Nancy Sylvester | JULY 16, 2012
The bishops are right. Women religious have changed, not only in the United States but throughout the world. We have changed in ways that invited us to let go of who we thought we were. Surrendering to the Spirit, we awakened to new understandings that touched our deepest core.
Change at that level is transformation. It radically altered how we see ourselves, the Gospel, our church, our world and most importantly how we understand our God. This change in consciousness was not easy. No, it was painful, but like the pain at childbirth it dissolves in unspeakable awe at the life that emerges.
I do not want to pretend that everything that transpired over these past 50 years was perfect and without mistakes or poor choices. But what is clear to me is that the renewal that followed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council invited women and men, vowed religious and lay, to experience our faith in ways that both permeated and was shaped by a modern, pluralistic, democratic society.
The council document, Gaudium et Spes, invited the church to embrace the joys and hopes, the pain and suffering of the people of God and to be in the world and not stand apart. It “opened the windows” of an institution that had been nailed shut and freed the Spirit. In that invitation the official church echoed what Jesus did in his life when he “opened the windows” of the restrictive purity system that prevailed in his time and proclaimed in word and deed that everyone was welcome to the table and loved by God.
An Act of ObedienceWomen religious took that invitation seriously and, urged by the official church, undertook renewal. That was an act of great obedience. I know because I entered religious life in 1966 having grown up in Chicago in a Catholic enclave. Catholic defined every aspect of my life—Catholic schools, Catholic funeral parlors, Catholic sports teams, Catholic spirituality, the list goes on. The official church today would be very proud of who I was back then. I did not want things to change. I envisioned wearing a habit my entire life, living in a convent with a daily routine, teaching in schools. So when I entered and things began to change it was not an easy road for me; however, I obeyed and took seriously what I was being taught in our theology and philosophy classes.
Integrating the questions that arose about faith, scripture and theology into my prayer life was key to my journey, as it was for many women religious. We began to see with new eyes who Jesus was and how the Scriptures were formulated within the context of its time. We learned the history of the church and its tradition of social justice teachings. We learned liberation theology and began to understand how structures and systems of political and ecclesial power too often oppress the very people they were formed to serve. As U.S. dioceses paired with cities in Central and South America, many sisters served in those newly established ministries and experienced the power of liberation theology and were transformed by the people they served.
Guided by the council documents we learned about other faith traditions and that they, too, had something to offer to the exploration into God. Liturgical renewal brought an openness and freshness to liturgical celebrations that had ossified within the Roman church.
Prepared in the 1950s through the Sister Formation Movement, women religious were poised to move quickly to prepare themselves academically following the council. And we did. Liberal arts, the social sciences as well as hard sciences became friends to us. The insights of quantum physics, evolution and discoveries about the origins of the universe were not alien or suspect. Rather they too were pointing to a greater understanding of God and who we are in this marvelous world.
Immersing ourselves in the world opened up new ministries in which women religious worked directly with women who were struggling with abusive relationships or decisions about carrying a pregnancy to term; with young girls who mistakenly understood that according to the church’s teaching it was better to have an abortion and be forgiven for one mortal sin than to use contraceptives and be in a constant state of mortal sin. Our ministries brought us face to face with the outcasts of our society—the homeless, those in prisons, those on drugs, the economically disadvantaged, those suffering because of their sexual orientation. These experiences seeped into us and as we brought them to prayer they transformed us. We saw and understood that those are the people today who Jesus would have called friends and welcomed into his company.
The AwakeningOur life within congregations was changing as well. As we changed the clothes women wore in an earlier era to clothes of our time and began to live in different types of community, we experienced ourselves as individuals in our own right. Like women everywhere in those years we awakened to our own identity as women and claimed the rights that were ours, equal to those of men. Having ministered among women we felt in a new way the challenges that are ours because of our gender, the gift of our sexuality and as bearers of new life. We came to understand that the official church’s teaching on sexuality was not accepted by most Catholic women because it did not touch women’s hearts, our lives, address our pain or the difficult choices facing us, or celebrate the joy of our sexuality.
Having grown up in the United States women religious began to integrate democratic principles into our governing structures. The council asked us to move toward servant leadership and we saw that patriarchal and hierarchical structures do not foster that model. Rather we chose more circular models of leadership with an emphasis on participation and shared leadership even as we affirmed and accepted certain individuals among us as our elected leaders.
The social movements of our time became part of our lives—the women’s movement, the civil rights struggle, the non-violence and anti-war movement and more recently the gay and lesbian movement. What we learned was a visceral knowledge that every human person is endowed with certain inalienable rights regardless of race, gender, religion, class or sexual orientation. All are children of God.
More recently, women religious have brought to prayer the insights from quantum physics and cosmology that reveal the interconnectedness of all life. We have consciously chosen to see the plight of our Earth as a justice issue and to formulate congregational directions and public positions regarding sustainability, global climate change and the care of Earth and its natural resources.
Speaking OutWe found ourselves immersed in a society that was pluralistic, democratic and secular and we knew that our faith had something to offer as well as to receive from the culture. We spoke out about the abuses of greed, consumerism and selfish individualism and the public policies that are shaped without regard to the common good or to those who are the least among us. We lobbied and we demonstrated. We used our economic power through shareholder resolutions. And we offered at our retreat centers and educational forums opportunities for others to integrate their experience as adults in this culture with their evolving faith.
Women religious have changed. And that change is shaking the very foundations of what continues to be a church seemingly caught in an earlier time and place. That is not what is needed now. The signs of our times reveal to us persons who are Catholic but who no longer can go to “church” because of feeling alienated and angry at the corruption and lack of integrity among many of its male clerical leaders. These persons so want to know God as adults. They are longing for a spirituality that is rooted in their faith and in their life.
I believe that the Gospel and the richness of our Catholic tradition have something to offer our post-modern world. I don’t want to see it collapse under the weight of structures that maintain power relationships that no longer serve. I believe that the faith that is waiting to be offered to the 21st century is one that comes from a stance of openness and understanding of the changes that our evolutionary development has brought us. It cannot be a faith that comes from a position of condemning modernity. It will be a faith that has been tested in the crucible of our time and has emerged with new insights and new interpretations of how we can love one another as Jesus did. In difficult and chaotic times we can come to a greater awareness that we are more alike than different, more one than separate.
Yes, women religious have changed. And I believe that our journey has much to offer this moment in history. Together with others who have walked in similar paths, the future of our faith has been beckoning us forward since the Second Vatican Council. On the 50th anniversary of that event let us move courageously into the future claiming once again that we are Catholics and we are the church.
Nancy Sylvester, I.H.M., is founder and president of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious from 1998-2001 and was the NETWORK National Coordinator from 1982-1992.