ST. LOUIS — Staring down a future of uncertainty, religious life finds itself in need of a map, the outgoing president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious told the organization’s members.
But creating an appropriately prophetic map must include a range of perspectives that can shed light on the various obstacles and possibilities women religious face, Sister Jane Herb said Aug. 10 in an address during LCWR’s annual general assembly.
Herb, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, ended her one-year term as president when the assembly concluded Aug. 12 in St. Louis. She continues in the organization’s leadership as past president.
LCWR represents about 80% of Catholic sisters in the United States.
As congregations confront their aging demographics — presenting questions with properties and buildings and remaining creative in continuing sponsored ministries — Herb said she realized that “while we are true to our founding charisms, it seems we are leaning into the future of religious life, perhaps not simply the survival of our own congregations.”
The novel “A Mapmaker’s Dream” by James Cowan was a source of inspiration for Herb. It tells the story of a cloistered monk who, while sitting in his monastery cell, created a map of the world based on the perspectives and experiences his visitors shared.
“To complete an exact map of the world, the monk realizes that he must learn to look at the problem from another perspective and to abandon the normal perceptions of the work to attain a deeper sensibility,” Herb said.
“I believe that is our journey also,” she said.
The question before religious leaders is “who might be invited into ‘our cells’ as we shape the future of religious life,” she said, sharing four “map-shaping” conversations she had earlier with others whom she had invited into her proverbial cell.
The first conversation included four leaders who find themselves at different points on the map, their range of experiences emblematic of religious life’s current evolution.
One is a commissary for a congregation no longer electing its own leadership; another is a leader whose congregation is entering a collaborative leadership model with another congregation; the third is a leader whose large congregation is restructuring its governance; and the fourth is a congregational leader who’s also on the LCWR board.
“The image of seasons surfaced, and it seems that we are in the season of autumn, letting go and being open to what is to come,” she said of the conversation. While they tend to seeds of new life, hopeful for what emerges in the spring, she said, “I don’t believe that we can avoid a time of winter, where there is starkness, an emptiness.”
It’s a season she imagines for the next three to five years.
The second conversation, Herb recalled, happened at the spring meeting of LCWR’s Contemporary Religious Life Committee, which emphasized the need to “simplify structures as new ministries are explored together” as religious communities shrink.
Both conversations, she said, recognize the need to “widen our tent” when looking to the future, including the voices of younger and newer members, lay colleagues and advisers, and embracing interreligious dialogue.
The remaining conversations Herb held were with members of Giving Voice and the Leadership Collaborative.
Giving Voice, an organization for younger sisters, shared a vision for a future of religious life that is intercultural, less institutional, a leadership that is circular and mutual.
With Leadership Collaborative — an inter-congregational group of sisters committed to fostering transformational leadership — Herb said insights arose regarding the need for changing structures, particularly corporate structures, and broader involvement of lay colleagues in such discussions.
In the four conversations, she said, she “heard five calls emerging.”
The first is the call to transformation.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves,” Herb said, quoting Ted Dunn’s book “Graced Crossroads.”
Before the sister leaders is the call for a transformation that is “multidimensional, including personal, interpersonal and organizational,” she said. “The need for such transformation is here now. This is our work.”
The second is the call to vulnerability.
Herb cited researcher Brené Brown’s invitation to think about vulnerability “as the courage to show up when we have no control over the outcome” — a truth that speaks to the very process of religious life’s emerging future, Sister Herb said. “Vulnerability is that emotion that emerges during times of uncertainty and risk. As we are anchored in God’s love, we need to trust.”
The third call is to prophetic witness of religious life.
The work of contemplative scholars Shawn Copeland and Carmelite Sister Connie Fitzgerald, the LCWR leader said, offered direction as she considered a deeper meaning to being a “prophetic witness.”
Considering the critical issues facing congregational leaders “we may feel helpless,” Herb said.
“The dark night of our world can lead us to the experience of impasse, and it is there that there is the opportunity for creative growth and transformation,” she continued. “Perhaps it is in the call to contemplation and our commitment to these issues that we can discover anew the prophetic call of religious life today and into the future.”
The fourth is the call to synodality within the Catholic Church.
Ahead of the 2023 Synod of Bishops on synodality, LCWR held listening sessions that yielded a response sent to the Vatican in which the sisters expressed a desire for an inclusive and welcoming church that heeds the cries of earth and marginalized people, and seeks to heal a polarized church.
While work within LCWR to address systemic racism and exclusion of LGBTQ communities is a source of encouragement, Herb said he is simultaneously challenged by the church’s inadequate response over the years to such issues.
“Can we find a way to bridge these gaps and remain faithful to the call of the Spirit at this time in history?” she asked.
Her hope is that sisters, bishops and the church at large, she said, “will come together with a desire to be in communion and to participate as broadly as possible for the sake of the mission of our church.”
The final call is to create Mary and Elizabeth encounters.
The image of a young and pregnant Mary seeking a wise and pregnant Elizabeth, Herb said, was a powerful impression that arose at the International Union of Superiors General assembly in May.
“We need the Marys and Elizabeths on our journey to the future,” she said. “Let us create spaces for such encounters.”
The message for LCWR members, she concluded, is to “look to the future with both our heads and our hearts,” while the future of religious life needs to respond to “the transformation that is happening within us as the changes are happening around us.”
“We need to be nimble and to risk as we look to the future,” embracing God’s mystery as well as diversity and interculturality,” she said. “To engage in the divine dance into the future will take courage and a spirit of hope.”
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