A charism for our times

Over the last year, I've noticed a phrase pop up more and more in conversation with the sisters in my congregation.

"Now, more than ever, our charism is needed in the world," sisters will say as we discuss current events.

"The world needs our charism," others will say as we reflect on a corporate action the congregation is undertaking.

In congregational mailings and in presentations on the mission to everyone from associates and employees to students, the same sentiment prevails: This charism, our charism, has something to offer the world right now.

"We live and work so that all people may be united with God and one another": I believe in this mission; I know this charism in my bones.

At first, I nodded my head in agreement.

Yet as I see pictures of flooding in Texas and read stories about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the threats to peace and unity in our world, I can't help but think the conversation needs to be larger. Perhaps it's not just one charism, but myriad charisms — and ultimately the faith and practice they point to — that are needed right now.

Out of one Love, many ways of loving

Mercy. Peace. Cordial charity. Care for the sick. Healing presence. Prayer. Hospitality. Unity. The list could go on and on. These are the gifts of religious life, a sampling of the charisms of religious congregations being lived out in the world today. No one is better. Each is a gift given to the world, the expressive way in which congregations live out their mission and call in the world.

Each charism has its place. Each charism fulfills a need. And just as each charism is lived out by members of specific religious congregations, each charism embodies the spirit of a religious foundation and utilizes the gifts of that foundation's members toward the same end: the glory of God and living of the Gospel.

In a world that seems in many ways to be in disarray, it's hard to deny the need for such Gospel living. St. Joseph Sr. Mary Pellegrino, past-president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, alluded to as much in her presidential address at this year's LCWR annual assembly as she tapped into Pope Francis' call to communion: "Each of us by virtue of our vocation are to be 'experts in communion,' witnesses of communion in and for a broken world."

As we grow in communion with God, with ourselves, and with one another, we are drawn out into the world to foster and nourish communion. Such communion is founded in each of the charisms vowed religious live out.

The call to religious life, after all, is refracted in these different lived charisms. Charism as a lived expression of call is an embodiment of the gifts we have to share and the grace we desire to discover in the world. It is by our lived action that these gifts take on life. Our living of a specific charism puts flesh on the call of Christ and the vision of our founders.

As long as we continue to live the call in these specific ways, we offer the gift that is charism to the world. And because of the dynamic nature of life, charism, no matter how old historically, is continually made new by the needs it responds to, the current events of a society, and the lived experience of those called to live it out. It is only if or when one of those aspects changes — the need, the society, or the presence of those who respond to the call of a specific charism — that a charism runs its course.

Now more than ever?

As religious life evolves, so does the nature of charism. A charism is only as sustainable as the needs it serves and the response of individuals to the call to live it out. Today, that response and the needs served by a charism are in constant need of reconsideration. While a charism is associated with a specific religious institute, the call to live out that charism, which once might have been considered limited to vowed religious, has expanded to lay associates and beyond.

Such expansion gives new life and expression to a charism; yet such expansion mustn't forego the need for vowed religious commitment in our world. Each new moment requires a new expression and living of our charism. With openness and freedom, we must surrender to the Spirit's creative work in us and our way of life, allowing the development of means to envision (and re-envision) charism for our times.

Perhaps what is needed now more than ever is an open response to the call of the Spirit. That call and response isn't one and done. It is the "yes" of a lifetime: a life well-lived in pursuit of Truth and Love through the expression of our gifted and grace-filled being.

As a male religious friend suggested to me when I remarked about the assertion that our charism was needed now more than ever: "Maybe our charisms have always been needed now more than ever. Perhaps that's part of religious life — there's an inherent need for it."

Religious life bears witness not just to the charism of each order, but to complete and utter dependence on God. Living such a life can be a challenge, but to do so at this time in our history is a gift unto itself. We give the gift of ourselves in union with God in the hope that we might be united with God and with one another.

In his seminal work, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, Jesuit Fr. Dean Brackley writes, "I'm not sure what the best political strategy is for making the world a more liveable place. I do know that the world needs a critical mass of people who will respond to suffering, who are ready for long-term commitment, and who will make wise choices along the way."

To discover your gifts and live them out in the hopes of uniting a world torn apart is not only admirable, it is essential to the Christian life. "Responding to massive injustice according to each one's calling is the price of being human, and Christian, today," Brackley continues. "Those looking for a privatized spirituality to shelter them from a violent world have come to the wrong place."

For those who are conscious of the world both around them and within them, there's no escaping the call to live out one's God-given gifts in the service of God and neighbor. To do so is to live in love. And there's nothing our world needs now more than that.

[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as coordinator of services at the SSJ Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey.]

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