Written on: September 17, 2018
In August, I had the privilege of attending an extraordinary gathering of women – about eight hundred of us – who are leaders of religious communities of Catholic Sisters in the United States. We represent, I believe, about 38,000 Sisters. In the past and unfortunately even today, you’ve seen us represented in movies and ads and even cartoons sometimes as being a little goofy or at least terribly naïve. Sometimes you hear us characterized in “I Survived Catholic School” stories as terrifying teachers. But those of you who know Catholic Sisters today know that those caricatures are way off base. Sisters are neither terrifying nor goofy nor naïve. We are women of great faith and trust in God and tremendous love for the world and especially all those people whom we have served and with whom we have served as social workers, teachers, nurses, administrators, missionaries, secretaries, adult faith coordinators, and so many other professions. When I walked into the room filled with the 800+ leaders of Catholic religious orders, I was filled with a huge emotional “Wow!”
The theme of the meeting was “Being the presence of love: the power of communion.” The president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, Sister Teresa Maya, gave a powerful keynote address. I want to borrow some of her thoughts and images. Teresa was addressing leaders of communities, many of whom are today half the size they were in the mid 20th century. Many Sisters are elderly and are no longer staffing schools and hospitals and social service agencies. But Teresa’s emphasis was not on our past nor was it full of lament for our losses. She did acknowledge the huge challenges we as a nation and as a world have faced recently – fire and flood, violence and destruction of people and of our planet. But she also emphasized the incredible courage and generosity of people who came together to help and support each other and challenge what needs to change. She compared our situation as religious women experiencing all kinds of loss and the expectation of further even more radical losses to the life of those who live near a volcano. But as someone who, herself, lived her whole life near a volcano, she had also learned something quite surprising and hopeful. After the destruction, after the ash and the lava, unusual beautiful flowers appear. From the ash, beautiful colors can emerge.
Teresa asked us to think about this: How do we remind each other about the wildflowers?
In light of the volcano-like threat we live with in our nation’s divisiveness, in light of the horrific revelations from the grand jury about the betrayal of Catholic priests and bishops, in light of the subtle and not at all subtle racism that continues to ooze through our often unrecognized white privilege veins, in light of the sexism that still haunts us — we, too, have to help sow or see the wildflowers we so need – reconciliation, compassion, solidarity with those who suffer, generosity, honesty, willingness to dialogue.
For us Catholic Sisters, the wildflowers grow in the soil of solidarity with the suffering, in the soil of grief for all the losses, but they also grow out of contemplative prayer, out of faithful listening to hear God’s voice, God’s call, God’s challenge.
They grow out of our creating community, places where different views can find expression without fear of reprisal, places where diversity is treasured rather than feared or discouraged.
There’s a beautiful psalm that expresses a little of what Sr. Teresa and all Catholic Sisters try to live today. “Be still and know that I am God.” This is, ultimately, our stance beside the volcano. We prepare in whatever ways we can for the eruptions, the hint of which we have already begun to experience in the diminishment of our strength, in the loss of our once so admirable accomplishments, in the sale of our properties and the relocation of our members. But all the while, we realize the power of communion – that oneness with God and one another and all creation. All the while, we continue to be, as best we can, in whatever ways we can, the “presence of love.”