By Lois Lawler, Associate Co-Director
It seems that not only Catholic priests and laity, but non-Catholics, as well as a wide variety of organizations, are looking for ways to support U.S. Catholic women religious these days. It's encouraging and morale-building, the bright side of a challenging period in religious life, in the church, and in our culture. One initiative that has been ahead of the game in providing support is the Associate Relationship movement, a phenomenon that has become increasingly common in religious congregations over the last 30 years.
NACAR (North American Conference of Associates and Religious) was formed to foster the growth of associate communities connected with religious congregations, both female and male. At the June 2012 international biennial conference held in Chicago, aptly titled, "A Journey of Blessings," five SSJ-TOSF representatives (Sr. Jane Blabolil, President, and Srs. Alice Myslinski and Dian Majsterek, area contacts for the Associate Relationship, and Associates Judy Bulat and Lois Lawler, Co-Directors of the Associate Relationship) joined approximately 250 associates and religious of other congregations to explore the role of associates in the ongoing development of 21st Century Catholic religious congregations. The group explored the unique challenges faced by religious life today, and the variety of responses available to associates as they join members in living out the charism and the mission.
The theme of the conference, A Journey of Blessings, captured well a common experience in this diverse gathering of associates and the religious whom they accompany on the journey. The feeling of gratitude, strong and clear, provided a positive framework for the questions that were addressed throughout the weekend. In addition to the keynote address, and multiple opportunities for interaction with others, the conference included input sessions on two internal NACAR issues: mission statement revision, and the option of moving from a national structure to a regional one.
Sr. Joyce Rupp, OSM presented the keynote address, "Journeying in the Land of Don't Know"—a somewhat disconcerting, though apt, title. Emphasizing the lack of historical precedents for the situations being encountered by contemporary religious, Sr. Joyce stated that congregations today are at a threshold, and can only speculate on what may lie beyond the choices that they presently face. She talked about the challenge and the opportunity for growth, and hinted at options that may have the potential of revitalization. This, however, was always with the overriding caveat of "Don't Know."
As Sr. Joyce expanded the metaphor of doorway, she talked about doors that seem to be closing on religious life, such as opportunities for new members, canonical support, fiscal prosperity, youthful energy. As participants pondered some of the negatives on today's horizon, Alexander Graham Bell's observation seemed particularly relevant, "We often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us."
Sr. Joyce quoted lines from "For the Interim Time" by the late Irish poet John O'Donahue—lines descriptive of the situation of contemporary American Catholic religious congregations:
You are in this time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.
The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you.
The old is not old enough to have died away;
The new is still too young to be born.
Sr. Joyce noted the freedom of ecumenically-based groups to live out their charism and mission without fear of censorship, noting the Benedictine Women of Madison (Wisconsin) as an emerging ecumenical model of religious life in a post-modern world.
Drawing on Scripture, she compared the experience of Exodus to being in the Land of Don't Know. Starting with the oppressive structures of Egyptian rule, she noted the work of Egyptian and Hebrew women who crossed cultural lines to preserve the lives of Hebrew male children. Moving on to the Hebrews' flight into the desert, she stressed the need for contemplation and discernment, the need for time to see the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, and the need for courage to follow them without knowing the journey's end. Urging religious women to let go, she referred to Henri Nouwen's image of a closed fist trapped within a jar—it is necessary to open the hand, and let go of its contents, to be free.
The inspiring talk concluded with questions. Directing her first queries to religious women, she asked, "Are we open and willing to break the old paradigm of how we've known religious life? Are we ready to be re-founded? Are we ready to be alive, to be led to a new way of living?"
She then called on associates to consider other questions, including, "Are you ready to trust fully your spirituality, to believe that you have much to give as well as to receive in your associate relationship with your religious community? Are you ready to deepen your understanding of what it means to be in community? Are you brave enough to risk asking the challenging questions that need to be asked of the vowed members?"
Of course, the audience had no ready answers for the deep, probing questions. And at the end, like T. S. Eliot, we found ourselves where we had started, in the Land of Don't Know. We had experienced a change, though—we left more inspired, less frightened of not knowing, and sharing a sense of camaraderie. Together we had heard a challenging talk that captures our reality.
During other parts of the conference, participants provided the board with input on the proposed revision of NACAR's mission statement. Most comments were strongly positive. The newly proposed mission concludes with a clear statement of NACAR goals, "...NACAR affirms and proclaims the associate-religious relationship, educates associates about associate communities, and empowers associate relationship."
The suggested revisions of the mission statement necessitated small group discussions on organizational structure and its present capacity to respond effectively to the mission. The board presented the case for regionalization, and sought input from members. The ideas generated will be taken up by the board during the coming months. The board's hope is that a regionalized structure would more effectively reach out to grassroots associate communities.
True to their names, the Heartbreakers (a dance troupe) and the Heartzingers (a signing group) provided entertainment. Both groups were from Misericordia Home of Chicago—a community of care for more than 600 adults with developmental disabilities. There was not a dry eye in the banquet hall as the group watched the performers, trying so hard to please the audience, and beaming with joy at the applause. In the weekend journey of blessings, this most assuredly was one of the greatest.
The five SSJ-TOSF attendees left the conference energized, and more at-home with not knowing where the future will lead. There was comfort in the knowledge that, as we face an uncertain future, we face it together: associates and vowed members, companions on the Journey of Blessings, striving for mutuality in the Land of Don't Know.