Risk the Sacred Journey Presidential Address

Risk the Sacred Journey

LCWR Assembly 2000: Presidential Address

Nancy Sylvester, IHM
August 18, 2000

Everything Before Us Brought Us To This Moment!

“Everything before us brought us to this moment, standing in the threshold of a brand new day.”

We are here—in this year of Jubilee, at our first LCWR Assembly in the 21st century. We have assembled here in Albuquerque, New Mexico and are choosing to risk the sacred journey once again.

Already when I met with the planning committee in December, I sensed a strong synchronicity between the theme and the process for this Assembly. As a body, we have spoken about the need to enter into reflective dialogue concerning critical issues facing us in the Church and in the world. We have also requested that our Assemblies be organized in such a way as to deepen our reflection and to support the sharing of our experiences as leaders. During our 1998 goal setting process we expressed a desire to encourage among ourselves, and among the membership of our communities, the integration of contemplation and action on behalf of justice. So it seemed most fitting that we enter into a contemplative process at this Assembly as we focus on our 1999-2004 Conference goal of fostering the transformation of religious life.

I deepened in this realization of synchronicity as I prepared this address. As I prayed over my task, to share where I see us on this sacred journey, I experienced the Spirit leading me. I believe the Spirit led me through my reading of the former Presidents’ reflections and through the encouragement of friends, especially Mary McCann, IHM, former President of my congregation. I also found the presence of the Spirit of God in the book, The Transformation of American Catholic Sisters by Lora Ann Quinonez, CDP, and Mary Daniel Turner, SNDdeN.

Let me take a moment to publicly acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe these two women. They have provided for us a collective memory of the Conference and, therefore, of how women religious undertook the challenge of renewal. We are grateful for their years of service to the Conference as its Executive Directors, Mary Daniel having served in that capacity from 1972-78 and Lora Ann from 1978-86. I am pleased to say that Mary Daniel returns to us as an elected leader and is with us at this Assembly.

My reflection was also influenced by my experience this past year of working to implement our special 1999 Assembly resolution in the midst of further developments surrounding the Notification involving Jeannine Gramick, SSND, and Robert Nugent, SDS. I knew that any process of presentation, discussion, action simply would be inadequate. As I came to name what I saw on our sacred journey and the risks involved I came to realize just how vulnerable I am—how vulnerable we are. Yet, if we are to engage each other and honestly share with each other, while respecting our differences, I believe we can only begin here by entering into a contemplative discerning place in our hearts, individually and collectively.

As I struggled to write this address I found myself in a place where I would not have chosen to be. I would have preferred to address where we are in terms of ministry or our understanding of community or our critique of our consumer culture. I would have liked to discuss how we might use our corporate influence to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic or how we want to respond to our commitment at the InterAmerican to address the situation in Haiti. But that is not where the Spirit seemed to be leading me. I found myself reflecting and writing about us and our journey and how that journey has intersected with the official Church over these past years. And I knew deep within that this is what I would have to offer to you, the Assembly of LCWR. This is what I am seeing with my heart.

I am also aware that I am articulating the best view of our journey, our best selves. I am aware of our shadow side and also of our need to be continually challenged to deeper conversion. But I needed to trust the Spirit working in me and I now need to trust the Spirit working in you to hear my words and to discern for yourselves what you are seeing with your hearts.

First, where are we on our sacred journey?

I believe the place in which we find ourselves is a place in which we have been for some time. Although my articulation expands on that of former LCWR Presidents, I believe it echoes three things which I found over and over again in their reflections about the journey we have been traveling. They spoke of the importance of our fidelity to the call of Vatican II to be in the world, acting on behalf of justice and participating in the transformation of our world. They spoke to our deepening awareness and appreciation of being women. They shared the pain and the commitment of striving to embrace differences without division.

And so what do I see?

I see that we, women religious, in fidelity to the prompting of the Spirit initially revealed through the official Church, have given expression to a form of religious life situated in, critical of, and expressive of the culture and values of the United States. I note that it was the conviction of Pius XII that “sisters could be a powerful force for the healing of the world if they shed the accretions that had left them an anomaly in current times” (Quinonez and Turner, pg.18). We responded to the call of Pius XII to come together, organizing in national conferences. We took seriously the challenges of the Vatican Council. We undertook the special renewal chapters called for in Ecclesiae Sanctae which directed, among other things, that every sister be involved in preparations for chapter and that no facet of our lives be exempt from scrutiny. We embraced the spirit of Gaudium et Spes (Art.1, 4), which called for us to seek to understand the world in which we lived, to know its expectations and its longings. We discerned the “signs of the times” and interpreted them in light of the Gospel.

I see that essential to this expression of religious life is our commitment to “action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world as constitutive dimensions to the preaching of the Gospel.” (Justice in the World, Art. 6 ) This commitment has transformed how we do traditional ministries and has called us to unexpected places of ministry. It has led us to engagement with the social justice movements of the last half of the twentieth century. It has led us to work for systemic change and to make an “option for the poor” fundamental to all our choices.

I see that equally essential to our understanding of religious life is the realization that the vehicle of its unfolding is in our very existence as women (Quinonez and Turner, pg.91). We have grown in our belief that we are made in the image of God and we have engaged our God quest in new ways. We have committed ourselves to corporate discernment. Through discernment we have come to trust our experience and to claim it as a legitimate authority in our lives. We believe we are moral agents capable of difficult decisions in pastorally sensitive areas. We have come to profoundly deeper understandings regarding Creation, Incarnation, the beauty of our bodies and our sexuality. These Spirit-filled insights lead us to extend God’s loving care to all of creation and to extend our commitment to action on behalf of justice to the whole earth community.

I see that ministerial choices to be with those who are marginalized in our society and in our church often place us in pastoral situations that involve sensitive moral issues related to sexuality or woman’s role in moral decision-making.

We are not alone on this path.

We are living apostolic, monastic and evangelical religious life within the Roman Catholic tradition. Yet, we know that some Vatican officials do not validate our experience as authentic religious life. They, together with some women religious, see consecrated religious life as a more static life form. In their view, members of religious congregations pursue holiness through the three vows, committing themselves to a corporate and institutional apostolate under the guidance of the hierarchy and in support of the Magesterium. From this more static stance, religious are to hold a clear and unequivocal position in support of the authority of the hierarchy and its right to regulate religious life (Quinonez and Turner, pg.154). To be sure, this understanding of authentic religious life does fit securely into the prevailing worldview operative in a patriarchal clerical culture. But we dare to say that we beg to differ with it.

And because we differ, we sometimes experience tension and conflict with Vatican officials. We desire to dialogue with them, believing that we all have a common love of the Church, a concern for the people of God, a commitment to the furthering of the Gospel and that the Spirit working within us all will get us through. We desire to engage the Vatican officials in ways that we value within our society. We expect to participate in the decisions that affect us. We believe in each one’s right to speak his/her truth. We believe in the power to change unjust structures and laws. We respect loyal dissent. We value open and accountable processes. And, very importantly, we desire to be in right relationships, in relationships of mutuality, as adults within our church.

Instead, we are too often disappointed, frustrated, angered, and deeply saddened by official responses that seem authoritarian, punitive, disrespectful of our legitimate authority as elected leaders, and disrespectful of our capacity to be moral agents. We experience anger and even outrage at threats to remove duly elected leaders if compliance to official mandates is not given. Instead of healing or reconciliation, win-lose situations place individual members against elected leaders, individual conscience against the congregation’s common good (in face of possible sanctions), a congregation’s legitimate ministerial expression of charism against the Vatican’s interpretation of its legitimacy.

Believing in plurality, we desire to embrace differences and we want to do so without division. We also value right relationships and want to create processes of dialogue and healing that reflect a non-violent approach to conflict and difference.

Secondly, what have we encountered on our journey?

As we have tried to discern how to give concrete expression to our understanding of religious life, we have suffered setbacks and casualties. We have even lost valued women religious in the process of dealing with Church officials. I am going to risk here a partial casualty listing, a litany of sorts. I am aware that these situations differ in kind and that each is both unique and complex. Please forgive me if you do not know the person or the situation. Time prevents me from detailed explanation but I refer you to Lora Ann and Mary Daniel’s book, or I would be happy to talk with anyone later in the Assembly.

Let us remember:

The Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters of Los Angeles, California-1968,
The School Sisters of St. Francis of Milwaukee, Wisconsin-1969,
Sister Agnes Mary Mansour, former Sister of Mercy and former Director of Michigan social services-1983,
Sister Arlene Violet, former Sister of Mercy and former candidate for Rhode Island Attorney General-1984

  • Sister Elizabeth Morancy, former Sister of Mercy and former state representative in the Rhode Island General Assembly-1984,
  • The Sister signers of the New York Times ad and their congregational leaders-1984,
  • The Vatican approval of a second leadership conference for women religious-1992,
  • “Responsum ad Dubium on the Ordination of Women” issued by the Vatican-1995,
  • The theologians and scholars who have lost their jobs and have been prevented from speaking in public forums over the years, and
  • Sister Jeannine Gramick, SSND, the Congregational leadership and all the School Sisters of Notre Dame-1999, 2000.

Throughout the years, LCWR leadership has faithfully persisted in communicating to Vatican officials the experience of US women religious, our evolving understanding of religious life, and the critical importance of fair processes particularly when they involve censure and punishment (Quinonez and Turner, pg.162). We have continued that this year as we implemented our 1999 Special Resolution.

First, with the LCWR Executive Committee and then with our confreres in the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM), we prepared how we would present our concerns when we visited the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL). We framed our communication within the context of the Jubilee year and the call to reconciliation that the Pope had just released. We spoke to the context of religious life in the United States and our understanding of loyal dissent. We discussed the underlying issues that the Notification had raised for us as religious leaders.

The meeting was difficult. The major spokespersons for the Congregation gave voice to their understanding of religious life as one in which both members and major superiors give unequivocal support to the directives of the Holy See speaking through the Vatican Congregations. Anger was expressed that religious women and men were writing letters to the Congregation objecting to the Notification and the processes involved. (The tension heightened because some of the signatories indicated that they were themselves lesbian or gay.) The spokespersons indicated that an important role of major superiors is to assist their members in implementing the directives of the Holy See. Their expectation is that National Conferences would encourage and support major superiors in fulfilling this task. Whenever superiors do not fulfill this role satisfactorily, they saw it as appropriate for Rome to intervene.

We attempted to make our case but the very way the meeting was conducted prevented what we would recognize as dialogue. Even so, at the end of our time together, the Secretary of CICLSAL expressed the importance of our annual meetings, the importance of continuing to hear from each other. We gave the gift of a framed reprint of the LCWR Jubilee card to him for CICLSAL and distributed individual cards to all present. We prayed our Jubilee prayer together.

I left that meeting with a number of learnings. Perhaps it need not be said but I have grown in respect for the women who share the current LCWR Presidency and for our Executive Director. Their love of the church and of the Conference coupled with their fearlessness in speaking our truth is edifying. I have also learned to appreciate the leaders of CMSM. Their insights into how to approach our meeting were invaluable. We have much in common with the experience of male religious who are brothers in our clerical church as well as those men who struggle with being both members of a religious congregation and priests. I recognized again the humanity of everyone in that room. We were each there with a belief in our vision of Church, believing that we were trying to be faithful to the Gospel. I also understood how those in the patriarchal system which permeates the Vatican find it difficult if not impossible to understand or affirm our journey. I felt powerless. It became clear that the ways that I have learned to effect change in our political culture, i.e., dialogue, organizing, public protest, persuasion, diplomacy, reasoned analysis; these may never be helpful and are, perhaps, even counterproductive. I believe we are at an impasse and that nothing less than contemplation which touches into our deepest core and stirs our God-given creativity will help us to imagine new ways of responding in love. And, that we must do individually and together.

Finally, where do I see our future journey?

Although this is what we will all be discerning, let me share what I see emerging. I need to say that my vision is hazy at best but I offer a couple of glimpses and some of the questions that I will bring into my kiva of contemplation.

As I reflect on our encounters with the Vatican officials I know that women religious, elected leaders, and the Conference have all responded in ways appropriate to their roles. While no one response was acceptable to all, each tried to speak her truth in love, to mitigate the fallout and to protest any perceived injustices.

In spite of all of this, when I am honest with myself, I know that all of the casualties mentioned earlier, together with those experienced in other countries, have taken their toll on me. I experience the reality of fear and mistrust which can cripple so much potential for the work of the Spirit. And so I often find myself in a posture of self-censoring. I know I will think more than twice about signing a controversial ad if it might jeopardize my congregational leadership. I have not pursued and probably will not pursue ministry in public office. I might not choose ministries in theologically and pastorally sensitive areas lest I need to expend energy watching for self-appointed monitors to report to Rome what I am saying or doing. I might hesitate to publish articles about the God quest of women or creation centered spirituality lest I explore areas that are not sanctioned by official Catholic teaching. I find myself very circumspect and even scared about what I am saying today lest the Conference suffer retribution. And I know women in my community who chose not to offer their gifts for elected leadership because of the potential tensions with the official Church.

What I begin seeing through the haze is how counterproductive such behavior is. I am becoming ever more aware of one of the gifts that we who have lived religious life during the second half of the 20th century can offer to both the official Church and the entire people of God. That gift is precisely the way in which we have claimed apostolic, monastic and evangelical religious life as unfolding in us as women committed to action on behalf of justice and transformation of the world.

We are the women religious who bridge the 20th and 21st centuries. Most of us entered religious life believing that it was a privileged state of perfection–higher than the path of ordinary goodness. Everything that we were about upheld that belief and shaped how we engaged our search for God. Even those of us who were primed by the Sister Formation Movement found the call from the Vatican Council to be radical. In Lumen Gentium, the Council fathers declared that all the baptized are called to holiness. Gaudium et Spes stated clearly that the church was for the world. Its mission was to be in the world. The very ground of our identity as religious shifted. Our identity became situated in history, in the world. Immersion in the world became linked to holiness. Such insights grounded the realization that “religious life was (is) a religious response historically conditioned by the concrete events of peoples and nations and the spirit-inspired insights of those living it” (Quinonez and Turner, pg.38). The words of Gaudium et Spes, (Art. 1) were seared on our hearts. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men (sic) of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ”

We took these realizations very seriously. In large numbers we engaged the social movements of the later half of the 20th century. At different times and in different ways, social movements impacted sisters. The civil rights movement, the peace movement, the woman’s movement, the beginnings of the ecology movement, holistic health care movement, and the alternative economic movement—these movements permeated the air we breathed. This was the context in which renewal took hold and in which we began to live out the 1971 Synod statement’s challenge that “action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world are constitutive dimensions of the preaching of the Gospel.”

The commitment to this call transformed what we taught, how we did health care, even where we ministered. We found ourselves ministering in new places. We found ourselves ministering with women who experienced economic oppression as well as those who suffered rejection by the Church because of having had an abortion, being divorced, using contraceptives or loving another woman. The option for the poor became the lens through which we evaluated various aspects of our lives as religious. Liberation theology gave expression to this new understanding about God and opened up the Scripture in new ways.

Perhaps as the most well educated group of women in the Catholic Church at that time, it was not surprising that we would become involved in the explosion in women’s studies. Women scholars made the connections between various forms of oppression, including that of gender. Patterns of domination were exposed, revealing patriarchy, i.e., a worldview, based on the superiority of males, which serves to shape every aspect of a culture, as a reality that permeated our society. Women theologians and scripture scholars, often sisters, discovered that same patriarchy in their analysis of our Church. We became aware that we were largely invisible within the decision-making structures of the Church. Our voices were not heard nor were we part of shaping any theological formulation about our life or about the sensitive moral issues that we encountered in our ministries. We discovered that even God was made in the image and likeness of man and that was no longer tolerable. Many of us went on a God quest, coming to know God in new ways. We have allowed God to be God, bigger than we could have ever imagined God before. We have encountered Jesus again and have come to know that he called a community of equals to table sharing. Prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the lame and the blind–the unclean by Temple standards were welcomed in his community. We have likewise come to understand connections between how women and the earth are perceived and treated within a patriarchal worldview. This new perspective leads us to a new awareness of injustices and a new need for transformation. It has invited us to a radical rethinking about the goodness of creation, our bodies and sexuality.

Certainly our sisters not in religious life have also become more educated over the years. Women religious, however, have had immense opportunities to develop psychologically and spiritually, to do our inner work in order to ground ourselves in the heart of it all—our relationship to God and the many faces God reveals to us. We continue to be an organized group in the church to whom many of our married, single, and lesbian sisters look. We are called upon to give voice to the insights we have gained over the years. We know that any teachings on sexuality are inadequate unless the perspective and experience of women are brought to the formulation of our teachings and our practice.

Religious congregations seem to be following another prophetic impulse in relation to earth centered spirituality and in ministries that address the healing of our planet. While we acknowledge our complicity in the scandalous use of resources as citizens of the United States, we are challenging ourselves to examine our own lifestyles and to use our resources in sustainable ways to guarantee a future for the next generations.

Our journey has been and continues to be risky. Yet, through the haze I see that the more we repress the gift which we might offer the people of God and our official Church, the less vibrant we are and the less attractive we are to women who might like to join us.

And so, some of the questions I will bring to contemplation are:

  • How do we claim our experience of religious life?
  • How do we articulate more clearly the underlying spirituality for this expression of religious life, a spirituality that weds our God quest with the Gospel?
  • What will it mean to claim our identity with renewed passion if the Vatican neither understands nor appreciates it?
  • What if they choose to de-legitimize it? To de-legitimize the Conference?
  • To whom would I, would we, look for affirmation and authentication?
  • How do we need to prepare together as a Conference to move forward?
  • What are the risks involved in doing so?
  • What are the risks in not doing so?

The second glimpse through the haze is that we are in the Church. Our identity, our roots, our power is linked to speaking our truth within our tradition. The gifts we must give are for the people of God and for the official Church.

But, I come back to it again. We are at an impasse with the official Church. In her article “Impasse and Dark Night,” Constance FitzGerald, O.C.D., describes the signs of impasse. These include: a breakdown of communication; the inability to right a situation despite good and well-intentioned efforts; the dwindling of hope; the rise of disillusionment; and an obsession with the problem. She discusses the spiritual significance of these “no way out” experiences and how the Holy Spirit educates and transforms us through what she calls these inescapable and uninvited impasse experiences. Within this interpretative framework, what looks and feels like disintegration and meaninglessness is, at a more profound but hidden level of faith, a process of purification leading to a resurrection experience. To embrace the impasse or dark night is to free the Spirit to push us in the direction of intuition, imagination, contemplative reflection and ongoing discernment.

As difficult as it is for me to admit a certain kind of powerlessness when I know we are over 76,000 strong I do believe that we are at an impasse with the official church that we love. I am convinced that we need to bring this reality to contemplation. We need to stay in contemplation long enough and then to see with our hearts how we can respond. I will bring the following questions to my kiva of contemplation.

  • Can we allow ourselves the time to imagine how we can claim the truth of our lives?
  • Do we believe that the Spirit can push us into a life giving relationship, into right relationship, with those who represent the official church?
  • What risks will be involved in doing this?
  • What are the risks in not doing so?

The last glimpse is of our desire to deal with differences among ourselves as leaders in the Conference and within our own congregations in ways that foster right relationships.

Our former Presidents often referred to the desire of the Conference to deal with our differences without division. Regrettably, pursuit of that pathway was cut short when the Vatican chose to approve the formation of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. But, as we risk our sacred journey and begin to discern our future together, we will again encounter our differences. Even at this Assembly, we will discuss how the Conference has implemented the special resolution. There will be some of us who need to raise concerns and critique the approach taken. My hope is that we engage each other as sisters, respect different positions, acknowledge the complexity of the situation, and assume the best in the other, realizing that we may not all agree. I would hope we could search for the truth together in ways that model how we desire to engage Church officials. May we choose to be in right relationship with each other and to find ways to embrace our differences without division?

Everything before us brought us to this moment. It is time to enter the kiva of our hearts–to enter into a contemplative space in order to begin our collective discernment about our future journey:

• Where do you see we are?
• What are the glimpses that you see for our future?
• What are the risks involved?
• How can we help each other move together on our sacred journey?

We begin here, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This land is sacred to its native peoples. Their very creation stories often start from deep within the earth. Their ancient wisdom challenges our more rational ways of knowing. Myths, stories, symbols exercise the imagination and our more contemplative selves. It is a land in which time is ancient and we catch our collective breath whenever we realize how miniscule is our lifetime in the perspective of eons that have passed on this earth.

It is a desert reminding us of the place to which Jesus went for forty days before engaging in his public life. It is almost forty years since the beginning of the Vatican Council. We are invited now to go to the desert to see with our hearts the next steps on our public journey as women religious in our church. How could we have chosen a better place to enter into contemplation and risk the sacred journey?

I invite you now to look around your table, at the women and men with whom you will share silence and speech. Acknowledge that everything before them has brought them to this moment. Reflect for a moment how that is true in your own life as well.

Let us pray: Thus says our God, I will allure you; I will lead you into the desert and speak to your heart. You will respond there as in the days of your youth. When we meet our God in the silence of our hearts and are invited to say what we desire, let our response be: ” My God, that I, that we, might see.”

Reprint permission upon request.

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