As a member of Giving Voice invited to be present at LCWR, I thought my role would be to make my voice heard. Giving Voice was among several groups who were requested to be present at the table as LCWR strives to discern how it is called to move into the future and who will move with them. Implicit in the invitation was our job to speak for younger Sisters in religious communities—those whose voices are often not heard by leadership because they can be drowned out by the far more numerous older voices. And while I cannot speak for all younger Sisters, at these meetings in the past few days, I certainly have been called upon to speak my own truth. The unexpected gift of these meetings, however, has been the chance to listen deeply to those in leadership in religious communities and congregations. To listen to, and to honor the multiple, overlapping, sometimes almost cacophonous stories of religious life; to pick out the strands that I feel are central, and to add my voice to the story.
Our time together has been devoted to listening to speakers and to discussing our responses at tables. Unsurprisingly, I was the youngest at my first table; the only one under 60, and, I suspect, only one of two under 70. The very first discussion as I voiced my hope that religious leaders not only worked to help address congregational structures and to journey with aging Sisters, but also that they strove to imagine or to make space for new ways of making Christ present in the world, one of the Sisters observed, “This is why we need younger Sisters present.” While I’m not certain that my voice changed the conversation, my ideas gave pause to the leaders at my table whose perspective is somewhat different than mine.
Opportunities to make the voice of younger sisters heard is not limited to the formal table processes. One of the questions that I have heard most often while I have been here is “how many of you Giving Voice Sisters are here?” I have been quick to point out that six Sisters are present representing Giving Voice as guests, but that I can name at least half a dozen sisters under 50 who are in leadership in their own communities or congregations. Our voices are already present at the table — although it will take some listening on the part of leadership to be able to hear them. Another question that someone asked during a break is how I feel about looking out and seeing all of the grey heads. I noted that this has always been my experience of religious life; that I entered knowing I was one of a small cohort of younger Sisters. I noted that gray hair does not preclude hope for the future and a desire to move religious life into a new vision for that future, regardless of whether those heads will be there for that future. Within my own community, I find the persistent presence of Sister Vivian at nearly 106 and several of the Sisters in their nineties at Chapter meetings to be life-giving for me. Even if they are not always able to participate in the discussion (and sometimes they are!), their care for the future of the community is made evident by their presence and they model what it means to be faithful to the community.
The unexpected aspect of these meetings for me has been the call to listen. Each of the speakers has presented a vision for religious life now and into the future that has moved me and deepened my desire to continue to be a part of what one of them described as the Rip Ride Rocket Roller Coaster of Religious Life. Oftentimes, however, our table discussion has centered around narratives of diminishment and decline, against which I struggle. While I still feel that this narrative needs to be changed, my time here has allowed me to hear the fears and confusion of the Sisters (many of whom are now in leadership) whose vision of religious life was shaped by the times in which they entered: the experience of large numbers of Sisters and flourishing institutions led them to an understanding of religious life that can longer be sustained and the dismantling of those ideas is difficult and painful. Seeing these sisters as they strive to divest themselves of the assumptions they made about religious life has led me to wonder where my own blind spots are. What do I need to question in order to be able to live religious life more authentically into the future?
These meetings have given me a chance to not only make my voice heard, but also to listen deeply to the other voices present in the room. As one of the Sisters at my table observed in our summary discussion “The roller coaster ride is awesome.”