In April 2012 I attended Celebration Publications’ Eucharist Without Borders immigration conference in Tucson, Arizona. There I met sisters who worked as midwives and health promoters, community organizers and advocates, lawyers and activists. I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase after flying home to Virginia when the news broke that the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) had finalized its doctrinal assessment and imposed a mandate on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The CDF’s call for “necessary reform” due to “serious doctrinal problems” felt impossible to understand in light of the sisters I had just met in Tucson – not to mention the countless others I have called mentors, teachers, friends and colleagues over the years.
Fast forward to the 2012 Call To Action national conference in Louisville, KY in where the LCWR was granted the Call To Action Leadership award for its courageous, honest, yet loving response to the doctrinal assessment and ensuing mandate. The award was received by Pat Farrell, OSF, the acting president LCWR. Of all the people who took the stage at the conference, Sister Pat – a gentle, soft-spoken Iowan with decades of ministry and mission experience in both the US and Latin America – was the most compelling. She challenged each of us gathered to a deeper spirituality in the face of violence, conflict, and division wherever it is to be found in the church and in the world. “When there is not a clear way forward, the only way is down, to drop a plumb line down into the deep abyss of God’s love,” are words of Sister Pat’s that I copied into my journal that day. I have returned to them and prayed with them many times since.
Given all this, I had high expectations when I heard that Orbis Books was to publish a book which included Sister Pat’s address at the 2012 LCWR annual conference. I am happy to report that my expectations are more than met by the book which was released earlier this month. “Spiritual Leadership in Challenging Times: Presidential Addresses from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious” is a collection of ten keynote speeches from 1977 to 2012. Edited by Annmarie Sanders, IHM, each of the speeches is introduced by an overview of the national, global and ecclesial “signs of the times.”
They reflect the spirit of Gaudium et Spes: “the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the men (sic) of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” The contributors are each deeply grounded in the centuries-old charisms of their various communities and at the same time profoundly informed by their accompaniment of those on the margins.
In the words of her 2010 address, Marlene Weisenbeck, FSPA recognizes that “the mark of authentic Christianity has always been a paradox: it is thoroughly rooted in the earth, God’s creation, and entirely bent on moving toward heaven, toward God. It is a dynamic balance.” This thread of living in paradox runs through the ten addresses. Women religious are rooted in the realities of violence, poverty, war while still proclaiming Gospel hope. They are – in the words of Nadine Foley, OP – consecrated for mission, instead of understanding mission and consecration dualistically.
This collection chronicles the evolution of women religious in the United States and their own self-understanding. In her 1994 address, Doris Gottemoeller, RSM explores the question of ecclesial identity since women religious live in a grey area between laity and clergy. The marginality of women within the church is also named as both gift and challenge. In her powerful 1980 address, “To speak the truth in love” M. Teresa Kane, RSM recognizes that “paradoxically, because women have been almost totally outside the church and society as systems, there is a corresponding freedom that enables women to speak the truth.”
Despite naming the challenges that women religious face in their relationship to Rome, a thread of deep love for the church runs through the collection. These are women who are deeply ecclesial, who continually seek respectful dialogue with church authorities. “We are ecclesial women who love a church that is both institution and people of God. If we do not claim both, we lose a prophetic edge as well as any hope of healing the rifts,” Mary Whited, CPPS, encouraged her fellow leaders in her 2008 address. It is clear the LCWR sees themselves in deep solidarity with lay men and women. As Janet Mock, CSJ notes in the afterward, the LCWR “recognizes itself as a microcosm of women in the church and, in fact, of any organization that practices church for the church.”
The book is much more than an organizational history of LCWR’s coming-of-age or an exploration of the role of women in US Catholic life. In short, this collection explores – in the words of Helen Maher Garvey, BVM – the spirituality of leadership. What does it mean to be a prophetic leader in a world of punditry? How can leadership be grounded in prayer and contemplation, and seek to be reconciling of conflict? How can contemplative practice inform group decision-making? In her compelling 1977 address, Joan Chittister, OSB declares that “the purpose of leadership is to make the future possible.”
Nancy Schreck, OSF recognizes that “these are difficult times. They call for courageous leaders with great imagination” – words that are just as true now as when she spoke them in her 1996 address. In the 150 pages of this slim volume, the LCWR has given the church and the world a gift of inspiration by ten such courageous leaders. Far from being a problem which needs to be solved by Rome, this collection shows that contemporary women religious in the United States – like those I journeyed with in Tucson, like Sister Pat who inspired so many of us at the conference Louisville, like the countless others who serve and lead – are smart, faithful, loving leaders grounded in the Gospel of peace.
Join Solidarity with Sisters and the Institute for Catholic Research and Policy Studies at a discussion of the book on Saturday, June 7 at the Catholic University of America. Click here to register. (Yes, Sister Pat will be there – and I will, too.)