UISG, LCWR sisters discuss building relationships, moving forward in new political times

Editor's note: Global Sisters Report recently held a discussion with Sr. Pat Murray, IBVM, executive secretary of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG); Sr. Mary Pellegrino, CSJ, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; and Sr. Joan-Marie Steadman, CSC, executive director of LCWR, on topics related to the global sisterhood and the outlook for 2017 and beyond. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation. The full transcript is available here.

GSR: We're very interested in partnerships, in trying to build collaboration among the sisters as a global sisterhood. So we're wondering how the UISG and the LCWR partners with other NGOs, U.N. sisters or other national conferences in other countries.

Murray: We made a commitment to really link with conferences, particularly of the continental or subcontinental level. For example, we have strong connections with ACWECA, which is the nine English-speaking country conferences in Eastern Africa, with COMSAM, which is the Conference of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar.

We do UCESM, which is the Union of the European Conferences of Major Superiors, generally in Europe; with CLAR in Latin America; with AMOR, which is Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious; then with the bigger LCWR, CRC, Australia. So they would be continental — subcontinental, if you like — links.

With some of those, we have practical projects. For example, with ACWECA and with ZAS — which is the Zambia Association of Sisterhoods — together with the GHR Foundation, we have a project to educate sister canon lawyers. There are five at the moment being educated in CUEA, the Catholic University of Eastern Africa.

We have just completed a project with UISG, ACWECA and ZAS, and that was a study of religious life in Zambia looking at the relationship between formation, education and mission. GHR through UISG has committed funding for sisters for formation, for the study of theology, and some other projects in Zambia.

We have 36 units belonging to UISG, what we call 36 constellations. We work with a number of those, but we're particularly moving to working with constellations in Asia. That's part of the future plan, along with constellations in Africa.

These don't necessarily overlap with conferences, but there is a connection, and we're trying to build links between the UISG constellations and also the conference of religious. For example, next February, we're organizing a canon law conference in Nairobi with ACWECA and with the UISG constellations. After the workshop, we'll run a two-day canon law seminar with AOSK, which is the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya.

So we're trying to help to build networks and relationships. We're also making as strong links as we can with the Vatican dicasteries. We're involving them, in at least informing them of the various initiatives that are taking place in different parts of the world so that they're aware. We do that through two official channels, which is the Council of Eighteen, which is nine superior general of women and nine of men with the Propaganda Fide and also with the Council of Sixteen with the congregation of religious, which is eight superior general women and eight of men because we feel that more and more, there's an appeal that at least their information flows to the Vatican so that they equally know what's happening because they're often dealing with some of the challenges of the ground that maybe we as conferences can do something to help.

I should add that we must not forget networks that are developing. For example, the Talitha Kum network is now connecting 22 networks in different parts of the globe. Some of those networks are country-based; some of those are subcontinental-based, for example, one of the networks would be RENATE, a European network. That's another whole way of connectivity that's growing.

Recently, within the last week, we appointed a sister to a desk to build networks in relation to sisters who are working with migrants worldwide. That's a new initiative growing out of our project with Sicily.

I'm also looking at the help that foundations and other individuals of means are giving to religious life. For example, there are two people who support the Talitha Kum network financially and in a very practical way to try to help build a global network.

GSR: Talitha Kum is the anti-trafficking (network), right?

Murray: Talitha Kum is the anti-trafficking network. But we're also trying to build this network of sisters working with migrants because they particularly feel quite isolated, feel they need spiritual and theological support and reflection, and they need resources — not necessarily financial resources, but other kinds of personal support because it's a ministry that's very demanding, as are both these areas. More and more, we're finding that these frontier ministries need new kinds of support and new kinds of relationships.

Steadman: In terms of LCWR, our initiatives for 2015 to 2022 contain a couple of items that relate directly to what we're reflecting on this morning. One is women religious for leadership in emerging intercultural and global reality. We are an organization that serves the leaders of congregations. So this is very important to us both in terms of the situation nationally and internationally.

Another one under that initiative is to partner with organizations that strengthen women religious nationally and internationally. For us, the growing relationship with the UISG has been very, very important. Pat has certainly facilitated that. The ability for the executive directors of conferences to participate in the last UISG plenary gave an opportunity for some conversations that probably would not have happened without that opportunity.

I see within our organization a growing number of congregation leaders who are actively involved in the U.S. constellation. In terms of some of the networking that's happening, Pat mentioned Talitha Kum. The U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking is the connection in the United States with that.

That is not an LCWR arm, but we do have a permanent seat on the board and have been instrumental in helping get that established. We had a wake-up call at a UISG plenary a few years ago when they showed a map of the world, and efforts for human trafficking in the U.S. was empty. Those of us that were there were horrified because we knew so much was going on, so immediately efforts were made to rectify that situation.

LCWR participates in the Interamerican [Committee] with CMSM, which is the men's conference in the U.S., and CLAR. That's a growing relationship. What we have done primarily is meet together to talk about the issues and challenges of living the charism religious life in our various cultures, looking at commonalities and differences and ways that we can support one another in that.

A number of our member congregations are very active through different NGOs. LCWR itself is not an NGO, but we have members that are involved. I know Mary will touch on that.

So that reach is fairly broad through our members. We have been very active in recent meetings with the Office of Justice and Peace at the Vatican. They sponsored a meeting with Pax Christi, and LCWR was very helpful in getting that meeting planned, and they issued the document on nonviolence. There's a follow-up meeting that will be happening in a couple of weeks, and we will have a representative there as part of that.

We do have one of our initiatives around the area of social concerns, so we continue to network with a variety of groups that aren't just women religious in establishing economic justice working to end human trafficking. Immigrant rights are very important to us at this moment. They're important globally, and they're also very important as we look at our own situation here in the U.S. right now. Again, our efforts to promote nonviolence and then to protect the earth.

Pellegrino: As Joan said, there's a lot of activity that the members of LCWR are engaged in that cross all of these organizations. The majority if not all of the members of the U.S. constellation of UISG are probably also LCWR members. We have dual kind of memberships, so we're functioning at all those levels. There's a linkage that's beginning to occur between the U.S. constellation and, I believe it's the code constellation of AFEC2, which includes Zambia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe.

That was a connection that was made at the 2016 plenary assembly. Then in our meeting in the United States in August, we furthered some conversation about building a relationship with that particular constellation and the sisters there to partner around some projects that would be particularly meaningful on the ground there, so that's in process.

Some of [our LCWR sisters] function in our charism families, as well. So we are establishing through our charism families global connections with our charism networks around the world. That's also where a number of the charism families sponsor or have an NGO and who also connect on behalf of charism families within the United States to connect with NGOs globally.

So we're doing a lot of networking on a lot of different layers. Some of it is structural and organizational, and some of it is related to the structure and organization of our charism families. I also believe that all of the religious NGOs come together and create a bloc as religious NGOs. They may each have their own priorities and projects relative to the influence that their charism family wants to bring or the projects that are important to them. But they also work together as a bloc of religious NGOs. So there's some networking and collaboration that's happening there as well.

GSR: Mary, is that through the U.N.?

Pellegrino: Yes, the U.N. They're the U.N. NGOs. Our federation has NGO status, and we have an NGO representative. There are other charism families that also have NGO representatives.

Steadman: And people that don't have charism families are often able to piggyback with those charisms to be engaged with efforts at the U.N.

GSR: So that kind of leads into another question that's related to that, and that is the connecting of global north and global south sisters — let's say the international sisters that have missions and so on in the developing world. What about the indigenous congregations of the global south and the global north?

Steadman: Many of our congregations that are international are truly international. They're not sisters going to other countries as a missionary, but they are truly international, working very hard to live the best of what it means to be intercultural. I think that's something that we're experiencing. I think in terms of the congregations that are international, there's a very conscious effort to share resources across boundaries placed differently in different congregations.

So I can't speak for all congregations. My own congregation is international — all of us, it doesn't matter where we are, we share everything in common so that people have what they need to live the life. They know where they are and do the ministry. I think in those settings, the sisters on the ground there are very engaged in the life of the church and our society.

Murray: At the level of the UISG membership, there are a number of congregations who support local congregations in different ways. Sometimes it's financial in terms of study opportunities. Sometimes it's in terms of hospitality for congregations who come to Europe to study. At other times, the congregations make resource people available to local congregations in terms of facilitators, people to lead retreats, to do strategic planning.

I just wanted to add that I think what Joan said in terms of religious at the U.N. is very important. I visited last year and I appealed to those who were at the U.N., the sisters and our brothers, to become the voice of all religious. As I said, most congregations would never be in the position to put somebody at the United Nations. So as a collective, we need to work together to bring the voices of those who won't be in that position.

Maybe I should just add in also UISG obviously, links with groups like Jesuit Refugee Services, Caritas Internationalis and others.

GSR: We also wanted to ask you about the current political climate given election results in the U.S. and elsewhere. It seems that there's a shift to a hardline stance on social issues. What role do sisters have in countering this?

Pellegrino: I think what's happening now is that many, many religious communities as well as the LCWR international office are really very thoughtfully and very prayerfully considering how to respond to what it is that we're hearing, what it is that might be needed as we move forward to really addressing the same concerns about the dignity of persons or any kinds of affronts to the social gospel.

How do we continue to do that as we have been doing it in a climate that has shifted considerably? So I know that what we're hearing from our members in terms of the people that we're serving is that there's just a great amount of anxiety and fear about the unpredictability of what might be our social and national and global situation in the new administration.

Some of us are really looking for ways to work locally because that's typically where the need is most acute. How do we continue to work and serve the needs locally even as some of those needs and some of the realities might shift because of national legislation or the direction that things are going nationally? We're trying to balance a presence and capacities on the ground locally. Also, what can we do in terms of advocacy and networking in amplifying the message of the Gospel in the current climate?

I think we are praying ourselves through that because what we've learned is the quality of action and the quality of the presence. I think personally what is needed at this time really needs to be grounded in a quality of prayer and contemplation. I think many of us are moving in that direction. Joan, do you want to just talk a little bit more about organization?

Steadman: I'd be happy to add to that. You're aware that contemplative engagement has been a very important way for LCWR to engage in dialogue, especially with individuals and groups where we see things very differently. So we're really looking at how we might use that as we move forward in the current climate. We are really very engaged in the Washington, D.C., area with both some USCCB groups and some interfaith groups.

All of them are beginning to look at some of the issues that may be coming before us and how we might respond. We want to be able to respond to what the reality is. Right now, there's a lot of what may be the reality, and we're not sure what it is going to be, so we want to be ready to be able to respond as it unfolds and to give our members some tools and resources.

We want to be able to respond, in a sense, as different issues come forward because we know they will. Immigration is key; there are meetings already going on in some of the interfaith groups about that.

Health care for the poor — again, it's our networking that gives us a voice at a whole variety of tables to continue to try to use our voice as effectively as we can. We're developing some resources that leaders can use in their settings. I think we're finding that the voice of the local congregation leader in her setting carries more weight in many ways than our voice because people know who those women are and they pay attention when they speak. So it's a both/and that needs to continue.

There's a lot of anxiety in Washington, D.C. — everywhere. It's just everywhere; you can feel it. We have a very large immigrant community in D.C., and people are worried. Again, we want to be able to respond to the various issues. For us, it's always a discernment. We have our kind of five focused areas, so those are areas where we take major responsibility. Other groups are doing other things, so we can work with them, but we don't want to or need to take their place in doing that.

Pellegrino: If I were to frame how it is that as a congregational leader, in trying to work and move our congregation in response, the two categories that I would frame would be advocacy and accompaniment. How is it and what do we need to do to act in terms of advocating for really the most vulnerable and those who are most affected and have the least amount of resources?

The accompaniment is kind of the boots on the ground. We're in contact with "Dreamers" who are wondering if they are still going to be able to stay in this country. So not only accompany people whose fear and anxiety has really escalated right now. I find that because of the unpredictability, that we're seeing the need to really be attentive and vigilant about what reality is. It's just going to escalate for us.

I think what we're finding, too, as Joan mentioned, is the voice of local leaders. We are finding that our voice carries influence more locally and regionally. Anything that LCWR can do to help a local leader amplify our message and our voice is really going to be very, very significant. That doesn't diminish at the national level or in those arenas where LCWR as an organization can function. That still needs to be happening as well. We want to look at exerting influence in our spheres of influence. Some of our spheres are national, but for many of the members, our spheres are local and regional, and that's where we really want to be able to respond.

Steadman: May I add something about the international political situation? This comes from my experience as president of an international congregation. I think that we do try to offer congregations in other countries that are experiencing difficulties. I think that we are very sensitive that the situation in countries is different in terms of what religious can say or do in a particular setting. I think we're very cognizant of if we're going to say something, do it in dialogue with the people that are there.

I think we try to hold that global perspective of situations that are so different in different places. Sometimes, people can say, "Why aren't those women in those countries doing something?" They're probably doing a lot, but it may not look like it, and there are probably very good reasons why it doesn't. Again, I think that's a sensitivity that's important.

Murray: I think obviously, political shifts in the United States have a ripple effect throughout the world. I think we have to look at Europe to see the growing influence of more right-wing groups who prey on the fears of people. However, one of the things that encourages me is, at the level of the UISG, and the thing we took at the last assembly, weaving global solidarity. Our whole thrust was to give leadership in building solidarity, not only at the global level, but also building it at the local level.

They may seem very small, but recently, I was at a meeting of German-speaking sisters here in Rome, and they were talking about the incredible amount of small initiatives that sisters of all ages, particularly elderly sisters, are undertaking in Germany with migrants. I have a little slogan in that we have to become joiners at the local level. We don't have to be the leaders, but to join wherever there are initiatives happening — for welcome, for acceptance, for showing that difference enriches the local community, and so forth.

I take my inspiration from Cardinal [Francisco] Montenegro, who we're working with in Sicily, who really invites us as religious to become religious on the streets. I do think that's a whole new call, to leave our institutions, particularly where we're really struggling with institutions, to put those in the hands of good laypeople who have imbibed our charism, who are steeped in the vision of what we want to achieve in our schools and hospitals and so forth. I think more and more, we're needed to be among people.

We have to be really close to the local people to be able to be an influence and to, in a sense, take away the fears that the media and others prey on and augment. I think it's not an ordinary conversation. I think at the UISG level, we're trying, through projects like the Sicily project, to not just talk about the way we should go, but to actually try and experience ourselves the challenge and then to be able to reflect in a theological way on that challenge and in a very practical way to share the fruits of that with others.

I think it's going to be a difficult time. I wrote one sentence in my reflection on this. I said, "Now is the time we have to be more prophetic than ever." I think in our religious communities, which are becoming increasingly multicultural, we have, if you like, a way of prophetically witnessing to the fact that difference enriches community life. I think we have to ask ourselves, "What does welcoming the stranger mean?" I'm looking at religious throughout Rome and Italy who have welcomed migrants and immigrants into their communities, to their living quarters.

There are a lot of very practical things that we want to document so that we show good practice both in religious communities, but also in the parishes. We have to counteract fear with love and show the many loving gestures that are already happening.

GSR: At the Nairobi convening, there was a lot of emphasis on the Sustainable Development Goals. Can you give us ideas of how this message is going to be carried forward elsewhere?

Murray: At the UISG, we're looking at the Sustainable Development Goals to see, first of all, how our existing directions and thrust fit into the Sustainable Development Goals and, equally, how we can link them. In Nairobi, I use the phrase, "We're champions of the Sustainable Development Goals, but we're also the conscience." We have to monitor the reality: not what governments say is happening on the ground, but what really is happening on the ground.

This is where I feel that the work that they're doing at the RUN, the Religious at the U.N — they're going to link with a number of countries on the ground to actually do a review of what's happening in-country. I think we would try to support initiatives like that in terms of the Sustainable Development Goals, and also try to promote them in a holistic vision of integral human development. You've got to have a healthy critique and yet a good support of the many good things that are being promoted within the Sustainable Development Goals. I'd have to say that at UISG, this is something we have to sit around the table and plan and see how we're going to approach them.

Pellegrino: Those of us who have NGOs or are connected to an NGO at the U.N., some of our information and engagement could be connected through there. Every issue is connected. So whether it's a Sustainable Development Goal or whether it's a congregation working locally on fracking, one of the challenges that many of us on the ground have is realizing that we're connected to a lot of different organizations that name their goals in broad ways. So in order to be effective, we need to focus our resources.

Many of the main priorities of women religious in the United States at this point in terms of advocacy and accompaniment are around immigration and human trafficking. Those are two main areas, which is not to say that we are not engaged in other things…I would say we're conscious of the Sustainable Development Goals, but we're not naming that as a framework for what we're doing.

Murray: In the past, the work of religious, particularly women religious, was largely unknown. It was known in general, but I suspect to this day a lot of people still think we're in schools, hospitals and clinics. While they do know there are individual sisters are doing other things, I'm not sure that they're seeing the shift that's occurred.

There are still parts of the world where religious are needed to build the institutional framework in countries where they are lacking. Don't get me wrong, it's not to say we shouldn't be involved in schools, hospitals and so forth. But I think there's a shift, and even in the northern part of the world, where we're involved in institutions, we're involved in new ways. We're there in terms of the charism of the congregation; we're there in terms of the pastoral outreach, and we may be still there in terms of management and leadership, but we also know that moving into the future, we're handing that on to laypeople.

Detailing these paradigm shifts are important, and I'm not sure how one does it. I had an experience recently where I met with my nephew and his girlfriend. We had a very open conversation. At the end of the conversation, his girlfriend said to him when I was gone, "What kind of sister, what kind of nun is Pat?" And his answer was, "She's a business nun." I thought that was very interesting. How do you describe religious today? What are the new categories?

I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with the label of "business nun." I think he was trying to find a label to say, "She's not a teaching nun, she's not nursing nun, so what is she?" I'm just raising that because it's my own reflection. How do we describe ourselves in this paradigm shift? I don't know if any of the others want to reflect.

Steadman: Part of what I think is really important in the evolution of the charism of religious life is this growing commitment to contemplative engagement, which leads us to places that maybe we never thought we would go or leads us to have the courage to respond in some of the situations where we find ourselves. I think that's another thread that's important in all of this.

Pellegrino: I'm thinking about both of those, but this whole notion that Pat raised about deinstitutionalizing and the deinstitutionalization of religious life is really, really significant. I do think that's a category, particularly in the United States: the transitioning of our institutions. Pat, I loved how you said that there was a time and there still is a time in some countries where institutions are needed to build infrastructure.

That, I believe, is what religious did in this country. We built an infrastructure for health care and education and social services, and that is no longer needed. We are no longer needed to carry an infrastructure or to create an infrastructure. This goes to the question that you had about the transformation that we're seeing. This contemplative engagement is that we are really engaged in shifting and doing this work of deinstitutionalization from a contemplative posture and in a contemplative setting.

That is such an emersion and mystery because someone will say, "What should you be doing or what will you be doing?" What we know right now is: This is our work now, and it's transitioning our institutions, it's transitioning our properties, it's shifting our relationships with our resources. There was a time when the resources to serve the mission were our institutions, and now we're in a time where we need the resources to serve our mission to be much more flexible, much more fluid.

We need a little bit more alacrity in how we run the business of our communities and how we position not only our members, but also position our influence and how we do business. The other deinstitutionalization that leads us to is just the interior — what has to happen interiorly to us as women religious to see ourselves outside of those institutions and being the presence that we are in a different way. This is still all connected with the renewal from Vatican II.

It's just this ongoing renewal of our life. We continue to get at deeper and deeper levels of renewal, particularly as we pass on our institutions that we have, for the most part, found our identity in. Now, in a very contemplative way, we're reframing and discovering a depth of identity that was always there, but we probably never had to mine in the way that we mine it now.

Murray: In a sense, we can't go to these new places without a very deep sense of our charism and our own identity as religious. In a way, we have to be grounded at an even deeper place because the framework is an inner framework to hold us solid and firm. One of the things that I've discovered in my own journey is the charism of religious life in the sense that yes, we have the charism of our individual institutions, but there is this gift of religious life to the church in the world, which I think we're discovering.

Religious sisters are struggling with something, no matter where they are in the world. No longer do the sisters from the southern part of the world feel that the sisters of the north have it all together, so to speak. They see their sisters struggling with many different issues. I think you begin to realize that that's where solidarity begins, when we're only in a position to be able to share from our own weakness.

Steadman: I would personally want to be sensitive that this charism is lived out in different ways. So for some congregations, at this moment, they see their ministry in an institutional setting. That's good, so I wouldn't want to get into an oppositional kind of thinking because the church doesn't need that and religious life doesn't need that.

Murray: In fact, religious life needs everything along the continuum, from the institutional to new ways and other needs. We need to be everywhere, and it's part of recognizing just as we recognize the diversity in culture, the diversity in responses.

Steadman: It's like a tapestry. It's like a tapestry with different threads.

GSR: On behalf of all of us, thank you very, very much for the time. We really appreciate it. Blessings to you all.

Murray: We wish you well. We read what you write. We're so grateful. Thank you to each of you for the work that you do on behalf of religious life, in particular on behalf of female religious life. We're trying to make your work through UISG known in different parts of the world.