National Catholic Sisters Week panel discusses past and future for women religious

This article appears in the NCSW 2017 feature series. View the full series.

Despite the challenges of modern society, sisters are enthusiastic about the future of religious life.

Three sisters from around the country came together online Wednesday night to share their best memories, enthusiasm and hopes for religious life in honor of National Catholic Sisters Week, which runs March 8-14.

The livestreamed panel organized by the Sisters 2.0 community included Felician Sr. Michelle Stachowiak; Sr. Ann Marie Paul, a Sister of Christian Charity; and Sr. María de Lourdes López Munguía, a Franciscan Missionary of Mary. St. Joseph Sr. Amy Hereford moderated.

Newer generations of sisters stand on the shoulders of those who came before them, the sisters agreed. But in many ways, Stachowiak said she feels those in their age group, Generation X, are pioneers as they move toward the future of where God is calling them. And they do that in community, she said.

"We live in such a divided world," she said. On Facebook, people are not coming to a middle ground on divisive issues, and religious life is where they find a way to live as one.

"Particularly, as there's less of us, it's much harder to hide in the background," she said.

Those in religious life have to figure out a way to sit at the table and share each other's truths, she added.

"We can come together from many different points of view, many different ages, many different experiences, many different political ideas, and be able to find a way to live together in truth and in love," Stachowiak said. "That's something we perhaps do better than any other group because of the way we live our life."

Despite the challenges, including the fact that the majority of sisters are over the age of 70, younger sisters are looking forward to the future.

"I believe we are the women we've been waiting for," Stachowiak said.

She said the courage that is needed now is different: Those before them faced a lot of physical obstacles, but now, sisters are called to overcome their own fears and root themselves in the Gospel.

The sisters' predecessors built large buildings and large ministries, and maybe now those in religious life are called to build lighter, leaner and more mobile communities, Stachowiak said.

"Our mothers and grandmothers answered the call of their time," Stachowiak said. "God is calling our generation and the generations after us to something different, which is being in the streets, being among the poor."

When Stachowiak prays about the future, she prays for partnerships where the people, not their communities, own collaboration. They're there to teach, birth and move on to the next place where the Catholic Church is not, Stachowiak said.

"That is what excites me," she said.

The people the sisters work with and meet through their ministries are what make up their greatest memories of religious life, the sisters said.

Stachowiak said her drive and determination come from the women she lived with when she entered religious life. Working with them and seeing how dedicated they were to their ministries became the foundation of who she is today, she said.

Paul said her best memories don't have a lot to do with events, but the people who work the events. The feeling of unity that comes from working together, all responding to God's call, is the common thread in her fondest memories: people of all ages, ethnicities and geographic locations leaving everything to follow Christ more closely.

"At this point of my life, I am grateful for all the gifts religious life has given me," Munguía said. Her past is full of people who have shared their lives with her and her community, and she said she's grateful for the stories and trust people have given her.

The sisters said community gives them joy in living religious life.

Christians are called to come together and live in a community that is founded on, inspired by and raised by the Gospel, Hereford said. They're called to work together, forgive one another and have each other's backs.

This support is also what keeps Munguía going.

"We trust each other, and that's a beautiful gift from God, because when I go out to each community, I am not going by myself. I go with the whole community," she said. "That's powerful. We trust each other."

Paul said she has noticed an increased collaboration today in religious life: As numbers dwindle, communities look toward each other to work together.

But sisters must have an openness to spirit in the future, Paul said. Especially in the United States, the future must embrace all who are suffering, she said.

A woman in her ministry, the Passaic Neighborhood Center for Women, recently told Paul that her prayer every morning is to make her invisible because she's living in the country illegally.

"The future of religious life in the United States has to respond to that kind of plea or that kind of prayer," Paul said.

No matter where God leads, Munguía said she hopes to learn and make new paths and new friendships in the communities.

"The past is beautiful, and now we need to build something new," she said.

[Caitlin Kerfin is a freelance religion reporter from St. Louis.]