Women religious look at the future with concern, and hope

MYRTLE BEACH—Difficult decisions are on the horizon for many women religious in the United States.

As their populations age and numbers decline, leadership and members of some congregations must consider what to do with property and finances, how to care for their elderly and whether ministries will continue.

These aren’t easy issues to face, but 60 women religious from South Carolina and four other states did so with grace and humor at the annual Collaboration for Ministry Initiative Conference Nov. 20-22 in Myrtle Beach. The yearly gathering is sponsored by the Sisters of Charity Foundations of South Carolina and Cleveland.

Two keynote speakers from St. Bonaventure University outlined the stark realities women religious face and offered ideas on the future.

Franciscan Sister Margaret Carney, president of St. Bonaventure University in New York, described hard choices women religious are dealing with and the sadness that comes with them. She discussed how her order and others have had to sell motherhouses and historic buildings because they don’t have the numbers to sustain them.

She said it’s important for leaders of congregations to confront realities and discuss with their sisters how best to move into the future. In some cases, she said, communities have to merge, cede leadership to sisters in other nations or, in the worst case scenario, realize that the community will eventually no longer exist.

Sisters5-webThe key, she said, is for all sisters to frankly and honestly discuss the facts and devise ways for ministries to continue in the future, perhaps with the assistance of lay associates who want to carry on the work that the original members started.

She noted that many communities have younger members in their 40s and 50s, and that current leadership must make decisions that will enable these women to carry on their work in new ways.

“I compare it to the ritual of moving your parents out of their home and into an assisted living community,” Sister Margaret said. “Sometimes they want to hold onto everything and that’s not possible. That’s the question women religious need to ask: Can we participate in our own downsizing so we don’t leave an unbearable burden for the younger members of the congregation?”

She encouraged the women to remember that their work is founded in their belief in Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Gospel.

“We need to remember our ministries are not about buildings, but about Christ,” she said.

Capuchin Franciscan Father David Couturier, dean of the school of Franciscan studies at St. Bonaventure, offered perspectives about millennials, the current generation of young adults ages 18-34. He said some of the group’s common traits make them ideal candidates to work with women religious in their ministries and perhaps offer a way for programs to continue.

sisters4-webMillennials, he said, want their work to have meaning. They are proud of achievement, have a solid sense of values and desire strong relationships with family, friends and community. He advised the communities to look for ways for millennials to be in partnership with their ministries.

“They are looking for signals of hope in this culture, and you can offer them,” he said. “Have a place for relationships with them and with others in your communities. Too often people in religious life have become solo flyers, and we need to find new ways of being in relationship with each other and with others around us.”

Father Couturier encouraged the sisters to face their challenges with what he called “resurrected minds,” focused on Christ’s presence in the world and the hope He offers.

“The resurrection of Jesus is an ongoing source of hope,” he said. “Too many Catholics think of this as a one-time event, but it was the defining moment of history and the introduction of God’s rule in the world. The resurrected mind doesn’t dwell in the past, but anticipates the future and has the confidence to accept the unknown.”

Although serious topics were on the schedule, there were plenty of light moments too.

The sisters worshipped and prayed together, enjoyed an ice cream social, danced  to beach music and held a game night that included everything from bingo and balloon tosses to a hula hoop contest.

Many of the women who attended said the weekend was the right mix of seriousness and fun.

“This time was grace-filled,” said Sister Michael Ann Orlik, general superior of the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. “What we heard expanded our vision. These issues are things we’re all grappling with, and it was good to talk about them.”

Poor Clare Sister Bernadette Marie Cappola from Travelers Rest said the weekend offered her new perspective, especially on the millennial generation.

“It’s always good to be with your fellow sisters, and this time we really talked about things that are relevant for all of our religious communities,” she said. “We all have to plan for the future.”