Inheriting great love and responsibility

by Susan Rose Francois

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Periodically during contemplative prayer, a random distracting thought pops into my mind and catches my attention, no matter how pious or spiritual my intentions when I first sit down to pray. It might be as simple as what I plan to cook for dinner that evening or as complex as composing an email. Every once in a while, however, a thought drifts in which is indeed worthy of further prayer and reflection, no matter how random it might at first seem. About a month ago, for example, I found myself contemplating “Downton Abbey” from my perspective as a younger Catholic Sister. 

There I was, sitting in the chapel with my Sister housemates, when I found myself thinking: “It’s almost as if I’m Matthew Crawley.” I remember wondering at the time, where did that one come from? In the weeks since, however, it has led to much fruitful reflection.

Let me try to explain without any unnecessary plot spoilers. If you happen to be familiar with the ongoing saga of “Downton Abbey,” suffice it to say that I am referencing the Matthew Crawley of the early seasons. I also hope and pray that my story ends on a more positive note, many years from now. 

If by chance you are not a fan of this public television drama, all you need to know is that Matthew Crawley is a solicitor and distant cousin to the Earl of Grantham who unexpectedly finds himself heir apparent to the family fortune and title. While he is a successful professional in his chosen field, he is a novice in the running of a large estate and does not know the nuances of the family history. Moreover, he is poised to inherit during a time of uncertainty and great social upheaval. There is much he has to learn, yet there is also much that he cannot possibly ever hope to learn that would help him navigate such a changing landscape.

I suppose my subconscious latched on to this comparison because, as a younger woman religious who was recently elected to congregation leadership, I find myself in a somewhat similar situation. While I came to religious life after spending a decade in local government administration, I have a tremendous amount to learn about leadership in a religious congregation. Also, as a newer member, my experience of community is necessarily limited. I just haven’t been around that long. I am coming to understand this as both a deficit and a gift.

On the one hand, I sometimes lack the historical context for complex issues and questions. However, on the other hand, I am free from many of the assumptions that might otherwise constrain my heart and mind if I did carry such a personal history in community. Finally, given the present demographic reality in religious life, you can also make the case that the younger generations of women religious are entering during a time of uncertainty and upheaval. We can, and should, imagine and dream about the future, even as we navigate the ever-changing landscape before us. In the end, however, only God knows what lies ahead.

In the weeks since I had my Matthew Crawley observation, I have been thinking quite a bit about inheritance and wealth. The wealth I am pondering is not so much financial as it is spiritual. It is the wealth of love accumulated by my Sisters through more than 130 years of faithful service to God’s people. It is the currency of relationship, the blessing of memories, our pioneer spirit, the lived experience of renewal, and the reclaiming of our founding story and charism. 

In many ways, I am late to the party, and yet I am able to dance to the music that is playing on in full stream in the company of amazing women alive with the love of God. If only the dance could go on at the same tempo and with the same large crowd on the dance floor! Sadly, barring a major intervention by the Holy Spirit, we know that we are poised for some major shifts in religious life. 

I am grateful for my random Matthew Crawley thought because it has helped me to come to grips with some of the responsibility I feel for the future. If I am honest, at times it is a heavy weight on my shoulders, as I suspect it is heavy on the shoulders of many younger members. How can we possibly follow in the footsteps of the women who answered the call of Vatican II so fearlessly? In my experience, younger religious tend to be excited about the potential for a smaller-scale religious life which may emerge in the next couple of decades, but we by no means have a blueprint for how to get there. We share the sadness that our elder Sisters feel when we make tough decisions to withdraw from ministries due to declining numbers. We also anticipate the not-too-distant future when we will have substantially fewer companions on the journey.

Thankfully, we do not face this moment alone. The younger generations in religious life may be small, but we do exist, and we are increasingly connected across congregation lines. Also, just as Matthew Crawley was able to learn from the Earl of Grantham and the Dowager Countess, we have incredible wealth in our elder Sisters in community.

If you have not yet read Teresa Maya’s Open Letter to the Great Generation, take this as an opportunity to do so. She articulates so well the love and admiration we have for those who paved the way, as well as the urgent need for them now as mentors: “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.”

The wider church is also facing a similar moment.  Last week, I attended a conference at Fordham University called “Our Inheritance: Vatican II at 50, The Post-Conciliar Generation Looks at the Next Half Century.” Generation X Catholic academics drew upon the wealth of the past 50 years of Catholic scholarship to explore how Vatican II continues to shape the church and wider society in areas such as politics, gender and globalization. 

Our inheritance is great, and so is our responsibility. This can be an overwhelming thought if we think of our communities’ charisms as static treasures we are responsible for keeping safe. But, as Bernard Lee observes in The Beating of Great Wings: A Worldly Spirituality for Active, Apostolic Communities: “Charism is not a property. It is not a possession. It is not transferrable. It is not transmittable. And it is not controllable.” Instead, “It can only be reinvented, posited, in a new socio-historical setting, but never simply reenacted” (pg. 16). Our responsibility is to lean on our inheritance of love and the example of those who have gone before, to breathe new life into our founding stories, and to respond to the unmet needs of today. We have been called to carry on in our way in this moment, and hopefully, one day, we too can pass on the torch to the next generation.

[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]