A multitude on the way will gather in Rome May 9-13 to attend the twentieth Plenary Meeting of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG). Almost 900 women religious, leaders of the same number of women’s Congregations of apostolic life, coming from 80 different Countries representing hundreds of thousands of sisters in faith: “We religious are present in many different parts of the world where the life of the planet and the lives of the people are under threat from environmental destruction, regional wars and local conflicts, poverty of every kind and the denial of basic human rights.” Sister Patricia Murray, from the Institute of Blessed Virgin Mary, UISG Executive Secretary, is an attentive observer of the life of consecrated women
“The theme of the Assembly is “Weaving Global Solidarity for Life.” How can this invitation be accomplished? We, as a worldwide network of religious women religious, can act together and offer hope through practical responses to today’s global challenges.
“Together” is the key word
We have seen in the area of human trafficking that when we connect and network across the world our combined efforts to raise awareness, rescue and rehabilitate the men, women and children whose lives have been destroyed by this sinful practice, can have some success.
Has the decrease in the number of vocations also affect women’s religious life?
This situation is certainly being experienced in some parts of the world while not in others. While obviously the decease is a matter of concern what is even more important is the living witness and vitality of those who are already professed religious. Vocations to religious life are nourished in a faith environment, especially in family and communal contexts. Today many societies have become increasingly secularized, and it takes courage for a young person to say openly that faith is an important part of her life. It is important for religious congregations to give increased visibility to their life and work and many do so using contemporary means of communication websites, Facebook, Twitter etc. So often images and presentations in national media fail to present the contemporary face of religious life.
What are Congregations doing to respond to the needs of the present times? Poverty, migration, economic disparities…
While education, health and social apostolates are still important in many parts of the world, religious women are also working in many new areas e.g. as lawyers, economists, prison and hospital chaplains. While congregations still have their institutions, projects and programmes, many sisters are now working in government sponsored initiatives, with international and local NGO’s and work together on the margins of societies where they are often the only ones present. Many congregations offer “come and see” programmes for those interested in religious life. Other congregations are part of national initiatives which help young people to discern their particular vocation in life from a faith perspective. Ultimately,
the local Christian community through the family and parish structures has to begin to promote and support vocations to religious life.
Have young nuns changed compared to the past? How?
I can only really compare “young’ nuns today with my own generation who joined religious life after the Vatican Council. It was a very optimistic time in the church and the world. There was belief that poverty could be eradicated and human rights could be promoted and achieved and that the Church had an important role to play. Religious life was moving from a monastic model to one that was becoming increasingly open to the needs of the world. This was a time of renewal and adaptation for religious women; a time of becoming more inserted into the lives of ordinary people and their daily concerns, of being alongside them in making faith relevant to new and emerging realities. the context has changed but I don’t think that those entering religious life today have changed in terms of their desires to follow Christ and to be part of his mission in the world. I became a sister at 18 and I often say that entering religious life at that age meant giving up many possibilities. Today many who join religious life are older and more experienced. They are actually giving up many things – houses, careers, cars and other possessions. They come with the same generosity, the same desires to serve God and make a difference in the world. So the context has changed but I don’t think that those entering religious life today have changed in terms of their desires to follow Christ and to be part of his mission in the world. I became a sister at 18 and I often say that entering religious life at that age meant giving up many possibilities. Today many who join religious life are older and more experienced. They are actually giving up many things from houses to careers, but they come with the same generosity, the same desires to make difference in the world.
Abandoning Religious life, also later in life, is something that affects also female congregations…
The call to follow Christ in the religious life is not a once off response, it is a matter of saying “yes” to deepening this relationship each day no matter what one’s age. Each person’s reason for leaving is different.
Perhaps some religious suffer from “burn out” when they fail to keep a balance between the outer and inner aspects of their life; between ministry and prayer life; between doing and being?
Perhaps some others made a life choice when they lacked the maturity to do so? For others perhaps some aspect of the life of the community becomes difficult to sustain? A vocation is a precious treasure that needs to be nourished and sustained and there are many factors which can contribute to its growth or its decay.
What contribution can women religious still make to the Church?
Our slogan should be “never do alone what we can do together.” We have a vast global network which can be mobilized to create a culture of love and compassion, in order to tackle indifference and exclusion. Women religious can serve the church at every level, from the Vatican Dicasteries to the most remote jungle areas.
The hundreds of thousands of sisters are well formed humanly and spiritually and can take up leadership positions in parishes, dioceses and within the Church structures. We can serve as canon lawyers, theologians, scripture scholars, wisdom figures, advisors and administrators.
We are to be found in the most remote places introducing people to faith in Jesus Christ; We are in the heart of cities, accompanying people in their search for meaning and hope; we are with those who are trafficked, with migrants and refugees and with those displaced by wars and conflicts. We are there is the midst of life, at the heart of communities. We can speak to the powerful, advocate on behalf of the weak and oppressed and we can be prophets of the Reign of God that still has to emerge.
And in terms of ecclesial responsibilities?
Women religious are largely absent where decisions are made in the church
and we feel that this absence deprives the institutional church of a wisdom and experience, of a feminine perspective that would help make it richer and more relevant in its response to the needs of today.
On May 12 you will be meeting Pope Francis. What do you expect? I expect Pope Francis to offer a word of encouragement to women religious in relation to how we have already responded and words that will challenge us in terms of how we can witness to and live more radically and prophetically our vocation as religious through our community living and ministries. Perhaps he will offer some reflections on how women religious can be included in decision-making bodies within the Church.