Here a couple of excerpts from articles in the National Catholic Reporter that appeared soon after the announcement that the Vatican was undertaking an “Apostolic Visitation” of women’s religious orders in the U.S. The first is from Sr. Joan Chittister’s regular column. I found her take on the shift within many U.S. women’s communities to be quite helpful as I ponder the journey we are on.
And all the while they went on “giving their lives to God” in prayer and with communities of strangers while they ministered on the streets, opened rural spirituality centers, taught and lectured and developed spirituality programs and retreats, ran half-way houses for battered women and day-care centers for Alzheimer patients. They had no desire to be “a higher vocation.” They simply set out to be an authentic one.
Most of all, they went on doing those things years beyond the work life of the average person. They exhausted themselves administering programs, pounding the pavement, providing hospitality, keeping priestless parishes operating, working to protect the environment, and caring for the newly abandoned underclasses in order to take the church where the church of this time needed to be. They began the outreach of a whole new church in the United States.
The second, which was originally meant to be a private communication to colleagues, is from Sr. Sandra Schneiders, an eminent scholar on religious life. Her analysis seems to be much in agreement with what Joan said in her piece. Might I add in response to Joan’s characteration of comtemporary religious as on a journey to greater authencity, that this journey, if truly authentic, is rarely as smooth and linear as some might expect or hope. The road to integrity, authencity, wholeness is fraught with uncertainty, mistakes, heartbreak, and yes – great grace, knowing that we are utterly dependent on God. For some, the fact that such journeys can be messy and not all wrapped up in a tidy, predictable package is unnerving. I, for one, would rather have others let me worry about my own unnerving journey than try to put me back into the tidy little package that eases their discomfort but robs themselves and others of the witness of a real, authentic religious life lived with honesty, openness and integrity.
So here’s an excerpt from Sandra’s communication:
In my work on the renewal of Religious Life over the last eight years I have come to the conclusion that Congregations like ours [the kind represented by LCWR in this country] have, in fact, birthed a new form of Religious Life. We are really no longer “Congregations dedicated to works of the apostolate” – that is, monastic communities whose members “go out” to do institutionalized works basically assigned by the hierarchy as an extension of their agendas, e.g., in Catholic schools and hospitals, etc. We are ministerial Religious. Ministry is integral to our identity and vocation. It arises from our baptism specified by profession, discerned with our Congregational leadership and effected according to the charism of our Congregation, not by delegation from the hierarchy. We are not monastics at home. We are not extensions of the clergy abroad. Our whole life is affected by our ministerial identity: searching out the places (often on the margins of Church and society) where the need for the Gospel is greatest (which may be in Church institutions but often is not); living in ways that are conducive to our ministry; preaching the Gospel freely as Jesus commissioned his itinerant, full time companions to do. Our community life and ministries are corporate but not “common life” in the sense of everyone in the same place at the same time doing the same thing.