The first day of the UISG 2019 Plenary found approximately 850 Superiors General of Congregations of Women Religious united in Rome to explore the Plenary theme: “Sowers of Prophetic Hope”. UISG President, Carmen Sammut, msola, in announcing this theme in a video message challenged UISG members:
“This is what we women religious are called to be today: Sowers of hope. As Superiors we need to ask ourselves how we nurture this hope, above all when we feel that our resources and strength are diminishing. What are the signs of hope that we are gathering in our congregations? Are our intercultural communities perhaps signs of hope in a world of division and war? How are we signs of hope for the many women and children who are suffering?”
It was Sr Carmen who welcomed the Superiors General at the Ergife Hotel in Rome on the morning of 4 May. In the next 4, these sisters from 80 countries will hear presentations on interculturation, the future of religious life, Laudato Si’ and the integrity of creation, and interreligious dialogue. The highlight of the Plenary will be a private audience with Pope Francis on the morning of May 10th. Together with the Pope, the UISG will official launch the “Nuns Healing Hearts” campaign marking the 10th anniversary of Talitha Kum—a network of women religious combatting human trafficking on an international level.
The morning concluded with the presentation of a report documenting UISG activities since the last Plenary in May 2016, presented by both Sr Carmen and Executive Secretary, Sr Pat Murray.
In the afternoon, Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Sr Teresa May, provided the first presentation: “A Vision for the Future of Religious Life”. Sr Teresa found inspiration in personal friends in Puerto Rico, women religious in Texas and a group of women in Mexico whom, she observed, confront huge global problems by “restoring the dignity of creation, one coral at a time”, “restoring human dignity, one person at a time”, “restoring peace, one butterfly at a time”. Women religious, when naming and confronting “the crisis in our Church”:
“need to hope as they do, standing firmly and humbly in this painful and overwhelming present reality that is ours, with bare feet. This time that has normalized crisis is our holy ground…. History will judge how we responded to this crisis. One day, women religious will be either accomplices, or prophets, or victims. We simply cannot sit this one out on the sidelines, even when we are being sidelined!”
Being visionaries is the first step she offered. This means “Tapping the spiritual wisdom of our life in contemplation, engaging in communal discernment.” To sow hope, women religious must be “seers of hope”, she said. Hope’s promise is attained by “remaining steadfast in our identity”. Furthermore, it requires that women religious “witness to what we believe and who we are”. Like Pope Paul VI said so many years ago in Evangelii Nuntiandi, Sr Teresa re-proposed that:
“The time for words is over…. We need a new way of witnessing that will manifest our values, that will be more intelligible and accessible for our time. Gospel news needs to be told in art, symbol and gesture…. We need to give our rational minds a sabbatical so that the creative, non-linear, subconscious can help us navigate through story, poetry, art, symbol, and gesture. We have a new apostolic call to offer meaning to a suffering world, with the non-verbal language that our consecrated life can speak with such beauty. We need to offer a prophecy the world can see. Our way to prophecy is through compassion.”
Sr Teresa then connected memory, “the sacrament of presence” to the need to prophecy through works of compassion. The gift of leadership encourages the members of a community to remember and “dialogue with our cloud of witnesses to believe in our future”. This means passing down the stories of foundation and renewal, as well as recognizing “authoritarianism”, “rogue individualism”, conflicts, and an obsession with numbers rather than mission. Such remembering will “make the Church whole”, she said. It will also help to correct the record especially regarding what she called the “divisive and myopic concern about feminism”. Recovering the memory of those who have gone before us demonstrates that all those who are “committed to struggle and resist to ensure that women and men, and children are all treated as human beings”, are Christian feminists, as was Jesus.
“We need the feminism of compassion found in the stories that have inspired our courage as women religious over the centuries. These stories began long ago with Jesus and the women he encountered. Women who teach us to treat women like Jesus did, respectfully, lovingly. Women who, like Jesus, teach us to take counsel from Mary, his mother, advising him at the wedding in Cana. Women who, like Jesus, teach us to find wisdom in women like the Samaritan at the well; Women who, like Jesus, teach us to accept the challenges of the Syrophoenician woman; and women who call us to notice suffering like he did when the hemorrhaging woman touched him.”
Knowing how to stand “at the foot of the cross” of those who suffer today requires that women religious notice that a “whole new set of skills” is required. “Meaningful acts of compassion that restore hope”, she said, are the fruit of “a spirituality of noticing”. Another new requirement is a different form of authority—one that is neither hierarchical, requiring “obedient daughters”, nor tyrannical, where there is no leader because everyone is leading. Sr Teresa expressed her hope that the UISG Plenary would be “more than a photo-op with Pope Francis”. Rather, her hope is that the Plenary will provide the ground for the “connecting/networking” so badly needed for a more collegial and collaborative model of religious life.
“The ground beneath us is shifting. The institutions that have shaped much of our lives are required to enter into a profound examination of conscience. Just beyond the challenges that will transform religious life, just beyond, we will begin to see the dawn. A new smaller, more nimble but global religious life is emerging. Leadership will come from a different hemisphere; new cultures will inspire our charisms.
Sr Teresa ended her presentation saying that retelling “stories of compassion and courage” so that new life might emerge, when coupled with the belief that “we [can] trust our voice as women”, standing in faith and hope will allow women religious to:
“join all those quiet men and women who are gently, simply, lovingly restoring creation, restoring peace and restoring human dignity”.
The afternoon then proceeded with the opportunity for personal reflection on Sr Teresa’s presentation and prolonged conversation among the participants in the Plenary’s 13 languages official. The floor was open for discussion, followed by the presentation of the day by the facilitators.