. We have been in denial.
From my perspective as a tail-end Baby Boomer who came of age a decade after Vatican II and who entered religious life at 35 after a couple career moves, I see community differently than the 70- and 80-somethings. They came to community at 17 or 18, came of age in the rigid and rule-bound pre-Vatican II religious life, broke free during renewal and subsequently built the great communities and good works that, 50 years later, define religious life in the United States. I understand the denial as these strong women not only began to deal with their own aging process but also realized that there were not sufficient numbers of younger members to carry forth their great vision and good works.
But now, like a patient with a terminal diagnosis, we are moving from denial to acceptance of decline and diminishment — with a tagged-on, just-in-case-there-is-a-future caveat, "We're going to look different." I have read articles, attended presentations and been a part of many conversations which all echo the same conclusion: "We'll be smaller and we'll look different, but religious life will continue." Even Pope Francis, at the September 2016 Abbots' Congress in Rome, used the decline and diminishment language when he urged Benedictine abbots and abesses not to become discouraged if the members of their monastic communities diminish in number and become older.
Vowed religious life will continue, and, yes, we will be smaller in number and we will "look different." But I do not want to watch the sisters I love age and die one by one while I wait around to see what "looks different" when they are gone. I want to actively create our future.
We've been riding on a rain-slick surface — it's past time to find dry ground and gain traction, to welcome the emerging future of religious life, stop blindly riding into the rain of diminishment waiting for the skid that will take us to the ground. Let's start directing the change.
If diminishment is change headed toward death, evolution is change in the direction of life. Because words frame our perspective, I propose that we shift diminishment language to the language of evolution, that we focus on our renewal as a prophetic life form, to our growth and development. Life and death are cyclic. One organism dies, another is reborn.
There are retirement funds to grow and elderly to care for and buildings to dispose of and ministries and institutions we can no longer administer. But don't let those realities become reasons for ignoring opportunities to engage in new conversations and creative thinking, to look at different structures and experiment with new models. Let's actively evolve how we live out our core traditions even as we deal with current realities. Let's believe that the Spirit who led us 50 years ago is with us still.
"I think we're all trying to sustain the present," St. Joseph Sr. Carol Zinn, former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said in a recent presentation. "That's important, but it's not the same as shepherding. We are living in a moment where God is saying, to quote Isaiah, 'Behold, I am doing something new. Do you not perceive it?'"
This is where we need to see what is really in front of us — where we need to see the hunger for spirituality that pervades our society. Where we need to see the poor and victims of injustice and violence and those abused and beaten down. Where we need to see young women longing for deep connections and to make their lives matter. Where we need to see older women looking for a community and a way to respond to the needs around them. Where we see new forms of religious life already emerging in their seeking, in their connecting, in their commitment.
It is a call to step out of our comfort zones, embrace our vulnerability, leave our institutional mentality and broaden our short-term view of history. Let's throw open the doors of renewal again (virtual as well as physical) to the world in which we live and let our communities be reshaped into communities that will continue to meet the needs of God's people, communities that will bring the Gospel to life in a world that has never been more connected while at the same time never been so fractured.
I often see invitations for "come and see" vocation weekends that invite young women to explore religious life, to listen to God's call. But how many communities have "come and tell us" weekends where we invite seekers to come and tell us where they find community, what gives the deepest meaning to their lives, what causes and concerns move them to action, where do they meet God in their lives? We could invite our oblates and associates, women in discernment, seekers from all generations and varied walks of life. And we could listen deeply and then see where the wisdom our traditions preserve intersects with the lives of these seekers and where, maybe, new expressions of community might emerge. In conversation we could discover new ways of sharing our heritage, our accumulated knowledge, practices, and gifts, to meet today's needs.
It will shake up much of what is currently familiar to us. A new renewal will likely require reshaping authority structures, rethinking financial models, examining living arrangements. Where we'll end up is not for us to know at this moment. It's a bit like Moses leading the Israelites into the desert — they didn't know where they'd end up, either, but they trusted God would lead them to the Promised Land. Which Moses, remember, never saw.
Yes, there needs to be a very committed core that maintains the tradition from one generation to the next. Does it have to be canonical? Maybe, maybe not. Do we need large institutions? Not always. Will it have virtual as well as physical expressions? Flexible as well as permanent membership? Possibly. Does it have separate classes for vowed and non-vowed, lay and religious? I hope not. Does it have to attend to the poor and the vulnerable and promote the equality of women and work for peace and justice? Definitely.
I know that I very well might not see the full emergence of new ways of living religious life. But I want to know that it's on the way. For the sake of future generations, for the sake of our world, we need a new renewal now.
[Linda Romey is a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania, and is the community's web developer/designer. She does marketing for them, Monasteries of the Heart and Benetvision. Prior to entering the Erie Benedictines, she worked seven years in Colombia. She is a former marketing and advertising manager for the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company.]