Leadership Conference of Women Religious

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LCWR 2005 National Assembly Keynote Address

LCWR 2005 National Assembly

Keynote Address

Margaret Brennan, IHM and Maria Cimperman, OSU


“God has shouted ‘Yes, yes, yes’! to every luminous movement”

  --  Hafiz, Persian poet and mystic


Margaret Brennan, IHM

The words of Hafiz, a Persian poet and mystic of the 14th century spoke both playfully and mystically to Maria and to me as we searched for a metaphor around which to share some reflections to inaugurate this year of jubilee – to look with gratitude and a sense of honor on the years of our past – and at the same time to anticipate and acknowledge a future different from our beginnings, different from our present,  but one that is full of hope, of promise, and of challenging new horizons. We see this as both a cherished and challenging task. Our meeting together at Visitation, the IHM Spirituality Center, was truly that … two women of two different generations … both with a magnificat of praise and thanksgiving for all that has been and all that is yet to come for religious life in this  21st  century.


The history of LCWR is itself a wondrously luminous movement in the history of the American Church to which God has surely shouted “Yes! Yes! Yes!”  Its journey to this golden anniversary has crossed many landscapes – as well as a few landmines.


In the context of our times in our American culture, the journey has been one in which we have discovered our own voices as women, and heard each other into speech. Many of us as women, and as women religious, hold a hope and lay a claim, to a place and a voice in the Church as full participants in its life and mission because of our one baptism into the Risen Christ in whom there is not distinction of gender or race. Such a claim, as we have known and have experienced, has passed through a journey of light and shadow – luminous movements – some brilliant and shining – others muted and mottled through shadows that produce a lesser, though paradoxically, not necessarily a less lovely light.


It is more than an interesting “aside” to recall that this same metaphor of “light and shadow” was used in the Lineamenta –- a document prepared by the Vatican in 1993 describing the relationship of US Bishops and American women religious in view of the then upcoming Synod on Religious Life in 1994.


In using the metaphor of light and shadow, I am mindful of a quality of beauty honored among the Japanese that grew from a simple reality of life. Forced to live in dark rooms, an older generation who did not know the power of electricity came to discover beauty in shadows and ultimately to guide shadows toward beauty’s ends. Japanese architects and builders, for many years, have utilized this deep psychic phenomenon in the designing and construction of homes and of gardens, of shrines and of temples,  and  even of places of business in the market place.


In its journey to jubilee, I like to think that the LCWR has, in its own way, both learned to discover beauty in the shadows and struggled to guide them towards beauty’s ends.


And so, for the next little while I invite you to travel back with me over an extraordinary journey of light and shadow to this golden time and season of jubilee. It is one that all of us are familiar with – but to look at its many facets in the light of this time is somewhat like holding a crystal to the light and to marvel at its many facets.


The first early light within which the Conference came into being was a reflected one - not from the horizon of our American sky … but, surprisingly enough, from that of the Vatican. In the aftermath of World War II, Pope Pius XII, was convinced of the power of women and men religious to be catalysts in the healing and transformation of the so-called “Christian West” marked by the aftermath of a devastating and brutalizing war and the horror of the Holocaust. He hoped that their collaboration with one another and the updating of their lives from outmoded customs and rules would enable them, in the words of Archbishop Arcadio Larraona (Secretary general of the Sacred Congregation of Religious as well as friend and confident of the Pope) “… To live in our times according to the needs of our times.”


It was, in the last analysis, because of the urging of the Vatican, which had encouraged the formation of national conferences of Religious in order to foster such a forum for ministry, that nudged the Mothers General of the United Statesinto a somewhat reluctant beginning on November 24,1956.


But reluctant or not,  the women religious who attended the first US Congress of religious orders of women and men held at the University of Notre Dame in August 1952,  were already giving a sign that as women they would be a force to deal with. A column in Time Magazine,  under the heading Religious and American made the following observation in its August 25, 1952 issue (it was a small inkling of things to come):


“Before one of the sisters’ discussion sessions, it was discovered that a priest was to address them on the subject of modern comforts and conveniences. Up rose a seven member nun’s committee to protest. Said Mother Gerald Barry, of the Adrian Dominicans, the chairperson of the committee “Why should any man tell us about our comforts and conveniences?  Four nuns were hastily scheduled to speak in the priests’s place.”

“Simon-pure American” noted the reporter!


The national committee of seven sisters from six different congregations who had been appointed by Rome to discuss the possibilities of a women’s conference first met in 1952. They reflected initially that such a further organization would neither be necessary nor beneficial. These women represented congregations of hundreds of sisters. They were aware that organizations such as the National Catholic Education Association, the Catholic Health Association, the National Catholic Welfare Conference already allowed for fruitful collaboration in the fostering of a massive educational system, social agencies, hospital and health care facilities.


But at the same time even as these flourishing apostolates were sponsored and fostered by these congregations of women (which were our congregations) many of us here (well – maybe not so many of us anymore!) can recall how as religious congregations we lived in splendid isolation from one another in the ordering of our lives – cherishing our own traditions, the color and cut of our habits, our own customs, our own spiritual practices – and not without a little intramural comparison and competition as to which of us were  the most observant, the most dedicated, the most “truly religious”!


The governance structures of the newly formed Conference of Major Superiors of Women, in 1956, was situated in an Executive Board who represented regions of the country that were the same as those of the NCEA. It was the members of this board who were entrusted with the election of the officers of the Conference and the writing of its statutes. Early Assemblies dealt with questions of formation, the education of novice directresses, the spiritual lives of the sisters. And I think that God may have whispered a scarcely audible “yes” – but hardly a shout -- when the Conference described and promoted its first regional program in 1958: “Revitalizing Religious Life for the Individual and the Community through Combating the Effects of Naturalism, Lack of Mortification, and Excessive Activity.”


However, even within this hesitant and tentative beginning, a bright morning star was already shedding its light on the horizon of our pre-dawn sky. From the early fifties, the Sister Formation Conference, through the NCEA, had drawn women educators together from many diverse congregations for the purpose of  seeking the advancement of the religious, cultural, and professional formation of Sisters. By means of conferences, educational programs and the Sister Formation bulletin that reached countless women religious of the United States in their convent residences, the sisters of the fifties were reading and discussing articles by Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner,  Bernard Haring and other theologians who would  deeply influence the Vatican Council as peritii. As a result of such reading and study I believe it is safe to say, that as a whole, no group of persons in the country was better prepared to receive the teaching of Vatican II than women religious.


But already significant shifts in our American culture and in other parts of the world were making inroads into our lives. And then, in 1962, six years after our founding as a Conference, the Vatican Council, like a giant tidal wave swept over our lives, the landscape of religious life was forever changed … and the Conference itself was virtually refounded in its light.  


In 1971, after some years and months of study and reflection which included the total membership, a new set of by-laws was adopted, and the title changed from the Conference of Major Superiors of Women to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The change of the title and the new by-laws reflected a new understanding of ourselves. The emphasis shifted from superiors and their subjects to the development of creative and responsive leadership which would enable new forms of service in the church and in the world. Within fifteen years, the Conference had grown from its hesitant beginnings in 1956 to an articulation of a new and vital perception of its own meaning and mission to and in the world.


In many ways this was our season of high noon and high energy … a luminous time under a seemingly clear and cloudless sky that continues to influence and direct the life of the Conference as it has journeyed to this splendid season of celebration.


But in the midst of life in the post-Vatican world and Church, we discovered as well that the winds of change would also bring clouds and storms and that there would be times and seasons when there seemed to be more shadow than light. The “Sea Changes” both in the Church and in the Conference were both transformative and troubling. Was  Jesus, in our boat?  We thought so – even if the “Yes! Yes! Yes!” seemed to come at times from a God who was sleeping!


We discovered that diverse views of renewal based on differing ecclesiologies in the documents of Vatican II brought pain and internal division between individuals within communities and between communities themselves.


From among our own membership some anxious voices emerged. Were the directions of the Conference an authentic expression of religious renewal? Or were they pointing to an understanding and lived expression of religious life that was itself developing? The tension became concretized in the formation of The Consortium Perfectae Caritatis a group of our own members whose orientation to renewal differed both ideologically and theologically. Rome and the Congregation for Religious reacted with alarm and concern. The initial shock of disapproval of the alacrity and enthusiasm with which we took up the direction of the Council that had announced its intention to be in the world and for the world,  left us shocked and initially incredulous. The ideals of the Consortium live now in the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which received papal approbation in 1992.


As one who spent many days and hours in the early 70s of LCWR with the women who founded the Consortium, I still cherish the hope that one day we will be one conference again – reverencing our diversity and giving witness to its fruitfulness as we minister together in the Church we both love and serve.


The negative response of the Congregation of Religious to the renewal directions of many congregations with regard to the wearing of the habit, new forms of ministry, particularly into areas of peace and justice, and the adoption of a way of life more adapted to these new initiatives appeared to us as promoting a static and stratified view of religious life – one considered apart from the flow of history.


In 1983 the document entitled Essential Elements in Church Teaching on Religious Life was officially promulgated by the Congregation for Religious. The document was accompanied by a letter from Pope John Paul II to the American Bishops. In the letter he urged them to an exercise of pastoral presence to congregations of women in regard to the living of these essential elements and reminding them as well that in the matter of authentic discernment of founding charisms of religious congregations this task resided chiefly in them as a “God-given ministry of the hierarchy” rather than on or in an exercise of mutuality and co-responsibility. For many women religious such a mandate to the Bishops was seen as a diminishment of religious life they had responded to in view of the Vatican Council.


The enforcing of these elements by some members of the hierarchy caused irrevocable fissures among some religious congregations who, as a result, were forced into non-canonical status.


In her book, On Beauty and on Being Just, Elaine Scarry, a professor of Aesthetics at Harvard University, cites a poem by Emily Dickinson to describe the kinesthetic experience of what happens when a deeply held perception is shattered.

                                  It dropped so low – in my Regard –

                                  I heard it hit the Ground –

                                  And go to pieces on the Stones

                                  At the bottom of my mind –1


Perhaps these words are too strong – too dramatic – yet in a sense they express the feelings of pain and shock of a shattered perception – the hope that the Church’s commitment to renewal would call forth our gifts and our experience as women in ministry  to meet new challenges  – rather than to control them. And perhaps more painfully still, came the realization that our relationship with Rome, and with many of the hierarchy, would be marked by struggle, a discountenancing of our experience – along with sometimes voiced and sometimes unvoiced disapproval of who we are and who we had become in our desire to serve the Church.


God’s affirmative “Yes! Yes! Yes!” seemed muted, muffled, toned down.


At the same time, our commitment to the Church has remained strong and deeply rooted. … and over time … forty years after the Council and on the very eve LCWR’s Golden Jubilee … perhaps we are discovering as well that we are more ready to work toward dispelling  the tensions of the “we” and the “they” that characterize so much of conversation that arises in time of controversy. What would it be like if, in the Church, we owned the truth that we are all the Institution even as we are all the People of God?


I like to think that God’s “Yes! Yes! Yes!” is an affirmation of a single-hearted journey that the Conference has been on these past fifty years. And perhaps it is an extravagant stretch to appropriate the words of St. John of the Cross to the intentionality and the tenacity of our purpose to name our truth, to walk together in the service of leadership in order to further accomplish the mission of Christ in today’s world. But I will try it anyway.


In the third verse of the Spiritual Canticle (translated by Keiran Kavanaugh, OCD), the soul, in search of the Beloved will not be deterred


                     Seeking my Love

                     I will head for the mountains and for watersides,

                    I will not gather flowers,

                    Nor fear wild beasts;

                    I will go beyond strong men and frontiers …2


With the exception of not stopping to gather flowers (don’t we always need beauty?)  I believe that such an intentional search has marked our journey.


I will leave it to each of you to name the mountains and the watersides, to detect the wild beasts, to identify the strong men and frontiers.


Along the way, as well, in our own responses to the hierarchy and to the Vatican, some shadowed times and events have marked our journey  these fifty years - and sometimes, with the lack of clear vision that happens in cloudy times, the shadow in ourselves can emerge with subtlety and pose as prophet when in reality it may be more a movement of desolation than what consoles.


Yet it seems to me that the same refounding spirit that animated the Conference in 1971 continues to guide and shape the directions and the understanding of who we are today and who we will be tomorrow. Using a phrase of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins “it shines like shook foil” in the directions of  the Conference,  the topics of Assemblies  and their carry over into the Regions, the reflections in Occasional Papers,  the scholarship in books and publications, outreach to places of poverty, to missions of peace and to global concerns for sustainability and right relationships,  and that same refounding spirit guides and promotes the context for relationships with the Vatican and ongoing conversations with diverse publics with whom we interact in the furthering of our mission.


In the 1971 statement of its purpose, the Conference articulated a new and vital perception of its meaning and mission to and in the world and above all to a realization in the statement of its purpose -  to promote a developing understanding and living of religious life.


And so – we have arrived at the beginning of this golden year of Sabbath. It is a time to proclaim God’s favor in our regard even as we look ahead to a future full of hope and new commitments to proclaim the gospel with our lives.


The Torah calls a Jubilee year  a “Sabbath …a  Shabbat unto God.”  For us it is a time, not just to rest, but to be immersed in God and God’s world -- but perhaps in a more contemplative way -- to shift our directions, to scan the horizons for what lies ahead, to claim the freedom that comes from serving God, to enter into a year of joy and gratitude, to recognize our solidarity, however difficult,  with all human beings with whom we share this earth we call home. “Jubilee people,” as reminded by Christine this morning, are required to ask for forgiveness and to receive it.


It is a time as well to refrain from narrow thoughts and hasty judgments –


And so as we begin this year of Sabbath, I return to where I began – with some words of homey and playful wisdom and challenge from Hafiz, the poet and mystic –


                             We have all come to the right place.

                                 We all sit in God’s classroom.



                         The only thing left for us to do, my dears


                                                  Is to stop,

                                 Throwing spitballs for a while.


1 Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton University, Princeton and Oxford, 1999, p. 12.

2 The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ICS Publications, Washington, DC, 1979. Stanza 3, p. 427.




God Has Shouted Yes! Yes! Yes! to Every Luminous Movement!

Part II. Creating Communities of Hope on a Global Scale:

            Invitation to Leadership and Membership                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Maria Cimperman, OSU



Upon hearing Margaret’s amazing description of the light and shadow bringing us to this jubilee year, I must now first offer you a note of thanks, for I am a grateful beneficiary of your efforts to see light, to bring light, to be light. I was born as Vatican II closed. I grew up with a great appreciation for Gospel (Jesus!) stories and I was taught that women and men are created in God’s image and likeness and that God sees that as very, very good! I saw women religious in diverse ministries. You were in classrooms, soup kitchens and El Salvador. When Dorothy Kazel, OSU, Ita Ford, MM, Maura Clark, MM, and Jean Donovan were murdered, I was a high school student in the school where Dorothy had taught, and I saw how love was willing to pay any price, even the cross. My religious life taught me to expect inclusive language, to engage questions both theologically and pastorally, and to invite all to God’s table. Thank you for this and much more! 


My role today is to consider with you, (without throwing any spitballs!) through a theological lens and through my generation, the Giving Voice generation (women religious under age 50 and whose experience of religious life is since Vatican II), what luminous movement might God be inviting us to with a Yes! Yes! Yes! in this LCWR jubilee year. 


I’d like to suggest that creating communities of hope on a global scale is a translucent light that calls us with increasing urgency in this 21st century. Centering the theological focus on hope, I will from there offer a few pertinent dimensions to consider in terms of community and global consciousness.   The phrase, ‘communities of hope” is actually inspired by the keynote at your assembly in 1973, offered by Dom Helder Camara. Naming the realities and challenges locally and globally, he called for just 60 of the 600 women at the assembly to create “Abrahamic minorities” to live out the social justice teachings. If they did so, surely others would follow.


I. Hope

Since September 11, 2001, we have been offered an abundance of presentations on hope. Cardinal Daneels of Belgium, Don Georgen, OP and even our most recent issue of Giving Voice, among others, have reflected on hope. This past November, the 2004 Congress on Consecrated Life, attended by almost 900 women and men religious from across the world, including leaders, theologians, younger and newer members alike, pointedly engaged the suffering of humanity, yet still ended with references to Hope.

Why are we so in need of  - in search of - hope right now?  Is the hope we are looking for related to terrorism? to world peace? to our government?  Is it related to the church? And what do we hear of hope outside this nation – in the midst of AIDS, human trafficking, increasing mortality under age 40 in sub-Saharan countries?


Why do we, as women religious, search for hope now? I think that while many of us see the wars and destruction, the rampant materialism, poverty and violence, AIDS and disease, what we hear is the world’s cry and the cry of those in our cities and rural areas.  We hear it as a cry for hope, a relentless search for a real hope that engages real lives. And there is something within us that measures our world and our work in light of the Gospel call to respond to that cry.


Is there a hope we women religious can offer the world today? YES. In the midst of our numbers, despite our disparate ministries, as and among women who still struggle with inequalities in public, private and religious spheres – yes.  There is a hope to offer -a hope that both permeates and transcends the current situations.  There is a Hope we can and must offer; indeed, offering hope is our heritage, our inheritance, our legacy. (I suggest it is one of requirements of the apostolic life.)


What is this hope we women religious, women of the Gospel, name, seek and offer? (I offer a description of hope and then consider characteristics which impact religious life and the church and world in which we live.) 


Hope is a virtue, and as such it fits under the greatest virtue, which is love. A virtue is a disposition and habit, which flows out of who we are and who we want to become, and it offers a vision of how to get there. Virtues are teleological; that is, there is a goal or end toward which they strive. In Christianity, the ultimate end is union with God, and we live out this desire on a daily basis through our love of God, neighbor and self. Throughout our lives we strive toward this telos or end, and as long as we live our task is not complete. Virtues, like our human nature, are also dynamic; therefore, as we continue to learn, grow and mature, so our level of understanding and depth of living the virtues evolve.


Hope gives us a particular sustained moral and spiritual vision. In addition, it is the transcendent virtue that animates and informs the virtues which follow. Hope not only gives us the vision, it sanctions and sustains the vision. Christian hope tells us what type of vision we have. Hope is also a prime Christian resource of the imagination.[i] Hope offers a horizon for our expectations in both tangible and nontangible ways. Hope allows us to reshape our reality in a particular way. Hope imagines the real and animates the other virtues to enflesh the real that is imagined.


In addition to providing a horizon for our expectations, five other points underlie the virtue of Christian hope: (1) hope is communal; (2) it includes the dead as well as the living; (3) hope is connected to help; (4) it is linked to the paschal imagination; and (5) hope has a fundamentally eschatological dimension.


The communal nature of hope is such that it not only imagines, but imagines with; it is inherently collaborative and promotes mutuality.[ii] Hope is an act of the community, whether the community is large or small, global or local. The community may consist of those with whom we live, minister, pray, and more. The communal nature of hope crosses congregations, life commitments, religious traditions and more. In the ‘Visitation’ Mary and Elizabeth offered hope to one another and Mary’s Magnificat magnified the light of that manifold hope.


Years after I entered religious life, I learned that Dorothy Kazel, OSU, while in El Salvador, found hope among your members, most notably Theresa Kane, RSM.  Dorothy read Theresa’s 1980 LCWR presidential address in which Theresa spoke of religious life and ministry needing to be at the margins, including in the US.  Less than two months before she was murdered, Dorothy wrote Theresa a letter of thanks, and concluded with the following remarks: “Within this past year I had been fortunate to meet women theologians like Barbara Doherty (CDP) and Sandra Schneiders (IHM). They – along with the little I’ve actually read about you – do give me the hope that the Reign of God is making headway. And for this I am grateful. Do continue to be Spirit-filled and challenging. Please keep the people of Salvador before the Lord as we are literally living in time of persecution. We need His strength.”[iii] As leaders, I invite you to consider what an impact your words and vision can offer – well beyond your expectations.


Theologian Johann Baptist Metz writes of solidaristic hope, a hope that includes those who have gone before us.[iv] We act out of a horizon of expectation that the sisters and others who have gone before us are not only part of our legacy but also part of our energy and drive in seeking to respond to God’s call to love and serve. Even as the call to respond and live may differ in detail, hope remembers all and leaves none behind. We are part of this communion of saints.


Hope is also connected to help. While hope is within us, hope is also the sense within us that there is help outside of us.[v] Scholar William F. Lynch writes: “There are times when we are especially aware that our own purely inward resources are not enough, that they have to be added to from the outside. But this need of help is a permanent, abiding, continuing fact for each human being; therefore we can repeat that in severe difficulties we only become more especially aware of it.”[vi]


An example of this need for hope and help to illuminate: One of the articles in our Giving Voice issue on internationality is from a woman religious who wrote of gratitude for the participation of nuns and sisters in protests in the U.S. in order to raise public concerns regarding her South American country’s human rights abuses. She said that while a public act of protest could easily result in violence to her, our protesting is doing what she alone cannot.[vii] Hope is connected to help.


Fourth, Hope is integrally connected to our paschal imagination. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a message of hope that does not evade or deny the suffering and dying that occurs in life. As religious we must be in the midst of the people in need, and those include the suffering, the marginalized, the afflicted. Yet the crucial and incarnated hope is that the end of the story is not death, but new life that may take a variety of forms. Imaginative hope does not evade reality but sees it and transforms it.

Everyone has a moral imagination through which we work out our vision of human flourishing.[viii] The ‘Christian’ moral imagination refers to some of the resources our Christian faith experience and tradition offer us as we strive to live so that all humans flourish. This is the imagination we engage in the situations we come upon.[ix]


In light of the pandemic of AIDS, global poverty, human trafficking and lack of sufficient health care in our nation, full human flourishing requires that we see beyond “the surface” of facts around us to possibilities that can be realized around us. To see religious life with only 78,000 members in 2000 instead of 180,000 in the US in 1965 could be to say the writing is on the wall for the end of religious life in the United States.[x] However, Christianity and the moral imagination flowing out of that lens offer a different horizon of expectations and, I contend, ensuing actions. The Christian imagination is rooted in the real but imagines more than what is seen because, as mentioned earlier, for Christians the horizon of expectations is rooted in hope. We have only this our time in religious life today. This is our time, the time for which we are created, and reading the signs of the times offers us a sense of what the call around us is. At the same time, our hope in God and our sense of being called as women religious means that this time and these numbers in the US are calling us to imagine something with new eyes.


Theologian Philip Keane describes imagination as “the basic process by which we draw together the concrete and the universal elements of our human experience…a playful suspension of judgment leading us toward a more appropriate grasp of reality.”[xi] This ‘playful suspension’ is not of reality but of judgment on the reality. Imagination here is not fantasy, which makes up or creates an image to avoid or escape reality. Imagination instead takes various experiences and realities and places them into a context, an ‘intelligible landscape.’[xii] Lynch sees imagination as remaking reality, and connects imagination quite directly with hope. Lynch reminds us:


one of the permanent meanings of imagination has been that it is the gift that envisions what cannot yet be seen, the gift that constantly proposes to itself that the boundaries of the possible are wider than they seem. Imagination, if it is in prison and has tried every exit, does not panic or move into apathy but sits down to try to envision another way out. It is always slow to admit that all the facts are in, that all the doors have been tried, and that it is defeated. It is not so much that it has vision as that it is able to wait, to wait for a moment of vision which is not yet there, for a door that is not yet locked. It is not overcome by the absoluteness of the present moment.[xiii]


Poet and human rights activist Vaclav Havel describes this hope in a similar fashion:

The kind of hope I often think about …I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world…It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.


Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.[xiv]


Scripture and tradition give us a sense of the horizon of our expectations, and with the analogical imagination we are not held to ‘what would Jesus do’ in a situation, but we are invited to live ‘what is Jesus doing now through me’ as an incarnation.[xv] The imagination is helpful, for we are able to move analogically from Jesus’ story to discovering how to daily live toward a reality reflective of the Reign of God.[xvi]


Finally, hope is centered on the eschatological nature of our lives as Christians. Our living includes doing all we can to promote the Reign of God in the world. At the same time, our faith tells us that ours is a ‘here-and-not-yet’ reality and that this reign will not be completed in our lifetime. This is not a reason for inactivity, but it once again places our activity in a wider context. Christian hope here is time attentive and responsible, but not time bound. This allows us to work toward the Reign of God and yet rely on God in the midst of it all.[xvii] Hope ultimately reaches out to all that is good, all that is God.[xviii] This is the hope that allows us to risk boldly!


I particularly ask you to invite your wisdom figures, your members who have sought to live fully – to speak their word of hope. This is necessary for religious life and for the entire people of God. We have more religious life Elizabeths than ever before in the US – their lives of love and reflection bear the fruit of wisdom which our world and church desperately needs. And do invite your Marys to also speak – they too have a hope that burns within them.


II. Community and Communion

With God as our ultimate hope and one another as companions on this journey of hope, what might be necessary for creating communities of hope in our 21st century? Well, the topic of community life is anything but non-controversial these days! And this is where we have seen some generational differences and nuances and some stretching realities in religious life today. I offer one observation and two suggestions. I also invite you to offer additional ones.


Observation: I read with great interest the papers coming from the November 2004 Congress on Consecrated Life, Passion for Christ, Passion for Humanity, particularly the synthesis paper. In it there are references to communion and community, and the necessary connection between them. This is quite significant:

We seek our place in the Church, the People of God, home and school of communion (Citing Novo Millennio Ineunte, 43).


Under the heading ‘sprouts of newness,’ there is “the search for communion and community, based on deep and inclusive relationships; the progressive extension of community living to the parish, diocese, and city, to society and to humanity.

Under convictions for deciding to go forward we hear: “It is necessary to develop the ecclesiology of communion and the theological foundations of relationships between religious and laypersons in order to intensify common formation, religious and lay; to favor a shared mission and bond with the local church; and to have flexible structures to share experiences among congregations (#13).


We also hear that “consecrated life has to be an experience of communion. This implies a strong call to community life” (#15).[xix]



In brief, our call as women religious is a call to community, and as such it is a call to communion. If we live this, even strive to live this, the benefits will be local and global. While it is not possible here to delve into either term deeply, what elements of community and communion are necessary for creating communities of hope?


Community [life] and communion both require a contemplative spirit; this spirit permeates our interactions as we engage a mission beyond ourselves and for which we are willing to sacrifice. I offer a few words on contemplation and interactions.


First, creating communities of hope on a global scale requires that we are contemplatives, that is, that we attend to our passion for Christ.

Elizabeth Dreyer, in concert with Sandra Schneiders, reminds us that “God is the source and wellspring of prophetic life and mission, and only contemplation keeps us intimately attuned to God’s voice.”[xx]


Our primary call as religious is to the relationship we have with Christ. We seek God. There is no substitute for contemplation. Time and space so that we may experience God’s invitation not only in the interactions and activities of our days, but also in the quiet depths of our hearts is necessary. And we know this is not easy. The frenetic nature of society around us has found its way into religious life. Janet Ruffing RSM rightly calls us to acknowledge our demons of busyness.[xxi]  We are busy as women religious, but we must continually water this essential root.


We know the grace that comes from contemplation. We contemplate because we seek our ‘beloved,’ yet as we do, our awareness of the other also increases. We bring this to our activity and to our prayer and the spiral continues.


This contemplative Spirit must permeate our interactions. A community is defined by human interaction. Our level of interaction with one another, our depth of sharing of our lives, indicates our communion. For example, it is not that we live together but how we live together that determines our community. Community life depends upon the sharing of our lives, including the sharing of our spiritual lives, and we are as deeply connected as the depth of our sharing. This does mean risk taking and some adaptability on everyone’s part. There is a give and take in community as we seek communion.


I’m aware that communal living versus living singly [or even with one other sister] is a huge debate in a number of congregations, and congregations must find ways to truly dialogue on these topics while living in an individualistically oriented US culture and an increasingly interdependent world. The witness we offer in creating healthy, adult faith communities is significant. We must find new, creative ways to live, as the structures and even the housing that was once available is no longer. Adult living space is an issue, so that there are quiet spaces, conversational or reading spaces, and entertainment gathering spaces.


Here I must also add that even as you build relationships among members in your congregational families (Dominican, Ursuline, Mercy, etc.), in particular among your younger members, please be attentive to the need to also build acrosscongregations. Women religious are, rightly, spread across the lands where there are unmet needs, so the call is to create and engage community for the mission wherever we can. This will only strengthen each congregation, each member, and the mission. The blessing of Giving Voice is that we find ourselves with women around the country, and increasingly in conversations with women around the world, sharing our passion for God and passion for humanity. (Seeking to have hearts as wide as the world, the energy, vision and hope is truly a gift of God. We ask for your blessing as this group’s efforts emerge into fuller light.)


It is as contemplatives and as persons in relationship that we can engage the global and create communities of hope on a global scale. It is to a global public consciousness that we now turn. 


III. Global Public Consciousness

Religious life must be lived with a public global consciousness. I was truly intrigued by the phrase in the 2004 Congress on Consecrated Life about the movement from passion to compassion. Passion for Christ does lead us to passion for humanity, as the Congress theme declares. This passion for Christ is a movement to compassion for humanity, which moves us again to the lives of the people of God.  In particular, it moves us with compassion to the suffering and struggling people of God. It is worth noting that scripture and our social tradition tell us that a community will be marked by its justice.[xxii]  In Economic Justice for All, we again hear that the community is to be judged by how the poorest among us fare.[xxiii]


Now a few words about dialogue and then analysis and action as they relate to creating communities of hope.


Dialogue. Perhaps the biggest task in our lifetime is to be properly prepared to engage in dialogue. We are in an increasingly polarized nation, world, and church, and there is no sign of abatement. Oblate School of Theology, where I minister, has a sabbatical program connected to it and in which faculty teach. During the Spring semester before our most recent national elections, I offered input on ethical issues in an election year; a lively discussion ensued. I urged the participants to have these discussions in their congregations, among other places, and I offered some websites that assist in organizing a discussion. There was a moment of silence, and then one sister said, “I can’t even imagine a discussion on some of these topics among our members.” A few others sadly shook their heads in agreement. This must not be! If we, well-educated women religious, cannot discuss a topic that will evoke a variety of positions, how do we hope or expect that others will –locally, nationally or internationally? At the same time, who can blame her reticence. We can all remember tense discussions during which we would have gratefully accepted a request to take an important phone call in another room!


Our challenge in this jubilee year and beyond is to dialogue beyond ideologies.  Religion commentator John Allen offered last year’s Catholic Common Ground Annual lecture and he spoke about the divisiveness and polarization characterizing both church and nation. He asserted a need for a spirituality of dialogue and suggested five elements that seem to be at the core of such a spirituality of dialogue: 1) epistemological humility; 2) solid formation in the Catholic tradition, as a means of creating a common language; 3) patience; 4) perspective, the capacity to see issues through the eyes of others; 5) does not come at the expense of a full-bodied expression of Catholic identity.[xxiv]  The Catholic Common Ground Project also offers principles for dialogue for use by individuals and groups. However, we cannot go into this lightly. Dialogue beyond ideologies or efforts toward any post ideological ethos requires openness to conversion on each person’s part, for we generally come with some educated opinions on topics of importance to us as well as biases and experiences. Our efforts must be theologically grounded, and this will require on-going theological renewal. (This in turn offers further opportunities to engage the moral imagination.)


The call to dialogue was voiced in Vatican II, and this conference as well as congregational leaders and members responded to the call, through congregational and theological renewal of immense proportions – and the result are far more light than shadow. This challenge is ours here now too, and it will be so for at least the next 50 years. Our continued efforts will serve not only us but also the next generation of women religious here and around the globe; indeed the whole church.[xxv] 

A practical note: Dialogue of this type is challenging, and though we cannot speak of peace without dialogue, even with our best efforts we may still find ourselves at the cross. Contemplation and the support of one another is sometimes the only thing that will keep us at the tables – including at some where we are merely or barely tolerated –so that we can speak Gospel truth and bring to the table all those on the margins. This path is fraught with shadow and light, but communities of hope help us engage even the impasses.[xxvi]


Creating communities of hope on a global scale requires vision that is both expansive and particular. Global is not in opposition to the local, but actually serves both the local and global context. At the 2003 Amor XIII Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious in Taiwan, Sr. Filo Hirota Shizue, MMB, said that “the local is where people are and life is…At the same time, localization needs to be connected so that we can develop a global network of people, groups, communities that continue creating concrete ways and forms in favor of fuller life. The Catholic Church, as well as religious congregations, is a transnational, multinational global system. We are one million religious in the world. With each one of us, there are students, parents, clients, patients, colleagues, who are with us. We are capable of enabling a globalization from below that prioritizes LIFE. We used to talk about ‘think globally and act locally’. Today we have to think and act globally and locally….GLOCALLY.”[xxvii]


As women religious we are connected across the globe. These relationships are crucial, for through them we hear the Gospel calling us to place our membership in a country with unparalleled power for good and destruction toward the service of those who have little - and their “little” is often due to the unequal advantages that globalization gives the world’s already powerful. We must continue to ask the people concerned how we might best be able to serve one another toward fullness of life. Many of your congregations are already doing this, and the invitation is to participation among all with whom we minister and engage.  Dorothy Stang, SNDdeN, recent martyr in Brazil, made the connection between human rights and environmental rights, and lest our moral outrage become mute without action, we must find ways to respond to the greed and unnecessary consumption driving our own lives and the culture in which we live. The global community of hope thus expands. 

Movement is happening – among religious congregations as well as organizations such as Center for Concern and Network, among others. My work has been particularly in HIV/AIDS on a global and local scale, yet I quickly found that the underlying causes are connected to so many other pandemics such as poverty and violence. This invites further collaboration with many other groups, lay, religious, ecumenical and international.


As I conclude, I want to say that you have the support of our Giving Voice generation. We are not as many as you, but we are here in religious life. We are engaged and seek deeper engagement. While religious life will look different in each generation, we, like you, have heard a call to seek God through vowed life, and we too seek to hear and follow a God who calls us to love and serve. We do not know what religious life will look like in the future, but we choose to be disciples of the One who calls us to love in this church and world.


Thank you for saying Yes to leadership in these times – you, too, are made for them.

To all our efforts to create communities of hope on a global scale, I do believe God says, Yes! Yes! Yes!


[i] I distinguish Christian hope here from existential or humanistic hope.

                [ii] William F. Lynch, Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1965), 23. . Lynch powerfully explains that despair occurs because one imagines alone and cannot see outside the situation. 

[iii] Cynthia Glavac.  In the Fullness of Life: A Biography of Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U. (New Jersey: Dimension, 1996) 173-174.

                [iv] See Johann Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. David Smith (New York: Seabury, 1980), 73.

                [v] Lynch, Images, 40.

                [vi] Lynch, Images, 40.

[vii] Maria Carolina Pardo, “Rochester Franciscans: A Columbian Perspective”  Giving Voice Vol. III, 2001. We know the truths of these words from the February murder of Sister Dorothy Stang, SND deNamur. We’ve come to realize that this time of violence is not senseless, but very thought-full.

                [viii] I add the term ‘moral’ to imagination to further focus our attention on the way we live our life as Christians.

                [ix] Here I use the terms imagination, moral imagination and Christian imagination interchangeably.

[x] See Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate website at:  

                [xi] Philip S. Keane, SS. Christian Ethics and Imagination: A Theological Inquiry (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 81.

                [xii] William C. Spohn uses this term and description in Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (New York: Continuum, 2000), 56 when commenting on William F. Lynch’s work on the imagination, Images of Hope.

                [xiii] Lynch, Images of Hope, 35.

[xiv] Vaclav Havel in “An Orientation of the Heart” 82-83, [82-89]. In The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear. Ed. Paul Rogat Loeb, New York: Basic Books, 2004. This section ends powerfully: “In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking/ dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from ‘elsewhere.’ It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.”

                [xv] We here also encounter the analogical imagination which helps us connect and integrate elements of our tradition with our experiences and information about our contemporary world. A key text on the analogical imagination is David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981). See also Spohn, Go and Do Likewise.

                 [xvi] Spohn, Go and Do Likewise, 4.

                [xvii] On hope and eschatology, see also Vincent J. Genovesi, S.J., Expectant Creativity: The Action of Hope in Christian Ethics (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1982).

                [xviii] For an overview of Aquinas’s discussion of hope, see Romanus Cessario, “The Theological Virtue of Hope” (IIa IIai, qq.17–22) in The Ethics of Aquinas, ed. Stephen J. Pope (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 232–243.

[xix] See website of Union of International Superiors General at:

[xx] Elizabeth A. Dreyer, “Prophetic Voice in Religious Life” Review for Religious 62.3 (2003), 259.

[xxi] Janet Ruffing  RSM “Resisting the Demon of Busyness” Spiritual Life (Summer 1995); Reprinted online at; Accessed 14 August 2005.

[xxii] Biblical scholar John R. Donahue offered this working definition of justice: In general terms the biblical idea of justice can be described as fidelity to the demands of a relationship. “Biblical Perspectives on Justice,” in The Faith That Does Justice: Examining the Christian Sources for Social Change, ed. John C. Haughey (New York: Paulist, 1977) 68-112, at 69. Found also in Walter Burkhardt, Justice: A Global Adventure (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 7.

[xxiii] USCCB, Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1986), #8, 24.

[xxiv] The five points are: 1) epistemological humility; 2) solid formation in the Catholic tradition, as a means of creating a common language; 3) patience; 4) perspective, the capacity to see issues through the eyes of others; 5) does not come at the expense of a full-bodied expression of Catholic identity. John Allen. “Common Ground in a Global Key: International Lessons in Catholic Dialogue” Catholic Common Ground lecture June 25, 2004.  Acce... 8 August 2005. 

[xxv] In his June 24, 2005 Catholic Common Ground Lecture on  “Building a Church of Community,” Bishop Weisgerber writes:

One last consideration: a very practical one. We need to develop mechanisms, instruments of communion. The church gathered in council requires, at every level, from parish pastoral council to synod of bishops, a process which enables and facilitates the interaction implicit in our communion. As a priest, I was part of a diocesan pastoral council presided over by a wonderful, well-meaning bishop. He was an unpretentious man and thought of himself as just another member of the council. He never seemed to realize that when he weighed into a discussion, the discussion ended. He never seemed to understand that many people find it difficult to publicly disagree with the bishop. For me, this was a constant irritant. Now, I find myself doing exactly the same thing. Other people don’t see me the way I see myself.

I believe that in this matter, the church has been very well served by religious women. They have taken seriously the vision of Vatican II and have worked hard and long to become real communities. Religious communities of women saw clearly the need to develop new processes which would respect the kind of communion they were trying to develop, processes which are built on respect for each person, a need for each member to express her concerns, willingness to listen and hear each other and an ability to build consensus. Religious women have called forth a very talented group of people who are trained as animators or facilitators. Such resource persons and their skills are key to building communion and they are available. One of the first things I did in each diocese I have been called to lead is to organize an intensive training session for a group of leaders to become skilled in the facilitation and animation of groups. What a difference this can make. Not only is there a clearly articulated goal for each gathering, but there is a process which enables everyone to speak, knowing that they are being heard by the others. It is truly a work of the Spirit. Such instruments enable the kind of communion that can build trust, both in the leadership and in the other participants.

[xxvi] Nancy Sylvester’s and Mary Jo Klick’s work on engaging impasse is but one such imaginative approach. See Crucible for Change: Engaging Impasse through Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. San Antonio, Texas: Sor Juana Press, 2004.

[xxvii]  Filo Hirota Shizue, MMB, “Theological Reflection,”  Amor XIII Reweaving the Network of Life: A Dream for Communion of Heaven, Earth and Human Beings (Tawain, The Association of Major Superiors of Women Religious in Taiwan and AMOR Secretariat in Taiwan, 2003), 54-55.