Thursday, April 23, 2009

Change in the Church: Looking to Religious Orders

The Church is changing. And religious orders are really going to show the rest of the church how to survive. They are going to embrace change, in the way that the hierarchical church cannot. Religious orders will model this transformation.
- Bob Burke, former Director of Pastoral Planning, 1980 - 2003, Minneapolis/ St. Paul Archdiocese

Where is the Catholic church today? Where has it come from? Where is it going?

These are some of the questions that burn in my brain, keep my spirit soaring, and my whole body alive in wonder, outrage, desire, curiosity, and discerned courses of action. The church has problems. But the radical call of Christ to love all and work for peace and justice keeps me committed and posing these questions:

Who are we? Where are we going?

As many of you know, I love nuns. (I would be a nun, if I could also commit my life in marriage to one living man!) For all intents and purposes then, I have found a way to be as committed as possible to the devout, religious life, without being a professed sister. I have the privilege of being affiliated with the Visitation Sisters of North Minneapolis as a Visitation Companion. This lay membership rocks and feeds my soul. As these women rock and feed the North Side community through their contemplative presence, and commitment to "Live Jesus!" (For those who aren't familiar with these women, they are affectionately referred to as "Nuns in the 'hood" -- given their presence on the street and the way they open their monastery to the poverty, wealth, reality of their neighborhood.) In addition to spending time with this order, I also have significant relationships with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, (who founded the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, and march for peace every Wednesday outside my apartment). I'm also fortunate enough to have a dear spiritual director and poet friend at Rochester's Assisi Heights Convent, where the Franciscan nun Sr. Rafael Tilton resides.

Anyone who is catholic or who reads the papers, knows there's stuff going down in the church. If you are a member of the Minneapolis/ St. Paul Archdiocese, then you are privy to this "stuff" in the transition from Archbishop Harry Flynn to Archbishop Neinstedt. You recognize a distinctly different style of leadership. Your masses and liturgy may start to feel a bit different, as well. If you are a long time member of St. Philips, you might refer to this change as "reverting to Pre-Vatican II times." You may or may not understand how what's occurring in Minneapolis, Minnesota is somehow connected to what's occurring in Rome, Italy, under Pope Benedict's rule. If you are politically engaged and a critical thinking citizen, then perhaps the recent brew-ha-ha over President Obama's invitation to speak at Notre Dame has caught your eye. If you are in a rural area and attending mass, you may note your priest's exhaustion over having to run and preside over several different services in several different communities, in the name of consecrating the eucharist. You know there's a shortage of priests. You recognize membership in the church is dwindling. You see pews emptying out and perhaps overhear your friends' discussions about finding a different faith community to join. You may be celebrating a whole host of immigrant members, and yet struggling to understand how this evolution will include authentic communication and honor the roots of liberation theology.

Who are we? Where are we going?

So. I am part of the Visitation Companions; I sit on their Circle of Collaborative Leaders, and have the privilege of thinking about the challenges and opportunities of our current situation with this diverse group of nuns, catholics and non-catholic leaders. As part of addressing this reality, the Visitation Sisters have been leading in - what I'd say is - a progressive and inspiring manner by addressing the facts of this current environment, posing questions, praying communally and taking action. Through the Circle of Collaborative Leaders, the lay network of Vis Companions and given the support of the larger monastery, the Vis Sisters have opened a retreat house in the North Minneapolis community called "St. Jane House." This space for communal prayer and activity is, ostensibly, a way that models and exemplifies change in how the aging community will continue to "Live Jesus!" in North Minneapolis, when God forbid, they are gone.

In addition though, we are collaboratively, passionately working to recruit new sisters to the order. As the youngest lay member of this initiative group, I find it so exciting to get to be part of this work. I love the questions grounding us, and the task of identifying, naming WHY this life and call to be a nun is so beautiful and such a gift to a woman -- and to the larger world at this time! I find this ministry/ vocation/ marketing work especially provocative during this period in our lives, and in our church's transformation.

Who are we? Where are we going?

This past Tuesday afternoon with the Vis Sisters, our Strategic Planning Group met and was joined by a guest speaker, Bob Burke. As a church historian, former college professor, and retired Director of Pastoral Planning for the Archdiocese, Mr. Burke offered our group further perspective on what is taking place in our local and larger church. And this perspective inspired me! He was naming what I already felt true in my bones, and what is backed up by centuries of experience in the Catholic Church's history.

Bob Burke began:
The Church is changeable. People think it's unchangeable, but it is changeable.
He went on to outline the evolution of the monastic orders from the time of Christ's death, underscoring how the church has been changing since the beginning:

Church History:
Death of Christ
500 AD. – First Religious Order: Foundation of Monasticism
Benedict and Scholastica – founded in the countryside.
1,000 AD – Foundation of Mendicants, or Begging Orders. Franciscans/ Dominicans. They bring religious life into the city.
1600's – REFORMATION – all types of religious orders were founded for countering the reformation, answering charges of reformation by Protestants.
Note: this is HUGE CHANGE!
1610 – Visitation is founded.
1800's – French Revolution – orders are still in the city, country, there were beggars…but now: the religious orders are being founded around Charism.
Vatican II
Bob Burke stated, matter-of-factly and with hope:
"We are going to see the demise of religious orders…The Holy Spirit is calling us to do something new."
His acknowledgement of the current reality was such a validation of what we all know are incredible challenges today. At the same time, his words were a source of deep inspiration for me, as they came from his twenty-three years plus of service and leadership in the church, and his own expertise as not only a church historian, but a man similarly committed to the Salesian Charism and the Visitation Sisters. I appreciated deeply his critical questions about the future and his frank assessment about how we move forward.

"There are a diminishing number of practicing catholics. Mass attendance is way down. Participation is in jeopardy because of the shortage of priests. The Eucharist brought us together, but now with the decline in presbyters, what are we to do? The solution is known, but no one is talking about it. What is it? Let's expand the notion of ordination. "

His honesty, clarity and wise counsel gave me pause. It made me cry. It resonated with what I know to be true in my own lived experience with the sisters, and my current journey as a Catholic living, working, volunteering, serving in North Minneapolis and beyond. I took great hope from his prophetic words. I close this reflection as I began, with his words and my opening questions. I challenge you all in your respective faith communities and places of work and leadership to respond.
"The Church is changing. And religious orders are really going to show the rest of the church how to survive. They are going to embrace change, in the way that the hierarchical church can't. Religious orders will model this transformation. "

Who are we? Where are we going?

To Love! Hope! Change! Transformation!


Anonymous said...

I think you should be an ordained priest. I would come to mass every Sunday :)

Visitation Sister said...

Hi, Melissa!
YOU rock MY world!

I read prayerfully your piece on change and religious life and Church
struggles and was especially struck by the juxtaposition of Bob Burke's

At any rate, here my questions for pondering:
1. How does one survive in a Church that is going BACKWARDS?

2. How does one survive/thrive LIVE+JESUS in a religious order/lifestyle
that is dying?

3. How does one 'speak out' to authority that 'feels' stagnant/rooted in fear as opposed to the dynamism of GOSEL LOVE & SOCIAL AWARENESS?

4. How does one live the richness of the TRADITION without getting
caught up in the stalled INSTITUTION?

5. How does one enter authentically into the Paschal/transformative
Mystery of dying/rising at THIS moment in history?

6. And finally, if one has already embraced change in lifestyle/theology of religious life for some 20 years now (Minneapolis Visitation),
does change for that one mean going back 'to the way things were', to a pre-Vatican way of existence?????

As you can see, your reflections evoked much thought and
prayer...Onward in HOPE!!!

Love, Sr. XXXXXX, Nun in the Hood

Sue said...

Thanks for sending this, Mel. Let's get women priests and married priests!!
Sue P

Anonymous said...

Love the questions. By the way YOU taught me to live in and be comfortable with the questions. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hey Melissa: This is cool to read. As I have been walking along my own discernment path these days, I too have many wonderings and questions. You evoke many of them as simply does living authentically and with integrity love, peace, and justice in our world. I wonder if we need a new definition of religious life? What is and who is living a religious life? Who decides that and owns that concept? How do we re-vision religious life today in response to the times and needs? What is essential and core to living a religious life? What happens if we just start living the truth as Jesus and the gospel calls us to? Are we ready for that? Just a few thoughts... thanks, for your words that inspire me on the journey. peace, stacy