Simone Campbell visited the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati a few weeks ago to lead a reflection on Catholic Social Teaching and the vows. After a rich and intense day of reflecting, a group of us did the only thing that could make the day even better – went for pizza. Simone had a few hours before her flight, which left just enough time to take her to a Cincinnati favorite, LaRosa’s. At the close of a lovely meal in a cozy corner booth, we had three or four saucy, delectable leftover slices. The waitress scanned the group, six women of different ages, and asked, “Do you want a few boxes?”
We all started to say, “No, just one . . . .”
“No!” Simone chimed in with us. With a shrug and flap of her wrist and hand indicating a no brainer, she said, “We’re all community.”
I smiled and resisted the urge to fist pump. Her words point to an important truth that is becoming even more real as congregations discern the way forward in religious life. As science continues to reveal to us the wonder of our profound interconnectedness, is it any surprise that religious communities should grow closer and more intimately united?
As Colleen Gibson shared in her column, “Party of one,” women are not entering religious communities in droves, and they won’t be any time in the near future. What the SSJ’s call “parties,” the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati have traditionally called “bands.” I am technically part of a “band” of two, with a few other women in earlier stages of formation and discernment. I have to admit that I gulped looking at the projections for membership in the next 20 years during a report at a community meeting last fall. Our congregation, like many, is and will be facing big questions about our direction acknowledging the changing landscape. They can seem mind-boggling at times.
What will it mean when we are 30 sisters instead of 300? That question creates for me a piercing image. It will certainly mean that we’ll have mourned the loss of the earthy life of many wise and beloved women. It will mean that our Motherhouse won’t be the bustling center of activity that it once was (at least in the same way). Our ministries will look different. These will all be stinging lettings-go.
In the Easter season, we can be bolstered by the new life emerging amidst the hospicing. This evolving sense of community between communities is to me a hopeful and thrilling gift. As congregations grow smaller, the circle widens and relationships deepen. Connection and collaboration are increasingly the name of the game. My band will be more like a . . . rubber band, one that stretches to include women from different years of entering and from different communities.
Last year, a dear friend decided to leave the Sisters of Charity formation process to enter a different congregation. Her decision followed from an honest and authentic discernment process and led to her joy and freedom. But it was not without pain. To me, it felt a little bit like a nun-break-up. Assumptions we always made about our futures being intertwined had to be readjusted. Once I mourned lost expectations a bit, I felt God smirking at me. It was a playful grin that said, “Girl, you don’t even know the tricks I have up my sleeve!” I knew that somehow our being in different congregations would not keep us from being Sisters. We both sense that our lives will be intertwined in God’s creative and surprising way.
Inter-congregational community is not a new concept. LCWR formed in 1956! Sisters have been developing relationships and living inter-congregationally for years. In the latter part of the 20th century, congregations with common founders or similar charisms began to merge or form federations. Our Charity Federation collaborates on efforts like vocation and formation work and offers periodic gatherings of younger, newer members. Giving Voice has led the way as a revolutionary force in connecting newer and younger religious from different communities. How will all of this play out into the future? We can only live into it and support it. Investing in ways for younger members to touch all of this interconnectedness is essential for our healthy transition into vowed life.
As a canonical novice, my life this year has been centered mostly in Cincinnati, learning much, turning to God in prayer, and coming to know the congregation. It goes without saying that I treasure the charism of my own community and the home I have found here. Simultaneously, inter-congregational relationships are of vital importance to my journey. I am so grateful for our local chapter of Giving Voice, a national organization for women religious under age 50. We are a rainbow group of varied ages, backgrounds, and time in community, and yet we are all mysteriously called for this time. There is energy among us that I really need. It is a forward-moving jump-start to my soul just to be with others who are dreaming, searching and believing in the bright horizon. We will be there together as the current questions give way to new ones.
It is a time of great uncertainty and of great promise. We share a powerful moment! Even the phrase “Global Sisters” makes my heart skip a beat. “Global” evokes a sense of the expansive, the far-reaching, the diverse. And to be a “Sister” is something intimate, something characterized by love, care – and an organic bond. What a beautiful mystery that this time allows both to be true, in innovative ways, for religious life.
Only our dear God could know how we global Sisters will grow together in my lifetime. At the heart of each of our charisms, visions and missions is the mission of Jesus Christ. How precious it is to open our hands and let that mission draw us, united, into the future.
Yeah, we’ll take that pizza home in one box. We’re all community.
[S. Tracy Kemme is a novice with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She has a background in Hispanic ministry, having served both in Ecuador and at the U.S.-Mexico border prior to novitiate.]