The sixth of 18 images Sr. Glynis McManamon drew to capture the movement of the spirits during the discernment process at the congregational chapter in Angers, France in July 2015.
We were all advised that no matter how many Chapters we had attended previously this would be a Chapter like no other.
“G’day! G’day!” our facilitators greeted us during the Saturday a.m. orientation. Jill McCorquodale and Patricia Fawkner, a Good Samaritan Sister, greeted us with Aussie accents and happy kangaroos hopped across the screen at the front of the room.
I was already disoriented, due to my anticipation that we would be sitting in the old “Chapter Room” in rows like flower beds, looking at the backs of the heads in front of us. That was how it was in 1997, when I attended as delegate of the Province formerly known as Cincinnati. We were all advised that no matter how many Chapters we had attended previously (tops was six) this would be a Chapter like no other.
Sharing and mixing
The new and improved Chapter Room was Salle de Notre Dame, the former fourth floor recreation hall. We sat at tables of six and shared the meaning of our personal names, then named our tables. We took great pride in our table names (mine was “Stargazers”) and yet, we would be moved three times during the course of Chapter into different configurations.
We were also placed in groups for Lectio Divina, with a new group of persons. Coffee break was an opportunity to dialogue with someone new. Even during our stand-up breaks we were called upon to get to know as many capitulars and guests as possible.
Our community was enlarged by the presence of Lay Mission Partners: Good Shepherds beyond our vowed, consecrated group. I am proud to say our ubiquitous Melinda Stricklen was one of them – a woman who has never, ever, ever met a stranger (do I exaggerate?).
Our Congregational Leader, Brigid, welcomed us with the message that “we are the living history. We have come here to make history.” This was the first Congregational Chapter since the reunification. Now the limits of our language were to be tested: who were “they”? “They” were among us, and not clearly identified in any way. How could we call “them” the former OLC, because after all, we are all Our Lady of Charity Sisters. A guessing game ensued during the early days to figure out which Sisters were the “new” Sisters. It was nearly impossible. Amazing!
The keynote speaker, Philip Pinto, CFC, had been the Congregational Leader of the Christian Brothers at the time that the sexual abuse scandals were exploding. In six brief talks, Brother Pinto set the tone for the Chapter. The talks are available on YouTube and copies of the talks are available. I cannot urge you strongly enough to access them.
I mention those statements that hit home the hardest for me, especially the quote from the poem, “The Place Where We Are Right” by Yehuda Amichai:
From the place where we are right flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard.
But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined
house once stood.
Many times we would turn to one another and say, “Ah, this is that trampled yard, this is that hard earth where we will not find new life.” Philip challenged us: “If my understanding of God is the same today as it was five years ago, I am in a spiritual rut!”
We’ve been struggling with the notion of Transformation in this Province – this Journey that we have both embraced and struggled with. I begin to realize that the difference for me between transformation and change is the surrender to the ineffable Spirit of God, manifested within and beyond our community, province, congregation.
I begin to consider change as a human project which involves planning, setting goals, heading out with a map, objectives, and definite feedback on whether change is being achieved or not. Transformation takes a degree of surrender that can be terrifying. It is saying to God, “Do with me as you will,” without knowing what the outcome will be. That is *%^&$ dangerous! And it is one thing to express my personal willingness to do so. It’s another thing to set off to do so as a group!
Brother Philip: “I see religious life worried about its own survival and engrossed in irrelevancies while the big issues of life pass them by. How can I recognize the God who cares when I am not interested in God’s agenda, but in that of Church or Congregation?” Ouch.
Wild and precious life
Philip kept quoting poetry, and I found myself weeping at times. From Mary Oliver: “Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.”
“Listen: are you breathing just a little and calling it a life.”
With Brother Philip Pinto and our Sisters and Lay Mission Partners I kept realizing over and over again that all of us have been going through the same process – learning how to cultivate our relationships with one another as part of the task of building up the Kingdom of Jesus on this Earth.
This moment in time is pregnant with great risk and great opportunity. Our gaze is directed outward from what we define as “our mission” to seek “God’s mission.”
Brother Philip told of a community of Christian Brothers in Ireland who are dying. They made a commitment that they would live the Gospel authentically with one another. He described the beauty of these men, who are not afraid to cry with one another, who demonstrate a tremendous degree of compassion. They are living community without masks. “It is okay to die. What are we caught dead doing?”
Brother Philip’s six talks laid a foundation for a deeper listening to the reports to come. Even though I was aware of the unfolding events of the past six years, listening to a summary let me see that this team has been adventurous and at the same time challenged, especially by serious health issues.
To see Susan Chia there moved me. When I was secretary at the North American Leadership Training, I heard her question whether her fragile health would allow her to attend. While the chemo she is undergoing is working, it is only buying her time. It will not cure her cancer. She owns readily that she is dying.
When I saw Angela Fahey across the room I kept wondering who the sister was with the baldy sour haircut – rather edgy. Well, this was the return of chemo ravaged hair. Over four weeks it continued to grow until in the last week she actually needed a haircut. Talk about a sign of new life!
Some takeaways from the reports:
- The reunification opens new opportunities for our spirituality – to grow in our knowledge and understanding of St. John Eudes, to integrate the heritage of Eudes and St. Mary Euphrasia and to contemplate our current world context through those lenses
- “…[W]orking for Justice and Peace is not optional: it is an integral part of who we are as Sisters and Mission Partners;
- Mission Development is not simply fund raising for charity. Funders are challenging us to look beyond starting a good work. Will it be sustainable? What will ensure accountability: to the
- We are called to partner beyond our “vowed membership.” Even if our membership was growing and we had a sister to carry out every single ministry in the Congregation, Mission Partnership is a call from the Holy Spirit;
- We must refresh our leadership structures.
We have struggled with diminishment in our Province. This is not solely a North American reality: our congregation numbered 3,609 Sisters in 2014, contemplative and apostolic lifestyles and those in initial formation included. I believe I remember the number being at least 6,000 when I entered.“It is okay to die. What are we caught dead doing?” To die is to rise. To die is the only way it is possible to be resurrected.
Them and us
So what is the difference between “them” and “us.” Or are we all “Us”? Well, yeah: it’s just hard to talk clearly and inclusively. Consider Melinda Stricklen, our first Baptist Sister.
In hearing the sharing of vowed and extended membership, we saw how St. John Eudes and St. Mary Euphrasia partnered from the very beginnings of their efforts and throughout their development of the mission. After all, Madeleine Lamy shouting at St. John Eudes: was she not one of our first partners in mission?
In more recent times, diminishment has forced us to resort back to that initial partnership, reaching beyond the divide of the them and the us, to engage people beyond our consecrated membership to do things that once upon a time were only for the sisters to carry out: case in point, Hubert Janssen, Netherlands, administrator of care for our sisters in the Netherlands.
Janssen reports directly to Magdalena Franciscus, Province Leader for BFMN. While he cannot and is not the canonical superior for our sisters in elder living in the Netherlands, he does in fact carry out many of the duties that are typically assigned to a local leader. Hubert invites the sisters to participate in the architecting of their life. Are you horrified by such a thought? Yes, on paper it is a shocking read. Meet Hubert and you see a familiar face, the face of a companion shepherd. He also is a good dancer.
The Spirit is revealing to us the primacy of mission and the urgent need for dynamic partnerships well beyond the circle of our vowed membership so we may respond effectively to the needs of today’s world. The passion these “lay” mission partners exhibit for Our Shepherd’s mission enriches us and calls us to deeper fidelity.
In Chapter I was hearing and seeing something that I have believed but struggled for many years to articulate. You can hire someone to do any task, but you cannot hire someone to “be” a sister. It is not that we, consecrated members, are not called to “do anything.
For me, it is that our “doing” flows from a unique and mysterious way of “being” in the world. We are not the only ones who can carry out a ministry. We are not better because of our life of consecration. We are distinguished by that consecration, and while it has parameters and structure, it is not something that fits in a box. It is mystery. The sharing of our “lay” mission partners made this mystery more tangible for me.
Together we sifted and sorted through a lot of information and content to look for the movements of the Spirit. All this ground work! Yet I could see how integral it was in order to prepare for elections – where had we come from in the past six years, and what were we called to. This reality provided a clearer sense of who might be called to guide us to latch onto what God asks of us in our future.
Allowed to be imagined
We said farewell to our Mission Partners formally on Thursday, June 18. Some of them stayed over to accompany us on our Pilgrimage to Caen. Many of us expressed a tremendous sense of loss once they left. Some of us began to wonder whether there was a way in the future that they could participate even more fully in the Chapter Event, yes, even to the point of voting in elections. It may not be canonically possible. And then again, many things become possible once they are allowed to be imagined.
Throughout the Pilgrimage of Caen, a deeper recognition of the reality of reunification popped up here and there. One repeated moment was the greetings I witnessed between our new OLC sisters who were Chapter delegates and the Caen Sisters. Another was the chance to celebrate the first vespers of the 100th birthday of a sister who had prayed her whole religious life for this reunification. She had a deep bond with an RGS who had died, and their pictures were brought forward at offertory, along with photos of joint ventures between OLC’s and RGS’s.
The draft for the Prologue to the Constitutions was read during the Liturgy at the Church of the Gloriette. The exchange between Madeleine Lamy and John Eudes was in fact dramatized.
A few more reports, including the Contemplatives’ presentation, led into the election process. We had sifted and sorted a lot of data, including our emotions. As we entered into this aspect of the Chapter, we said goodbye to other invited guests including the three temporary professed participants.
In the desert
As we entered this space of deep discernment, I jotted many odd notes. One of them is a poem – and I’m not sure if I wrote it or was quoting someone!
I’m in the desert
with people of unfamiliar tribes
and I want to go back
to secure buildings
and regular meals.
No walls here
the sky is my ceiling
and it frightens me,
as if my soul will fly
out of my mouth
without something above to stop it.
Romans 8:24-25 spoke to me: “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
Last train to nowhere
When I entered religious life, my father warned me: “You are getting on the last train to nowhere.” I made some quick, smart comment to him. As many of us have done with our parents, I underestimated him. Now I marvel that in 1976 he could anticipate our diminishment more clearly than I would for so many years.
As I sat in Chapter, I told him: “Just because I can’t see where the train is going doesn’t mean the destination is nowhere. It is going to an unknown land. Maybe it is so far away, I will not live to see the arrival. I trust I will see things I’ve never seen before.” That’s where I was as we entered the discernment process.
In preparing for the election we talked about the role and the tasks and the competencies we needed in the Congregational Leader and her Team. When I look at my notes, once more I’m not sure whether I was writing down the thoughts of others or my own…or for that matter, a quote from the Constitutions!
I read: “She (the Congregational Leader) is the symbol of unity who calls the Congregation to respond to mission.” No matter where it came from, sounds good to me and I believe we did well in electing Ellen Kelly.
As most of us are aware, the events of canonical election are confidential. After the Chapter has concluded we do not talk about what other names were on the slate, how close the votes were, how many rounds of votes were necessary. During those days I sketched what I intuited about the movements of the Spirit. There are no names or faces in those abstract drawings. I can’t pin a moment on most images because they evolved over several hours with shifts and changes. I feel perfectly free to share those images and I will: I am not free to attempt to interpret them.
For my part, when I look at the team we elected, I see a great amount of dynamism, warm energy, and I see for the most part the Southern Hemisphere. This excites me.
If you don’t see strong continuity from the previous team, I would say: the expertise of the previous team can be tapped. Skills not present within this group can be summoned from beyond the group. I believe we have elected a group that can be a catalyst to inspire us to seek and follow the movements of the Holy Spirit for this time in history.
We had loose ends to tie up towards the end of chapter, in particular, the final version of the Prologue to the Constitutions and the Direction Statement. We were able to stay the course. As Madeleine, Maureen Johnson and I prepare for Chapter Echoes, I would say, the Echoes themselves are not supposed to be isolated events. I am one who rebels when work comes from the International Level and I experience it as dropping down into a very concrete, here and now local reality. Yet I could see throughout Chapter that the work of Chapter had risen up from the local realities.
Paschal mystery is alive
This is give and take. We are all in a transformative process, whether we describe it as a “journey” or use other terms. We are all attempting to form life-giving communities as supports to vital ministries that carry out the Good Shepherd’s mission.
We are at varying stages. The entire Congregation is dealing with diminishment, although its effects are variable according to the location. The Paschal Mystery is alive and well in our Congregation. And Jesus is Risen, although many days we wonder: “Who has taken away my Lord?”
You can see the complete set of drawings Sr. Glynis created by reading the August and September issues of the province newsletter Items of Interest.