In Our Own Words: reflections on the future of women's religious life

This story appears in the In Our Own Words feature series. View the full series.
In Our Own Words: Religious Life in a Changing World
Edited by Juliet Mousseau and Sarah Kohles
Published by Liturgical Press; 238 pages

Editor's note: Global Sisters Report is offering condensed excerpts from three chapters of the newly released book In Our Own Words: Religious Life in a Changing World, a collection of essays by young women religious. Selecting which chapters to highlight was challenging, as each offers thoughtful insights into religious life and spiritual growth. Several writers are regular or occasional contributors to GSR. In the end, we decided on samplings that explored particular themes by sisters who have not written for GSR to offer new voices. This is the last of the three. Find all the excerpts here.

One of the burning questions and much of the anxiety which surrounds any conversation about religious life, especially in Canada and the United States, is: "What will the future be?"

Younger women religious have begun to speak of ourselves as the bridge between what is and what is to come in religious life. Our older sisters have been speaking of themselves as the midwives of the future that is to come. Though none of us knows what is to be, we are trying to prepare for and, hopefully, to welcome the new creation that will grow out of this unknown, chaotic present. Perhaps what we really need to do right now is to live the future that we wish to see, for it is already here.

We have a sense of the direction into which religious life is moving as seeds of a rich diversity are budding into a growing internationality and interculturality in religious communities in Canada and the United States. There are newer members in many religious communities who are from cultures and countries that have been previously underrepresented (or entirely nonexistent) in Eurocentric communities. The effects of this demographic, and potentially cultural, change may not be immediately apparent in their fullness but there is no doubt that the impact will be fundamental for religious life in the future. Such a foundational change is provisional, of course, upon religious communities adjusting to allow for the full growth of the widening and deepening of our sisterhood.

The possibilities of the impact of these changing demographics on the charism and mission of religious communities are almost infinite. How will the discussion and discernment of the mission and ministries of religious communities be affected by the voice and presence of black women, Latina women, and women of color of varying cultures? We remain connected to our countries, cultures, and languages of origin. How will interaction with these countries and cultures flavor or change the theological underpinnings of those Eurocentric communities that have been so immersed in and informed by the experience and theologies of dominant cultures?

We may find ourselves somewhat conflicted because young women religious are often very concerned about respecting the culture of our communities — formation is, after all, con­cerned with imbuing and enculturating newer members in the history and the ways of their congregations and orders. The question then becomes, how will formation processes and structures be evaluated and reshaped to allow for the sea change that must happen in the discernment and discussion of mission and ministry and the future of religious life? What are the systemic changes that we need to make to bring this new creation to maturity?

Much has been said of the studies and research that indicate that young women are looking for community and prayer in their potential religious communities. "The new communities they seek are communities of praxis, communities that are dedicated first to living the gospel personally and interperson­ally." This has thrown some communities into a tizzy because they have somehow extrapolated from this that if they are primarily communities of older women they will not or cannot receive new entrants. They feel this community life seems to imply a population of younger persons. This is simply untrue. If a religious community is truly open to the challenges that a new voice, a new lens, and a new vision will bring, then the possibilities of creative problem-solving are endless.

There really is no way to conclude when speaking about the future of religious life — it is like the kingdom of God, here but not quite yet. We move into a future that clearly challenges us to make manifest God's presence in a world that is unpredictable and unstable and in which our brothers and sisters in Christ may be deeply afraid. Aware of the many uncertainties, young women with passion and radical love and commitment to this present and yet unknown future continue to enter religious communities and to make public profession of their vows. We may not know, any more than anyone else, what that future holds, but we trust that the good work that was begun by the Holy Spirit in the hundreds of thousands who came before us will continue in us and in those who are yet to come. We know that we will need to engage more fully in the refounding of religious life and of our respective communities if we are to respond to the challenges and opportunities that are before us. We are ready.

[Deborah Warner is a Sister of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame de Montréal. She made her perpetual profession in 2012. Raised in Trinidad and currently missioned as a social worker in Toronto, she went on mission to Sierra Leone in 2017. Excerpt is from Pages 216-221 and is used with permission from Liturgical Press.]