Leslie Keener on Mission and Ministry

We are women of the cross. 

We are women who so identify with the marginalized and suffering of the world that we constantly and consistently stand at the foot of the cross of Jesus, gazing up at him and alleviating his suffering in the people of God — in any way that we can. 

And we are women of the resurrection. 

We are in the garden being named and sent by Jesus to go and tell the world the good news. We so identify with hope and joy and God’s presence in our lives and world and people that we rush out to the corners of the earth to share that joy with everyone. 

No matter what our social context, we are women of the cross and women of rising. This is our mission. In whatever form that takes, whatever our articulated or lived charism, whatever is at the bottom of our congregational stationary or at the top of our websites, our mission is to stand by the suffering Christ and to spread the good news. As Sister Yolanda put it: to respond to the most urgent needs of the world. 

I’m sure that Jesus never used the “buzz words” that Sister Yolanda mentioned, but he, of course was legit! He shared his mission with a small rag-tag group of followers, and with them began his ministry. This band of people were, in many ways, fairly inept and not even that passionate about the mission. If we pause to look at how his followers embraced the mission, it’s a wonder that anything even happened at all. Just when they seemed to get it, they would break out into an argument about who got to sit next to Jesus in heaven, or just when it seemed they were moving forward, one of them would doubt that Jesus would suffer and die, when he himself repeatedly asserted that that’s the way things would surely happen. The disciples’ engagement with the mission was definitely one step forward and two steps back, as was the ministry that sprung out of this mission. And then during the crucifixion, everyone scattered, except for a handful of stalwart women. Even after the resurrection, most everyone was in hiding in the upper room. It seemed that the mission was lost and there weren’t nearly enough people to do any kind of effective ministry. 

And look what God was able to do with that! 

Sister Yolanda has emphasized the importance of the mission over how many we have to live out this mission. When we look to the mission of Jesus and the few people that he called for this, well, we can rest assured that she’s right – it’s not about us. We need to shift our attention from ourselves and look to Christ – to the crucified and risen Christ – and focus on the people that our mission serves. And we need to focus on the God who calls us to mission. 

After that, well, in many ways does it matter what forms our ministries take? Does it matter if our ministry is teaching or preaching, healing or mentoring, prayer or practical hands-on help? And does it matter how many people are in our congregations to carry it out? 

The Holy Spirit is just so creative! (And that might be the understatement of the night!) The spirit calls us to serve and presents opportunities and helps us to figure out a way when there seems to be no way. We do not serve alone; the Spirit guides even as she calls. 

Sister Yolanda spoke of the new ways we’re able to minister – not through large numbers of our sisters running our institutions, but of others joining us in mission to help to carry out our ministries. 

How creative is the Spirit in that?! Years ago who would have ever thought that this is where we’d be headed, that others not canonically a part us would embrace our missions and ministries with such zeal and enthusiasm – bringing that energy to the people of God and, really, to us as well? 

My community is probably much smaller than Sister Yolanda’s, but we have been in that state of transition as well, watching to see what the spirit will do with and for us. This past year we sold our provincial house. Four years ago, when we first began the conversation about selling it, my sisters could hardly even talk about it. It was unthinkable and so deeply painful. We’ve spent these years talking together about what our call is, what our founder expected from us, and what the charism of Abandonment to God’s Providence means for us. We have found, together in our prayer and conversations, that we are more, much more, than our buildings and institutions. We have come to see that letting go of our building is very freeing, and that without that cumbersome institution, we are really , not a structure – we our mission and we are much more free to live into that mission than we were burdened with holding on when we were being called to let go. 

A week ago we had our community assembly, and for the first time it was not in our provincial house but in our much simpler, smaller space. And no one even batted and eye. Something that we couldn’t even talk about four years ago doesn’t faze us at all now. We all arrived and sisters said things like, “Look how nice it looks in here,” and “Isn’t it great that we can all be together in this space?” And “The view from here is just beautiful.” Four years ago I would never have seen this coming. 

As younger members, I would guess we’re all in touch with the fact that religious life as we know it is changing rapidly and that something else is coming. We have all entered religious life and persevered knowing that (some of us crazier sisters may have entered of that challenge of the unknown!). We may be daunted at times, and we certainly grieve the losses. We may be afraid to walk into the unknown future. But we will. We are on a mission. We are on a mission to stand by the cross of suffering and to be sent from the garden of joy. 

The thing that strikes me, too, is that we’re not walking into the unknown alone, and we younger members don’t have the corner on call. Our sisters are with us, even the ones who insist that things won’t change, or that they can’t change, are very capable of adapting as well. Sister Yolanda mentioned the second Vatican Council – just look how well our sisters adapted and grew into that! Our older sisters go with the ebb and flow of the spirit – they’ve been doing it their whole lives. As I’ve come to see in my sisters’ response to the selling of the provincial house, once you get used to following a call, you’re still able to do so, even when the call is challenging. 

All of us are women of the cross and of the rising, and we are used to being called. We may grumble like the disciples and argue about who gets to sit next to Jesus or deny, at first, suffering and death. We may not recognize Jesus in the garden until he names us. But we are used to being called and sent, and so we do respond generously and with zeal, because we know who calls us. We know who sends us. We know who comes with us. And by now we can trust that the Spirit will find creative ways for us to live our mission and do our ministry. 

We are women of the cross. 

We are standing by the suffering of the world and spending our time and energy, resources and passion, alleviating that suffering. 

And we are women of the rising. 

We are still in the garden being named and called and sent to share the good news with the world.