Breaking bread: Today's generation of Catholic sisters forge cross-conference relationships

Almost 30 years ago, congregations of Catholic sisters in the United States split into two groups: those belonging to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and those belonging to a newly formed group that would become the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.

The fault lines occurred around issues of what could and could not be considered authentic religious life in the aftermath of Vatican II, and the bifurcation rocked the U.S. Catholic landscape. In some ways, the split was one of the definitive events for a generation of Catholic sisters. Even today, those sisters willing to talk about it publicly often do so with audible pain and sadness.

And yet a good number of the young women who've become sisters in the ensuing decades are confused about what happened, exactly. They say they catch bits and pieces of the story here and there, but their older sisters don't really talk about it. Meanwhile, a public, authoritative history on the topic doesn't exist. But even if the details of the split remain hazy for them, these younger sisters are crystal clear on one thing: Communion between LCWR and CMSWR communities is crucial for the future of religious life in the U.S.

And they just might be the generation called by God to bring that to fruition.

Building relationships

Of the three women planning this year's Giving Voice national gathering, Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Sr. Julia Walsh is the only extrovert. And it shows. Her giggling, effervescent way of speaking is markedly different from Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Sr. Kathryn Press' wispy but deliberate voice or Dominican Sister of Mission San Jose Sr. Mary Therese Perez's quiet and measured delivery.

But when they're together, the trio has obvious chemistry. They are constantly affirming one another, laughing at little inside jokes and gently encouraging each other to speak up when they know there's a particular insight that has yet to be shared.

Over the last few years, Giving Voice — an organization for Catholic sisters younger than 50 — has made increased interconference communion one of its central goals. While the organization is open to sisters from both conferences, historically, it's been dominated by women from LCWR communities like Walsh and Perez. That's one of the reasons why Press, whose community maintains membership in both LCWR and CMSWR, is on the planning committee for the upcoming national gathering in St. Louis.

Getting CMSWR communities to send sisters to the national gatherings has been Giving Voice's greatest challenge in terms of creating unity, Perez said. But they're making progress. This year, two Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, a CMSWR community, are coming to St. Louis.

"I think that was able to occur because their community's in relationship with my community," Walsh said. "There were already friendships that were there. So when I asked some sisters in my community how we would get Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist to come to Giving Voice this summer, they said, 'Oh, just call Mother Miriam. Here's her number.' "

All three women agree that it's only through individual relationship building like this that changes can be made at the institutional level. That's been pretty easy for Press who's never known a form of religious life that did not include experiences with both LCWR and CMSWR.

"For me, having connections in both conferences is vital to my experience of religious life," she said. "I can't say that I seek out those friendships, like, 'Do I have enough friends in each conference?' and make it even. But the perspective that my community has gifted me with is to be able to sort of stand in the middle and lean on both sides, which has been a blessing."

But both Perez and Walsh say that, for them, those relationships have been harder to come by.

Despite her recent success with the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, Walsh said she often feels that her ability to make friends with CMSWR sisters is stifled by the very fact of the two-conference construct. The leadership of the two conferences sometimes attend each other's annual assemblies, but — with the exception of a canon law workshop that took place in Chicago earlier this spring — they don't host joint events for members or member congregations.

"I had some sisters ask me if anyone in our community had ever told me I can't go and be friends with sisters in these other congregations. And it's not that people are saying no, it's just that the structures don't provide the freedom. I feel like I don't even know how I would," Walsh said. "So that's where I feel like it's cramping my style," she added, laughing.

Perez, a religion teacher, said that whenever she sees CMSWR sisters at third-party events like the FOCUS or Los Angeles Religious Education conferences, she makes it a point to talk to them. "I introduce myself, ask them questions about themselves," she said. "And I try to say, 'Here's my number, here's my email. Let's stay connected.' And also to say the church needs the diversity of expressions of religious life. I make it a point to say all of that, too."

Yet, in addition to the the problem of limited access, there's also the problem of inherited prejudices. Because while some older sisters may be loath to talk about the initial split, their younger sisters have gleaned certain things about it, seemingly from the very air.

"I don't have any particular memories of hearing negative things," Walsh said. "I don't know how I picked up the biases that I did. But I'm aware that they're in me, and that feels like a hinderance. They cause me to feel insecure, because I'm nervous I'm going to offend somebody. I just don't have the same kind of confidence because I'm coming to the relationships with biases."

Sr. Susan Francois, a 47-year-old Sister of St. Joseph of Peace, echoes that sentiment. As a novice, she attended a weekly novitiate program facilitated by the Religious Formation Conference — which included novices from CMSWR communities. No one ever told her what to think about these sisters, but she found she'd already developed concerns similar to Walsh's.

"If I walked into a formation event with sisters that were in CMSWR, I would be wondering, 'Do they think I'm a real sister? Do they judge me?' And they were probably thinking things about me from those stereotypes," Francois said. "From our generational perspective, the sadness is that, because of that split, we didn't have natural ways of getting to know each other."

Signs of the times

But finding ways to get to know each other is exactly what today's young sisters are focused on. "When you build relationships, divisions fall," Francois said with a laugh, adding that she'd recently been part of a panel discussion in the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, where most of the audience was CMSWR sisters — something she could not have even imagined feeling comfortable with 10 years ago.

Francois believes there's a new sense of what's possible, thanks, in part, to the Vatican's controversial investigations of U.S. sisters in general and LCWR in particular at the start of the 21st century.

"I think that for those of us in LCWR congregations, the way that the doctrinal investigation and the apostolic visitation were resolved through relationships, staying at the table, nonviolent dialogue, engagement and encounter gave us the path forward," she said. "And if we were able to do that with church hierarchy that was in a confrontational mode with us, how can we not do that with our sisters?"

Young sisters also know the time for reconciliation is ripe because they're reading the signs of the times.

"In 30 years, there's only going to be so many of us in the United States, and we need to do some work now so that we know how to lean on each other and be real strong sisters to one another in the future," Walsh said. "That's only going to make our vocations stronger, our form of religious life stronger. It's going to make the church, ultimately, stronger and healthier."

"We can appreciate the diversity of ways God invites people to be faithful. We can model how to be a healthy church," she added.

To which Perez snapped her fingers and Press exclaimed, "Amen!"

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is a Global Sisters Report staff writer. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @dawn_cherie]