Q & A with Mother Mary McGreevy, chairperson of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious
In October, Mother Mary McGreevy, major superior of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, was elected chairperson of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. It's the second time the 75-year-old McGreevy has served as CMSWR chair: She also served from 2001 to 2005 and most recently served as assistant chair from 2016 to 2017.
McGreevy, who was also recently re-elected to a second six-year term as major superior of her community, said she never thought of herself as a leader. Yet she considers leadership to be a privilege — one she's accepted only because she's been asked to.
"It's another way of service," she said. "It's another way of coming into relationship with the sisters, coming to know them, coming to be able to be in a position to assist them, to open doors for them. So it's good."
In March, Global Sisters Report talked to McGreevy about her life, her leadership style and the future of CMSWR.
GSR: What was your childhood like?
McGreevy: I was born in Detroit in 1943, and I have a younger brother; there's just two of us in the family. I had a traditional Catholic education, so that, I think, had a strong influence on me from an early age in terms of wanting to be a sister.
We lived very close to our parish [St. Monica's, which closed in 1989], and the parish was very active. A lot of family involvement there. So the parish and the church were very much a part of our lives, and the families we grew up with in our neighborhood, many of them went to the same parish. The parish was within walking distance. And so there was a camaraderie in the neighborhood and a lot of young kids growing up together.
When did you first discern that vowed religious life might be for you?
Early on, I would say — probably fourth, fifth grade. It just was very attractive to me. But then, of course, in high school, I dated. But my senior year, it just came back strongly. So then I was certain that that was going to the path I chose.
You were educated by the Sisters of Mercy and then, obviously, became a Sister of Mercy. Did you ever consider another community?
Curiously, yes, I did. When I was growing up, my grandparents used to receive this magazine from the Maryknoll community, and I used to read that avidly. I was very interested in that. I liked their habits, the work that they did — I liked everything about them. I wrote to them, but they had a requirement that you wait one year after graduation from high school before you could enter. And I knew with certitude that if I didn't enter directly after high school, I probably wouldn't enter. So I went to the Sisters of Mercy.
Why did you think you wouldn't enter if you had to wait a year?
Well, because I just felt I had made the decision and set my face in that direction. I was 18 years old. It would have been a year of college, and I just thought, "No, I'm going to do this now."
What was your first ministry?
I'm a nurse. The primary works at that time were nursing and education. When we made the application to enter the community, we could request, and it was funny because I wanted nursing, but my strong suit was literature and history. And I knew that.
I got a call saying, "Would you consider education?" And because I wanted to enter, I said, "Yes, of course. But I would still really like to be a nurse." Then, when we got there as postulants, we were gathered and told — and sure enough, I was told nursing, which I was very happy about.
Why did you want to be a nurse if you were better at the humanities?
It's something I was always interested in. There were no medical people in my family, but it always just held an interest for me. I worked as a candy striper before I entered at Mount Carmel, and I just liked the contact with the patients.
Did you like being a nurse as much as you thought you would?
I loved being a nurse. But for me, being a religious sister is the most significant thing in my life. And that's really never changed. I see the gift of my life as just something that is pure gift. I loved nursing because of the patient contact and the opportunities it gave me to really care for people and to really draw close to them in times of great happiness but also in times of suffering and times of sorrow — and to be there as the church, be there as the Lord with them. Those encounters, many of them, I'll never forget my whole life. They were just really exceptional experiences.
And then, also, moving into being the superior, that also has its own beautiful aspects, privileged aspects. But I think underlying it all is being a religious and knowing that these are all aspects of expressing my religious vocation that I'm invited to.
When you entered, the Second Vatican Council was happening and a lot was changing in religious life. What was that like for you?
The beauty of it is, there's a certitude — at least for me — that this was the life I was being called to. And I identified in myself certain aspects of the life that I thought were essential. So when the shifting began to happen, what I did was just look for like-minded people. Those of us who were coming up together, we were very close.
And then, for me, I just became more solidly committed to that traditional direction that we had really been formed in: identifying what is essential from what is accidental and can change. Many, many things not only can change, but need to change. Religious life is a living reality, coming through many, many aspects of time in the church. So this was our time, and this is what we were presented with. For me, it was an invitation to really look at our commitment and want to secure it.
Who were the like-minded people who helped you?
I would say my classmates. We were very much a part of all of the explorations of ways of religious life that were going on. We were always invited to speak, always invited to share what it was that we saw, what our concerns were. And so it helped us to just hone our thinking in that regard.
Were you still serving as a nurse when all of this was going on, or had you started transitioning into leadership?
Actually, sadly, my career as a nurse was short-lived. [She laughs.] I was a nurse in Mason City [in Iowa] and then, in 1970, I came to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was a nurse there for a brief period of time — probably two years — working in the operating room. And then I was transitioned into working in formation in our community, and I really never returned to nursing.
What have been the greatest influences on you as a leader? Or, I guess, what has made you the leader you are today?
A great deal of spiritual reading. Very fine retreat masters, confessors, who know religious life and are true inspirations. Plus, our own sisters, as we've grown up together, formulating a formation program. Doing that kind of work together.
I would say what I see as of paramount importance in formation — and then as one in authority — is that the sisters from day one of being postulants or pre-postulants truly understand the life. We do our very best to clearly put before their eyes what our life entails so that they can freely, truly — with an interior freedom, which should grow through the period of formation — make a choice whether or not this is the life for them. And I think if we equip them that way, then they understand, and they can make a clear choice to commit oneself to living a vowed life.
Is there a particular verse of Scripture that has been meaningful to you as a leader?
We have a custom in our institute: We choose what we call a ring motto. We wear a plain silver band on our left hand and a jeweler puts it in so it's actually written there. The motto I chose is from Psalm 116, and it's just a part of the psalm: "What shall I render?" And then the fullness is, "What shall I render unto the Lord in essence for all that he has given to me?" And then, "I will take the cup of salvation."
It's a common psalm. So that, I would say, lingers always in my mind: What to render to the Lord for the good that he's rendered to me? So I would say that is one that has remained with me all these years.
What challenges are you dealing right now as a leader?
That each sister enter into a true dialogue with myself or, if they're in basic formation, with their formators. And I know the word "dialogue" has been bandied around so much, but what we mean by that is that every sister who meets with me — we're peers together in religious life and can establish as honest a communication between us as possible. Because, to that extent, I am able — in my role, for this period of time — to open doors for them or to assist in situations that perhaps are not bearing the fruit we had hoped the situation would bear. It's the human, in-and-out dimensions of family life because we are a religious family.
How did you first get involved with CMSWR?
I was involved in the early '90s. It was just emerging at that time — we were just canonically established in 1992. So, it was in those days leading up to the establishment of the council.
I found it very helpful. I met some wonderful religious: women of other communities, major superiors. It was enriching to know the communities, to know what they were doing, how they were serving the church all across the United States, and that's really how it came together. I suppose, in a way, it paralleled how we came together as young sisters looking at what we valued in religious life and what we wanted to see endure in religious life. Now, we came together as major superiors.
CMSWR has no authority in terms of one another's communities. That isn't our area. Ours is an association of major superiors who, hopefully, can strengthen one another, share ideas and learn together. Learn about religious life, learn theology, philosophy, learn about the world, learn about various aspects of apostolic service that each of the communities have.
As board chair, what is your vision for CMSWR?
I don't know. I can't universalize. But I think a concern of every chair — or every superior general, for that matter — is that we have as full and rich a participation as we possibly can from the membership. And so, just striving to find ways that enrich communication among us as major superiors and finding programs that enhance that. Finding ways to fulfill our reason to be, which is to provide, if you will, a forum in which major superiors can come together and really enrich one another's lives by living our life together in prayer and sharing what's going on in each of our institutes. And always looking at what we're communicating and how we're communicating to ensure that we're giving a clear witness, a message about religious life as we live it in our communities and as we value it.
Where do you see the Holy Spirit moving in CMSWR?
I have a very dear friend who once answered that question by saying, "You have to ask the Holy Spirit." But I won't steal her line.
We pray. We never presume that anything that we decide is the Holy Spirit or has the stamp of the Holy Spirit on it. But we are sincere, and we pray that we adequately and appropriately celebrate religious life in our times and communicate the message of its value, its beauty to those who show an interest.
We just are being sincere in our efforts to celebrate our life and to really always give due credit to the Lord and due credit to the church. You know, the church is the ambience within which we move and also is the body that authenticates us. So we always want to be certain, or as certain as we can possibly be at any given moment, that we're doing that well.
What life lessons have you learned that you'd want to share with the wider sisterhood?
One thing, definitely, is to pray to be a good listener. And never to jump in too quickly, thinking, "I understand what's being said" or to anticipate that you understand what's being said, but to truly, truly listen. I think that's a gift that we really have to pray for the grace to do.
Check out Horizons, featuring reflections from younger sisters.