Orlando, Florida — Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word Teresa Maya took out a flashing fidget spinner as she closed the annual assembly for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
As the conference's president, she promised the approximately 650 sisters* gathered before her on Aug. 11 that the presidential triumvirate will be a team that mirrors the trendy gadget: working in unison, producing color.
Her new leadership team includes St. Joseph Sr. Mary Pellegrino, now the past-president, and Holy Cross Sr. Sharlet Wagner, president-elect.
Wagner, who was elected Aug. 10, is first councilor on her congregation's leadership team and has previously worked as an immigration attorney. She said she sees transformation as a key issue for the conference, as well as continuing the restructuring of LCWR, which has nearly 1,300 members representing more than 38,800 women religious in the United States.
Beyond some annual processes and business sessions, the three days in Orlando hosted profound conversations regarding grief and vulnerability, the presence of love, and communion. And for LCWR's second time, the dialogues were facilitated through contemplative engagement.
One woman in particular inspired the conference to adopt the practice through her writings: Baltimore Carmelite Sr. Constance Fitzgerald. On Aug. 11, she became the first contemplative nun to receive the Outstanding Leadership Award.
Though the reflective gathering gave sisters their fair share to digest and provide their communities, Maya's final "homework assignment" to the conference was simple.
"Begin locally. ... That's where communion needs to begin."
"Sí, se puede," she chanted with the room. "Yes, we can."
How to move forward
Following a four-woman panel in a session called "Looking to the Future," the floral arrangement at the center of the stage became a symbolic image.
With leaves, spikes and flowers, the bouquet is beautiful because of its diversity — just like the cultures and backgrounds that make up women religious in the United States, pointed out Sr. Yesenia Fernandez, a Missionary Guadalupana of the Holy Spirit.
"We are a beautiful bouquet that the world needs to embrace and that we need to embrace within LCWR," she said.
Fernandez and three other women opened the final day of the assembly: Providence Sr. Alba Letelier, Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Sr. Ann Jackson, and Apostle of the Sacred Heart Sr. Virginia Herbers.
With St. Joseph Sr. Liz Sweeney facilitating the conversation, the four sisters were told to come unprepared and follow the Spirit as they responded to questions regarding the week's conversations and contemplations.
"Some days, I think I'm living the call, and some days, I pray that the call is living me," Jackson said. "How do we authentically live that call without controlling the future, and how do we begin living that future today?"
Letelier, who is originally from Chile, said she struggles to imagine the future at all. A few years ago, she said, she discovered that "the future is coming to us; we are not going to the future, so we cannot organize ourselves to the future." Letelier added that while she agrees with conferencewide preparation and organization, she thinks the best preparation is by living in the present.
Rather than share her vision of the future, Herbers decided to dwell more on what the group had heard that week, what the Spirit is telling them.
"In listening, we can go, 'Do you hear that? Let's follow that and move toward it,' " she said.
One way to put that into practice, Letelier said, is to flip the common ministry that women religious share, of giving voice to the voiceless. Instead, they should "give opportunity to the voiceless to express themselves in their own voice, and that comes from listening."
Just as the panel showed up without ready answers, created friendships with each other, and said yes to the invitation to speak, Herbers said, "that's how I'd like to see us as a community respond to the beckoning for the future.
"It's scary, filled with question marks, and as time goes by, question marks might not turn into answers," she said. "But we will have forged what's necessary among us to move forward in a way that conspires with the Spirit to build something we can never imagine."
Following the conversation, sisters shared their thoughts from the last three days, reflecting on the keynote speeches, presidential address, final panel, and contemplative moments.
One said she was grateful for the particularly unique assembly; another said in watching the panel, she realized "in what good hands God has placed us."
Contemplations also yielded an expressed desire to expand dialogue and communion with the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious as well as more partnerships with conferences for black and Hispanic sisters.
"It is in stepping on each other's toes that we learn to dance," noted a table of Spanish-speaking sisters.
Some suggested the conference pursue practical ways to address the ills of the world, much like the petition that NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby, is spearheading regarding the federal budget.
Just hours earlier, LCWR president and St. Joseph Sr. Mary Pellegrino announced that the Global Concerns Committee will draft a statement in the face of escalating tension between the United States and North Korea.
We are "to be good news in a world longing to hear even the faintest whisper of inclusive love, extravagant love," one sister said.
A farewell and a tribute
In its annual transition of power, the conference honored St. Joseph Sr. Marcia Allen, who was phasing out of her role as past-president.
"The movement of openness to change is palpable," Allen said during the blessing of leadership.
"It's not just a resolution, but an actual movement. You're already started toward transformation. The horizon has come home: It is here in the body, and in each one of you."
The assembly concluded with a tribute to Fitzgerald.
"When we were in denial, you named the darkness that would come upon us," Maya said when presenting her with the Outstanding Leadership Award.
"When we began to despair, you named the faith that was required from each one of us. When we could not even ask the questions, you called us to stay in the impasse and move to a deeper place, the place where we encounter God and, in so doing, encounter one another. You knew we would need a contemplative heart long before we were ready to know it."
"You have been our prophet," Maya said.
Fitzgerald's scholarship work on contemplative engagement was what initially inspired LCWR to utilize the practice in its annual assembly.
She told GSR that through the years, her contemplative practice has become quieter and simpler, "more satisfied in just being there, knowing that that's enough, to be really surrendered to God, open to God, ready to receive, ready to be available."
That the assembly has become more contemplative is a wonderful gift, she said, adding that she was moved to see them with this kind of a concentration and so many of the sisters deeply involved in it. After the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, sisters in apostolic communities were curious about the practice of contemplative prayer, asking Fitzgerald to teach them.
"It seems like they've learned over the years and are no longer asking that question, prepared to enter those times of quiet and times of listening," she said.
To see LCWR engage in contemplation "in a leisurely way — using that in the most wonderful sense — open to the inspiration of God's Spirit as they move through the assembly, without the impatience to achieve something specific or agendas pushing through, " Fitzgerald said, was a beautiful way to witness the Spirit.
"I feel so proud of what the sisters have become in their contemplative life together."
The fact that she is receiving this award, she told GSR, is "saying that contemplative women have something to say to religious life."
"I might be the one receiving the award, but this award is for all the women who will never speak publicly and yet whose prayer and prayer experience is important to the church."
*An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect number of sisters attending the assembly.
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