ROME – Hundreds of superiors of women’s religious congregations from all over the world convene in Rome next week to address interreligious dialogue, intercultural relations and care for the environment, with a special focus on the “new,” organizers said Thursday.
“Together we can become aware of the ‘new’ that the spirit is sowing,” said Sister Donatella Zoia, Superior General of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, during a meeting with the press at the Vatican May 2.
The sister called the gathering “a prophetic event” and an opportunity to begin “new journeys and approaches to be witnesses of love and hope for all,” especially women, children, young people and the poor.
More than 850 mother superiors from more than 80 different countries, representing some 450,000 women religious, will be in Rome for their 21st plenary assembly May 6-10.
This year’s theme for the meeting of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), which takes place every three years, will be “Sowers of Prophetic Hope.”
“The theme asks us to answer some of the questions we hold within us,” said Sister Anabela Carneiro, Superior General of the Sisters Hospitaller of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, adding that it encourages the sisters “to recognize the values of sowers of hope that we already possess.”
The assembly, she continued, “is a fundamental call to convert into promoters of hope” so that women’s religious orders may “incarnate a Samaritan Church,” capable of being close to “many victims of violence amid global indifference.”
New technologies and innovation play a central role, according to Sister Carmen Sammut, President of UISG and Superior General of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, especially in bettering communication among religious congregations.
“We want to live our religious life in a very meaningful way for today,” Sammut said, adding that amid the “many challenges that communities and world leaders are facing” women religious are asking themselves what the next step is.
The four-day meeting will address some of the topics inspired by this year’s theme. On the first day, attendees will attempt to look at the future of religious life.
“We realize our numbers are going down in some places, and they are going up in some places,” Sammut said. “Religious life and its benefit for the Church and the world may not be primarily in numbers, but perhaps more on commitment to Christ and to those to whom we are sent.”
One way to better cater to the vulnerable, she added, is to “adapt our services to today’s needs.”
She offered the example of more than 10,000 Catholic orphanages in the world, stating that some workshops will reflect on how to provide those children “with family-like structures” instead of institutional care.
Other workshops will focus on communications and technologies, and even the care of minors who have been sexually abused.
For the first time, the ten members of the UISG executive board were invited to participate at the February summit on the protections of minors at the Vatican, and it’s fair to say the other superiors will be looking to address the topic during their gathering.
Making the voice of UISG members heard at summits of bishops, known as “synods,” is another question, one that’s seen religious women slowly gain ground in the male-dominated gatherings.
In the 2015 and 2018 Synods on the family and young people respectively, three representatives from the UISG were allowed to attend, though the Vatican handpicked the members.
Empowering the role of women religious in the Church will certainly be an undertone of next week’s summit.
Pope Francis has reportedly received a report about opening the possibility of women deacons, which he has neither acknowledged nor discussed. UISG members will be meeting the pope for a private audience May 10, and some observers believe that this question would once again come to the fore.
Such considerations will provide the backdrop for the women religious as they lay down policies and strategies for the next three years.
The second day of the gathering will focus on growing diversity in society and the Church today, which is reflected in the multicultural and multilingual reality of many religious congregations.
“We want to go from being ‘multicultural’ to making this richness become something important to us,” Sammut said, promoting the idea of “interculturalism.”
Religious women are called to “be bridge-builders between people of different cultures and religions,” she added, stating that the third day of discussions will be centered around interreligious dialogue.
The clash between different religions “is a cause of strife and even war,” she said, meaning that “it becomes more and more important to be interested in the faith of the other” in order to “help build a world of peace.”
On the last day, the superiors will address care for the planet, inspired by Francis’s encyclical on the environment Laudato Si’.
“This assembly will help us in living out the novelty of the Spirit, because it will help to begin processes for formations, missions and leadership in our religious families,” Koia said. “Together we can learn to recognize that novelty in every day.”
“It will lead us to renewal as people and religious groups toward the new life of the spirit,” she concluded.