Avanti! This Italian word for “forward!” seems to have been the unofficial theme of the 2015 Assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. To applause, LCWR President, Sharon Holland, IHM urged her fellow sisters “Avanti” several times in her presidential address.
The 2015 Assembly marks the first time the LCWR gathered since the doctrinal assessment came to an end back in April and many were anxious to see what the sisters would have to say about the process. By way of ending her presidential address, quoting Dr. Vanessa White, professor at Catholic Theological Union, Holland reminded the LCWR “What you focus on is what you give power to.” It was a clear signal that the LCWR’s leadership had decided focus its attention on moving forward instead of looking back.
Individual attendees I talked to shared the same interest in looking forward rather than dwelling on the assessment. One sister I sat with on the plane to Houston told me “it’s over. That’s what matters” when I asked her about the assessment. Another gently refocused me – as only a sister can – saying, “how we move forward is the more important question.”
Of course, for the sisters, moving forward doesn’t mean ignoring the past or pretending that the assessment never happened. As Holland said, “In considering what to say this morning about moving forward, I did look back briefly.” There were attempts to place it in context, to learn from it, and to identify the graces that brought the sisters through it.
Holland attempted to answer the question “why?” by framing the assessment in the context of a larger “cultural chasm,” saying, “we were somehow looking at the same realities, but were standing in different places. We didn’t realize that we were experiencing the incomprehension of two groups who did not know each other’s deeper assumptions. We risked slipping into talking about each other, without really talking more deeply with each other.” Looking hopefully at the results of the meetings, she wonders “perhaps all left the room thinking that this time they had been understood.”
Keynote presenter, Janet Mock, CSJ, looked for the graces that guided the sisters through the assessment and opportunities to use that grace moving forward. She reflected, “If I have taken away anything from the past three years, it is a greater desire to enter wholeheartedly into both the activity of God when I am called to companion that movement and to wait poised for the action of God when it is beyond my capacity to act.” She recalled that “there were moments when we were rendered silent…it was those moments that God’s activity became most evident.” One such example of God’s activity through the process, according to Mock, was the election of Pope Francis. Mock insisted that “knowing when God is calling you to activity and when God is calling you to passivity is a critical discernment for our times,” urging her colleagues to “let go of the desire to do everything we want to do by ourselves.”
It’s worth noting that both of these treatments of the mandate and assessment were offered at the service of moving forward. For Holland, continuing to close the “cultural chasm” between the LCWR and the Vatican is one direction forward, saying, “a profound issue and goal was and is ecclesial communion.” She pointed out two symbols that ought to give us hope that closing the cultural divide is attainable. First is the joint report of the assessment itself, which she described as being “truly a joint report written and worked through by the same people who had engaged in the dialogue.” The second symbol was the photo of the leadership of LCWR with Pope Francis which she said was “immediately recognized as a long-awaited public symbol of the communion our sisters feel and desire with and within the Church.”
The progress towards greater communion between the LCWR and the Vatican is well underway under Pope Francis. The sisters generally, and Holland specifically, praised Evangelii gaudium, the Year of Consecrated Life, the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, and Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si. Of course the themes of Evangelii gaudium and Laudato Si are not new to the sisters. They’ve been working on these issues since they undertook the work of renewal following Vatican II. But this sort of official recognition of the importance of these themes by this Pope must bring a sense of validation of the last fifty or so years of work the sisters have been doing.
For Mock, the ability to discern times of activity and times of passivity will be vital to religious life in the future. “It is not a time for super stars, even among congregations,” she said. Pointing out that there are approximately 1,200 women in the United states in initial formation in religious congregations, she called upon the leadership to address the educational, spiritual, psychological and personal needs of these women “across congregations together” rather than trying to go it alone. Addressing the needs of the world –immigration, ecological advocacy, human and trafficking to name a few – is another area where the congregations could work together according to Mock. Of course, this will mean congregations each need to embrace a time of activity and a time of passivity.
For Mock, working together, at times taking an active role and at times taking a passive role doesn’t mean squelching the of any individual congregation because each will always bring their charisms and their wisdom to the table: “Instead of threatening our individual charisms, we find working together enhances them – because these charisms illuminate a way of approaching ministry that together makes our service so much richer.”
There well may be as many ways of making sense of the assessment and mandate as there are members of the LCWR. But from what I can tell, there is only one direction: Avanti! Forward!
By way of conclusion, I’d like to offer prayer in solidarity with the LCWR — the same prayer that Janet Mock opened the assembly with:
“And so, God of deep waters, we come as we are. Wash over us with your grace. Refresh us with your Spirit. Lead us into new depths that we may emerge from these days as if baptized anew, strengthened and renewed for your mission. May we be what you want us to be in our time. And may what we are about here be healing for our world. To this we say AMEN.”