“What about you? Do you have superheroes on your t-shirt?”
This question was posed to me by Ben, a friend’s energetic four-year-old son, after he had enthusiastically described the various Transformers on his shirt and their superpowers.
I explained that my t-shirt had the name of a community: the Sisters of the Humility of Mary , the congregation of women religious with whom I have been living and serving for the last year as a Partner in Mission.
Later that evening, after Ben was asleep in bed, I returned to his question and thought of the many sisters of various communities with whom I have worked, dined, prayed, celebrated, and otherwise shared life over this last year – and over my 34 years. Though they are not the superheroes Ben so admires, women religious possess unique gifts. Their abilities to continually adapt and renew themselves, to face challenges with calm and courage, and embody shared leadership are gifts much needed in today’s Church and world.
“The Second Vatican Council impacted religious life, as it did all Catholic life and the wider world, like a tsunami of the Spirit,” says Marie McCarthy, SP, in the LCWR Winter 2015 Occasional Papers. Marsha Allen, CSJ, the current LCWR president concurs: “It was like going from a horse and carriage to going to the moon all in one leap.” Vatican II led congregations to return to the core of their founders’ ideals, reflect on their charisms and history. Women’s religious communities did this work boldly; the changes it created were dramatic.
The stories I hear from Sisters who entered in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and early 60s reflect a reality that is most foreign to my current observations of religious life. The total change for many congregations of women religious in the wake of Vatican II can’t be overstated. From a strict horarium to a schedule which allows them to respond to the needs of those they serve. From a perspective of religious as being holier, “better than,” and set apart to an embrace of the universal call to holiness. From being assigned ministries by a superior without consultation to actively sharing in the discernment of how they are called to serve. From formal habits to simple, modest dress. From a suspicion of “particular friendships” to an emphasis on mutual relationships. And the list continues.
The external scaffolding of religious life fell away and left in its wake a deeper internalization of charism, a more contemplative mode of prayer, a complete reorganization of decision-making and leadership structures. Today’s golden jubilarians (those celebrating fifty years as sisters) have lived through monumental change. I know many Sisters who weathered those significant changes…and stayed. There is much hand-wringing about the number of women who left in the wake of Vatican II. Rarely is there an acknowledgment of the courage, resilience, and vision of the women who lived through the implementation of this renewal, watched many sisters leave, weathered the ecclesial and social tumult of the second half of the twentieth century…and chose to stay. Who continue to choose to stay. They trust that the Spirit is indeed alive and continuing to call them to this life.
Moreover, they trust that the Spirit is afoot as they look to the future. In the face of dramatically fewer women entering and staying, communities respond with thoughtful trust, pragmatic hope and an openness to the new. They seek to share their charisms with lay people and form partnerships. And they show a remarkable detachment in the face of further change. “Who knows what God is doing? Who knows what will evolve?” one IHM Monroe Sister asked, with bright eyes and an inquisitive smile. “All we can do is be faithful and trust God calls to us from the future.”
Beyond responding to monumental change since Vatican II, women’s religious congregations have also encountered serious challenges in recent years. Both the 2008 Apostolic Visitation headed by the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) and the 2012 imposition of the mandate by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) over the LCWR required congregations to corporately collaborate to respond in as Gospel women. (For an excellent study on how congregations responded to the Visitation, see The Power of Sisterhood.) In the face of both challenges, sisters in general and the LCWR in particular responded with integrity, calm, and courage, choosing to enter into respectful, honest dialogue that consistently resisted polarization. In the words of LCWR president IHM Sister Sharon Holland, they sought to “eliminate the kind of mentality of a ‘we/they,’…that there’s a ‘we.’ That we work through things.”
In a hierarchical church where (as Pope Francis pointed out in his Christmas address to the curia) clerics all too often fall into careerism and competition, women religious’ flattened approach to leadership and democratic process of decision-making provide a welcome and much-needed alternative. They embody a spirituality of contemplative leadership which is nourished by lives of corporate and personal prayer and informed by decades of accompaniment of and ministry with those on the margins.
This leadership is also born out of the risk of lifetime promise, the “all-in” nature of a perpetually vowed commitment to God in the context of community. These women have lived with each other, struggled with each other, cared for each other, disagreed with each other, and served with and for each other for decades. One sister may have another sister as a high school teacher or college professor, then later they work side-by-side together as peers in active ministry, and finally one serves as the other’s caregiver until she takes her last breath. Positions and roles change, the bonds of sisterhood remain. In the words of a Franciscan sister: “it doesn’t matter what our title is or was when we are sistering each other.”
In short, these women love each other, for life. The quality of that love and the depth of its commitment is breathtaking. During my year at the motherhouse, I witnessed small and large acts of loyal, generous love every day. More than once it has moved me to tears.
(I don’t mean to idealize; I’m not claiming sisters have it all figured out. For all my admiration of women religious, no group of human beings is perfect. No matter what high ideals of justice, peace, and love are espoused in a community’s mission statement, it doesn’t mean those ideals are lived out flawlessly – especially when someone has left their clothes in the washer of my laundry day, or has left their dirty dishes abandoned in the sink! Conflict still happens, personalities still clash and growing pains exist – sisters are still people!)
Religious women’s ability to continuously adapt to monumental change, respond to challenges with courage and equanimity, and model a spirituality of shared, collaborative leadership make women’s religious communities a valuable, powerful witness of Christian common life. In a Church rocked by division and scandal, in a nation wounded by partisan bickering and racial tension, in a world marked by divisions and inequality we need models of how to live together, respond to change with hope instead of fear, and listen deeply to one another and to the Spirit. Reflecting on my year as a “motherhouse millennial,” I believe that women religious can help show us the way forward in our Church and world.
About the author: Rhonda Miska (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She spent one year as a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania and recently relocated to her native Wisconsin. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table which will be published by Paulist Press later this year.