An Indian social worker who was the first Asian to lead the global Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame called on the heads of the world's communities of Catholic women religious to stop "theologizing" about the needs of the poor and to instead get to work in the places most in need.
Sr. Mary Sujita told about 900 women religious representing nearly 500,000 sisters globally at the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) meeting May 10 that they can no longer "reduce [their] mission to some traditional ministries and good charitable deeds" but must work for deep, structural changes around the world.
"What is my real identity? Am I who I claim to be as a woman religious?" she asked. "Who is benefiting from my vows? Will my life make any difference in the lives of those most in need?"
Sujita, who led her order at their Rome headquarters from 1998 to 2011, said congregations should not focus their energies on questions of diminishment — the lower numbers of young women joining their orders — but on serving those on the margins of society.
"The future of religious life will be decided on the peripheries where Christ is in agony," Sujita said in a plenary address to a triennial meeting of the UISG. "It will not be decided on the number of sisters we have. Let us be clear on this."
"Sisters, we who have everything and often are among the most privileged woman of the world, what are we afraid of?" Sujita asked. "What is the root of our cowardice and fear?"
"How we choose to respond to this moment will decide the future of ministerial religious life," she said. "We don't have much time. Like Jesus, we are challenged to be filled with a divine recklessness. We are too careful. Jesus was reckless in his love. Are we ready for that?"
"Time is running short for very radical steps," Sujita said. "Either we live a prophetic life . . . or disappear as an irrelevant reality."
The UISG meeting runs Monday to Friday (May 9-13) in Rome on the theme "weaving global solidarity for life."
Over five days of plenary sessions and meetings, including a scheduled private audience with Pope Francis on Thursday, the community leaders will discuss perennial questions of the role of religious life in the world in the light of current global issues, particularly the continuing economic and environmental crises.
Sujita focused her talk Tuesday on the overwhelming poverty that many in the world face, citing statistics that around 800 million people face hunger and that a child dies from a water-related illness every 20 seconds.
"Our sincere commitment to justice and active concern for the poor are absolutely non-negotiable parts of living our faith and discipleship," she said.
"Today, there is so much theologizing and writing about the radical option for the poor and needy," she continued. "While I may feel good about that on the conceptual level, where am I in my practical, down-to-earth solidarity with the poor?"
"Imagine, if each woman religious would reach out even to a few persons on the margins, how the margins would be transformed into islands of hope!" she said.
"We are not a hopeless group sitting here," she said. "We are a powerhouse of transformation."
Women from five continents are taking part in the UISG meeting this week, and the discussions will be translated into 11 languages, including Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese.
The meeting involves one or two formal presentations each day, which allows the women religious periods of time to reflect on the presented topics in their table groups.
Sujita is one of four plenary speakers for the event. At the opening of the conference Monday, U.S. St. Joseph Sr. Carol Zinn warned the women religious leaders against accepting an "entitlement creep" that numbs them from confronting poverty and environmental destruction.
Zinn, a former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said religious life has primarily been a "first-world lifestyle" that "can create a numbness of consciences and a blindness of heart through which we can easily see not the pain but see what we want to see."
Among other plenary speakers during the week will be Brazilian Divine Providence Sr. Marian Ambrosio and Italian Daughter of Mary Sr. Grazia Loparco.
[Joshua J. McElwee isNCRVatican correspondent. His email address email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @joshjmac.]