Because they often step into new and unmet areas of need, these women can push the edges of our consciences at times and keep us unsettled before the challenges of faith and charity in our day. Each foundress possessed a certain charism for service which by definition is a fresh gift of the Spirit. Companions are attracted and a congregation is born! As society changes around them, they often experience natural cycles of growth and decline.
Our Catholic sisters responded to the summons of the Second Vatican Council for renewal of life with a generosity and a conviction often far beyond that experienced by their masculine counterparts in the church. In the process of renewal, there have been a few individuals over the years whose sense of vocation may have been problematic, but they are usually dealt with as one might handle any family headache.
The church’s canon law is very careful to respect the inner workings of a religious community and to protect it from inappropriate meddling by bishops or external church authorities in the inner affairs of the community. Nevertheless, religious life belongs to the heart of the church in a profound way.
It is not only the figures from the past whom we lift up for praise and public recognition, however, but contemporary examples as well! We are particularly blessed here in Milwaukee with an abundance of fine communities.
In a recent article in America magazine, Religious Sister of Mercy Doris Gottemoeller, past president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, noted some of the deeper questions regarding religious life today which merit the thoughtful prayer and support of the church for that vocation. She observed that the witness of consecrated religious life belongs to the people served as well as to the professed religious themselves. The truly radical character of the vocation is a pearl of great price.
A visitation, like an institutional audit or an academic accreditation may be healthy and helpful at times, but only when exercised in a spirit of respect, openness and richness of experience. No one is beyond counsel from others with similar experiences and wisdom well garnered from their lives.
Each generation of religious life, like priestly spirituality, undergoes the ebb and flow of external forms and marginal practices. Consequently each generation must be willing to allow its successor to adopt other ways perceived as more congenial or helpful. The rhythm of being progressive, then more traditional, can be a healthy balance over the long haul. People of my vintage need to have the deep sense of poverty and confidence to let our successors find the style of authentic Catholic spiritual life best suited for their needs.
I write this in profound respect and prayerful support from the heart and head for the fine women religious of our archdiocese. For 30 years I have been working with their leadership teams, and I have been blessed greatly by that partnership.