UISG, LCWR leaders discuss ministry to young people, interculturality and the future

Loreto Sr. Pat Murray, , executive secretary of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG); Incarnate Word Sr. Teresa Maya, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR); and Holy Cross Sr. Joan-Marie Steadman, executive director of LCWR. (Provided photos)

Editor's note: Global Sisters Report recently held a discussion with Loreto Sr. Pat Murray, , executive secretary of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG); Incarnate Word Sr. Teresa Maya, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR); and Holy Cross Sr. Joan-Marie Steadman, executive director of LCWR, on topics related to the global sisterhood and the outlook for 2018 and beyond. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

GSR: How has what we call the tenor of the times and the swing to the right politically that's occurred in so many countries affected your work and the sister congregations in ministries such as migration, serving the poor, etc.? Is it better to work around the governments of these countries, or is it better to take a more critical or idealistic stance about the issues that concern sisters?

Murray: We've been participating at the institutional level with the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and its subsection on refugees and migrants. We've also been doing an amount of education of our sisters and of the general public in conjunction with other organizations like the World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations, Jesuit Refugee Services, and other organizations.

We've been participating in a broad coalition. For example, recently here in Rome, there was a meeting aimed particularly at educating students in the Catholic universities here about the issue of human trafficking. That involved speakers from the U.N., speakers from universities looking at the geopolitical context in which this is happening, looking at the question of human trafficking from the psychological perspective, and looking at the complexity of it.

Just to give you one example: Somebody from Eritrea spoke quite angrily about the fact that Europe was doing so little about stopping the traffic routes. Then the person spoke from the United Nations perspective and said it's not as simple as that. She gave the example that in Nigeria, there's absolutely no official process for changing your name. For example, you could have a name and a telephone today and you could be identified, as the international police are doing: They know that Peter So-and-so is a trafficker based in such-and-such a town using such-and-such a phone. But by the time you arrive tomorrow, Peter So-and-so is no longer Peter So-and-so. He has changed his name, and he has changed his phone.

Some of these problems are so international, I'm not sure they have a label of "right" or "left" in terms of dealing with governments. At the institutional level, I think it's of concern. Obviously, there's a more populous reaction in some parts of the world, particularly here in Europe. The church at an institutional level is by and large trying to raise awareness to engage the Catholic population from the perspective of the church's social teaching and also from the teachings and the encouragement of Pope Francis and his call to the peripheries.

Maya: What is very dangerous is not the swing to the right, but the polarization, the inability to have a conversation, so what LCWR has focused on is civil discourse.

We think that's critical because of who we are, because of our ministries, and because of the communities we serve. We have to work in whatever environment is there. One of the things I've been learning — not just in the United States, but as I hear stories around the world — is that it's making all of our congregations and our conferences more aware that there is something for us to do at this time.

It ranges from having our elderly sisters engaged in active prayer or letter-writing and advocacy. It involves getting our sponsored ministries to engage with some of the political activist environment that is required. But in every case, there is space for us to talk about civil discourse. Whatever the politics we're dealing with, the critical thing is that we live our Gospel values.

Steadman: In relationship to migration and immigration, the reality in this country is one that we really are able to speak publicly and to try to call our country to live those principles of Catholic social teaching. We are in a situation where we're able to participate with the bishops' conference, with other interfaith groups to be present in Washington, to be involved in conversations with legislators that we hope would lead to the kind of systemic change that would create a country of welcome.

That's not true in many, many countries, and we're very aware of that. The situation is different depending on one's locale. We have been particularly engaged around the Dreamers, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and also Temporary Protected Status. Those are both up in the air right now, so we have tried to use our voice in concert with others to ask that the immigration policies in this country be humane and respect the dignity of people. But again, the opportunity to be so public about it is not an option in a number of places.

Maya: We were observers at the Nov. 13-15 bishops' conference meeting, and we were delighted to hear the bishops speak on the issue of immigration and talk with us about the Share the Journey campaign that the pope has started. In many ways, we're engaged at different levels because we do see ourselves as a church of immigrants in the United States.

Some regions of the country are more active than others, but in general, we are also engaging congregations to be active locally because we believe local work is just as critical as conference work. We send packets to members of the conference so they can also do their public statements, engage their local governments, and also work with other agencies locally. There's many things we've done around this, but we do think it's critical to who we are.

Murray: Throughout Italy and indeed in many other parts of Europe, religious congregations have opened their doors increasingly to migrants, to families, to individuals offering support in many, many different ways working with local organizations. In addition, here at UISG, we have set up an international desk for migration. The object is to identify sisters who are working directly with migrants in the different countries, and we're beginning with Europe.

We have canvassed all the conferences of religious in Europe to see where religious are active. We're also promoting, if possible, taking the example of what's happening in Sicily to see if we can promote other intercongregational initiatives at frontiers or borderlands. There are several in France and in the south of Spain, and in the United States, there are some very impressive initiatives along the border with Mexico.

Maybe that's another way religious orders can support each other. They may not have sisters on the front line, but they can offer their houses, their retreat houses or other resources to support those who are.

A very interesting analysis was presented at a recent conference that said during the Cold War, there was freedom of movement within the different blocs. But since the Cold War, it's open season in terms of movement. It really struck me because I remembered an experience I had: I was part of a delegation that went to Bulgaria shortly after the fall of communism. We were educators, and we were meeting with Bulgarian educators who had lectured in Marxism and this philosophy and now were being asked to teach democratic values.

I remember a young man saying to me, "In the past, we couldn't get out." And he said, "Now we can get out, but we can't get in to other countries." There's a necessity to explain what's happening at the geopolitical level to all of us across the world. I think such kinds of analysis would be very helpful for just ordinary popular education.

Maya: For the United States, one of the concerns we've had as a conference and as individual congregations is the growing fears of the families, including the DACA students, the children that were born in the U.S. that are afraid their parents will be deported. Working with the whole family is something the pope is calling us to do, and many of our bishops are actively doing in the United States. It's critical.

I'm reminded of "Coco," the movie that just opened. I see that the lead actor was interviewed on public radio. He said he dedicated this film to all children in the United States that are living in fear. It's a big part of their family and who they are. So there are other issues that are starting to unfold around this whole situation.

We have hybrid families, families that have some documented, some undocumented, and that creates a lot of tension. How we as congregations and even as church are serving the whole family and what that looks like is critical.

GSR: How much input have you had on the update of Mutuae Relationes [which outlines the relationships between bishops and religious], and do you have any idea when this might come out? Are you working with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life [CICLSAL], and where in the process might we be?

Steadman: We received a letter of invitation from CICLSAL, and our members were given the opportunity to participate in reflecting on questions that would help shape the document. Our members sent in their reflections in the summer of 2016. Those were put together and then sent on to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life. We were directly asked to participate, and we're grateful for the opportunity.

Maya: We had a gathering with the bishops' committee on religious life [Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations], which Cardinal Joseph Tobin chairs. All three conferences of religious are represented as well as vicars and secular institutes. We had a short conversation about the document at the November meeting.

It was a great conversation with Cardinal Tobin. Mostly what we talked about is when this document is finally released, we need to be proactive in terms of having conversations and study sessions so we can really embrace what's in it and take the opportunity for bridging some conversations with our bishops. We're also talking about reception and distribution of it when it's finally published.

Murray: We helped the congregation for religious to disseminate the letter. Not only did it go to the conferences of religious worldwide, but it was also sent to individual superiors general through the UISG mailing list. We also as a board participated in at least two sessions of the congregation for religious on discussions in relation to the future document.

They were very honest in terms of saying while it's greatly appreciated to have a theological vision that underpins the relationship, it was equally important to deal with the critical areas that need to be addressed in terms of the practical relationships on the ground.

When the responses were sent from all over the world, members of UISG helped in the collation. You had to refine the themes and the general areas of concern.

After a recent meeting of the congregation for religious, we asked when we might expect a draft of this document. My sense was that that draft would hopefully be quite soon. They didn't have a date, and they didn't know. They said it's moving along.

Sisters at the delegates' meeting of the International Union of Superiors General in Manila, Philippines, in 2017. (GSR photo / Gail DeGeorge)

GSR: Can you share the highlights that congregations had in compiling these documents? What do the sisters or sister leadership want to see out of this document?

Maya: When we talked to Cardinal Tobin, he shared with us that he felt the document was going to be critical to the conversation about cooperation and collaboration. The key word that we're all talking about is "coessentiality"; to understand that religious life is a critical component to what the essence of what the church is. It's distinct from clerical and lay and every other form of commitment and involvement. It's a question of identity in the church, so if the document works in the way that Cardinal Tobin and other people are expecting it to, it will make for great conversations at every level of the church.

There will be things in the document that are critical and probably some that are legal. What's important is that we have a conversation around the document. How we use it so that we build a sense of unity in the diversity of the church will be just as critical as whatever it says.

Murray: For many religious women in different parts of the world, the highlight was that their voice could be heard, that they could express their thoughts honestly and sincerely.

It would be the conversations and the relationship-building that is important. We can be honest with each other in saying the difficulties because the difficulties don't all come from one side. There's an honesty we have from both sides in terms of how we build relationships of coessentiality. Relationships also have to be related in a structure that can be set up so that if there are difficulties, there are many instances whereby difficulties can be faced together in respectful, sincere ways.

Steadman: A clear theme would be the desire for deepening conversations and to continue to build relationships that are mutual, a desire that together, we can continue to work so that our church reflects the joy of the Gospel that we all have committed ourselves to. People's experiences are very different depending on geography and dioceses, but the desire is there to be able to engage in dialogue and discernment together so we can reflect together as a church the joy of the Gospel.

GSR: Are there key areas either geographic or thematic that Global Sisters Report should consider for coverage in 2018? What stories are we not writing that we should be?

Maya: Do a little more perhaps on where the interest of young people, younger religious movements intersect as we're looking toward the synod on the youth. That is critical. There are a lot of places where younger religious are involved, so if you could do something like that as we kind of move into that moment for the synod, I think it would be critical.

The other piece is we're all talking about interculturality. We know we're called to it increasingly.

Murray: I see globally a shift from institution ministry to what I call a ministry of encounter or a ministry of presence. In many parts of the world, it's less about doing and more about the quality of who we are that is really being recognized and appreciated. It's not that doing isn't needed; it's the quality of presence is needed more and more needed.

I'm concerned about many parts of the world, but particularly when I see the kind of despair that seems to hit many young people today. In parts of the world, there's a big increase in the numbers of youth suicides.

I'm thinking of some specific initiatives that would be good to highlight. For example, we're working with the U.K. embassy and the Holy See in offering workshops to train sisters, priests, and brothers to accompany victims of sexual violence in conflict zones.

There are a whole lot of new skills that are needed for the new kinds of frontiers that we're meeting. Most of us learned skills that fit institutional life, and now there's increased movement out of the structures. There's a whole new learning to be done.

Steadman: In countries where institutional ministries are key to developing and giving people the skills they need to be empowered to assume their place in helping shape their futures, the sisters are bringing a different kind of presence.

Often, those institutions are places where people really want to participate because they see a different kind of presence in sisters than they might see in others, so that ministry of presence is really critical in all of our places of service, and there's an awareness of the way we serve in our institution that also reflects that kind of commitment.

GSR: There's been a lot of interest and emphasis on multiculturalism and interculturality. What has been learned and how are UISG and LCWR helping congregations adapt that model?

Murray: We've all realized that putting people together in a multicultural context doesn't make them intercultural. You actually have to learn the language. You have to be prepared to enter into the skin of the other person and walk around. You have to understand that culturally, we operate in very different ways and that our communication tools are quite different.

It's something that has to become part of formation programs at every stage. We at UISG are signaling at our delegates meeting that multiculturalism and interculturality are going to be a concentration for the future.

My own study at CTU was in the area of multiculturalism and interculturality, so it's a particular commitment and concern of mine. We hope to begin offering, just as the Center for the Study of Consecrated Life has done at CTU, training programs for teams from congregations to create a multiplier effect: Teams from congregations or teams from countries then would then return and train others.

One of the focuses of the early sessions will be on the area of multiculturalism, but it will be an online training because we feel more and more that if we're to reach parts of the world that now need to be reached, we need to do something in a new way. It can't just be gathering people in workshops. We do a lot of accompaniment of congregations in terms of learning and about living multiculturally and ministering multiculturally. So this will be a major piece of the future.

Maya: LCWR is a leader-member organization. We partner with other organizations like the Religious Formation Conference and the National Religious Formation Conference that are also addressing the issues. In many different ways, for example, the formation programs are going to be in the collaborative to RFC. The NRVC — I've been looking at this for quite a while because the incoming vocations are much more diverse than they were ever before. Leadership teams are increasingly more diverse.

Steadman: My perspective is very much shaped by my membership in an international congregation, which is also looking at itself as becoming intercultural because it's a journey that never ends. But there's a real need to develop skills for intercultural living, intercultural ministry. It's not just goodwill. It takes effort, energy, and the development of skills.

It has to be a mutual journey, and that's very challenging. The dominant culture has to be able to step back and be able to learn from another culture. Each culture has its own prejudices and stereotypes, so again, developing the skills so those kinds of dialogues can happen and discernment about who we want to be and how we can be together. I think there's great hope.

That's a prophetic call of women religious in this current world situation. Maybe that's the edge where we can witness to something so desperately needed in the global community that we're living in that people can live together, work together, be together, learn to love one another from a variety of cultures with the richness that each brings, and together be a witness that that's possible.

Murray: I remember my experience in South Sudan and with congregational intercultural project there. I remember the amazement of the South Sudanese, who would ask us regularly, "How can you from so many different tribes live together?" This is a prophetic sign for the future. It goes far beyond what we ourselves see. We know it's something new. But I think its impact is quite extraordinary on the lives of the people among whom we live and work.

I see us as women religious taking the leadership role in this whole area. It's something that our church needs in so many ways, our world needs, but particularly our religious life of the future needs because in many parts of the world, even within one country, there are so many cultures. Sisters and brothers and priests from those countries really do need to learn to live together, to love one another, and to show the unity in our diversity.

Maya: We also need reconciliation with our own past. LCWR worked last year with Shannen Dee Williams, and we're working on the whole issue of racism. We cannot also go forward without looking at the way we, for example, held an assimilation model for any religious of any part, whether they were from a different part of the country, a different language.

There's an unlearning required for all of us so we can welcome this greater diversity in a healthy way. There is inner work and intentional work that needs to be done to reconcile. Also to look at our own history: how we did it and how that is not how we need to do it into the future. It's work that will be prophetic if we can do it because it will help our communities and will model for our communities if there is a way we do this that is Gospel-based.

GSR, to Maya: Now that you have a few months of the presidency under your belt, can you tell us what the presidential team hopes to accomplish this year and if those goals have changed since August?

Maya: Our goals in August were primarily focused on two things. The first is to create a new governance for our conference, a smaller board that can really be focused on visioning and what's on the horizon so we can move faster in many ways. The second part of the goal is focusing on our members. We will be talking to members about what they need today. We come to realize that in leadership — like the intercultural challenges, incoming younger or newer members that are more diverse, reconfigurations, a lot of mergers — there are a lot of needs in members that are different from a few years ago. So we will be engaging in that conversation so the conference can be geared to that.

However, as you know, the political climate we live in, the situation around the world, all the global things that are going on, even natural disasters that are happening, always change and make us adapt and require us to be in many ways just aware and engaged with whatever is happening. I've been very pleased to see, for example, with Harvey and the hurricane in Florida, even the earthquake and the fires, how different congregations and members and regions engaged actively with one another to help.

The conference is a great vehicle for networking for the good of the whole, not just whatever is on the national agenda. Those are our two focuses, but of course, we do a lot of advocacy. All of those things require that we find our voice as religious in the United States and that we also are careful that we do not represent all the voices, but that we encourage all the voices to speak out.

Sisters line up to greet Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word Teresa Maya, left, after she was announced as LCWR's new president-elect Aug. 12, 2016, at LCWR's 2016 assembly in Atlanta. (GSR photo / Dawn Araujo-Hawkins)

GSR: What can "global north" congregations and organizations, including LCWR, do to further support congregations in the "global south"?

Steadman: We have a number of relationships that bring us together and give us a chance to engage in dialogue and reflection with conferences in Canada and Latin America. Teresa spoke electronically with ACWECA at their last assembly, so she was able to do a presentation, and then I engaged in a brief conversation with them after that. We've been able to translate some of our articles into French, Portuguese and Spanish. What's critical here for me is the relationship is mutual. We're all learning from one another. We do not dominate in this. We have as much to learn as anybody else.

We need to receive, also. As we continue to engage in these conversations and dialogues together, what does this mutual engagement lead us to in terms of how we together support one another in living this charism of religious life?

Maya: The other piece is that the "global south" is coming to our "global north," both in terms of the issues with migration and in our own congregation. As leaders also immersed from the "global south" in our congregations, a greater interrelationship is being created. In the case of LCWR, many conferences around the world sometimes come and ask to be present at our assembly and to learn from what we've been doing.

In any way that we can, we have been open to that. The U.S. constellation of USIG invited the constellation from Africa to come to the LCWR conference in August. It was the first time. It was a beautiful experience. They shared some of their challenges and also got to hear some of where we are and the issues we face. We are growing into a lot more connections and interrelationships.

Sometimes we feel in the United States that we're done with some missions or that we've overcome some of them, yet we find that some of the congregations and conferences in the "global south" are facing challenges we thought didn't exist anymore. So how we can share our experience so they can use some of those learnings for themselves because those are valuable.

There's a lot going on, and a lot more can happen at a very local level. The other piece is there are more relationships that are happening. You go to a place like CTU — all those young religious from all over the world that are getting to know each other and meeting together in critical conversations are going to change religious life in the next few years. That wasn't true before. Those experiences, just those simple experiences are making a difference.

GSR: The past few years, we've been hearing about declining numbers of sisters and that it was crisis of numbers. Lately, what we're hearing instead is it's a crisis of leadership: The leadership pool is simply drying up because of age and health. Is LCWR working on that? How are you addressing the leadership question?

Steadman: There's a lot of dialogue and discernment going on about how to move through that kind of situation. There are different options canonically. We want congregations to be able to be open to be able to share their situation. Congregations are looking together at how they're moving through these realities. For some groups, the issue may be it's not so much on the congregation leaders, but how to manage all the services needed to support a congregation.

There are groups collaborating and exploring ways to do that together. But the reality of congregations perhaps not having a depth of leadership teams available for the future is something people are looking at and saying, "How can we move through this? What might this look like for us?" Some congregations have formed covenants. There are some congregations now where they're called pontifical commissaries.

Those are all ways of enabling the members of the congregation to still be engaged in the life of the congregation. That's the critical piece for me, that these structures, opportunities — whatever you want to call them as they emerge — are trying to be attentive that the members continue to be engaged in the life of the congregation as it unfolds and for as long as it's there as a particular charism in the church. There are some uncharted waters here.

Maya: The American obsession with numbers has been fascinating. It's like, "How many sisters do you have? How many nuns? How many houses? How many hospitals? How many cars?" It's not about numbers. We're learning in this process that we are enough for the Gospel. It's calling us back to the essential elements, which is: Big is not better than small, and a lot is not better than a few. It's just what God needs. We are enough.

This moment will become opportunity. It's an opportunity where I find hope. First of all, it's making us cooperate no matter what. Intercongregational has become key to this future. We're also modeling for the world how we honor, how we respect, and how we find value in our elders.

We're also modeling how we need each other to move into the future. You cannot age alone. I think our culture is discovering that in many different ways, and we're modeling for people in many different ways. It will also make us collaborate with other places around the world more. It is one of the reasons we're becoming more intercultural. The diminishment narrative has been useless in many ways.

We need to talk about mission. We need to talk about what is alive. We need to talk about what we can do with who we are right now and into the future.

Murray: Life is cyclical, and there is growth and diminishment and growth and diminishment, and that's part of the pattern. When you read the history of congregations, I was struck by one recently where at one stage, they were down to four members, and then growth came again. It meets the needs of the time.

I do believe it's the church and the diocese that we're part of; it's this mutual relationship. So between us all, there is enough, and there will be enough. We all play our part, and it's the nurturing of this particular vocation as all the other vocations belong to the Christian community. They have to take ownership of it, too. Sometimes it's almost as if the congregation is the only one who has to be looking after its future.

The whole Christian community has to believe that this is a way of life that we respect and that we would encourage young people to be a part of if that's their call, but there are many other calls. We all play our part in the people of God in serving the church in the world and the state.

Steadman: It's God's mission that we're participating in. It's not ours. For me, as I look at our life and I look at the unfolding, that mission isn't going to go away. Whoever of us is here are going to be participating in that mission.

Murray: I often hear younger people say, "How do the sisters have such energy?" I often turn it back and say, "Why do you think they have that energy?" It's energy for the mission of God and it's energy in meeting the needs of people that gives nuns stamina. It's living for the other, which I think is also a sign in today's world that's so needed that it is in giving that we receive. It is truly that. You receive something more than you ever give, and that of itself gives you what is needed for how long you are called to serve in this particular way of life.

Read last year's discussion with Sr. Pat Murray, executive secretary of the International Union of Superiors General; Sr. Mary Pellegrino, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; and Sr. Joan-Marie Steadman, LCWR executive director.

Are you a Catholic sister? Do you like to write?
Become a panelist for The Life!
Learn more