Sunday, June 24, 2012

Re-Imagining Nuns - II

I want to continue a reflection on  some work of Sandra Schneiders that I started some weeks back.

Two poles

Radical constitution and historical context are two poles that Schneiders uses as the framework of a recent paper:
First, apostolic Religious Life is radically constituted by the lifelong total consecration of the Religious to God effected and expressed by perpetual Profession lived in community and mission. Second, and simultaneously, that life is intrinsically shaped by the historical context, including the charism of the founder, in which it is born and in which it is lived.1
She proposes a historical grounding in the culture of the foundation, as read through the renewal narrative deeply influenced by 'the Council'.
These two features are correlative and determine both the continuity of Religious Life as it has been lived from the first century to the present, and also the discontinuity among various forms of the life that have arisen throughout that same period. This interaction between radical constitution and historical development has produced a variety of charismatically distinct forms of Religious life which are not just superficially but substantially different.
While, I would agree there is continuity and discontinuity, I see them cutting in two directions. First, we may posit as Schneiders does chronological or vertical continuity with the deep story of religious life and a discontinuity as that life becomes culturally and historically rooted in a founding narrative. And second, as we strive to live religious life authentically today, we might also see chronological or vertical continuity with the story of the founding narrative read through the Vatican II renewal and a discontinuity as that life becomes culturally and historically rooted in the radical cultural shifts since that Council that impel us to engage our contemporary society as the world rushes headlong into the second axial age. This discontinuity will be guided, as was the founding moment, by deep immersion in the radical constitution of the life. In this process, we may want to loosen our grasp on the historical context of the founding charism and allow ourselves to engage in continuity with the “radical constitution” of the life. We ask not what our founding members did and said, but why they did it. Were they not seized by a passion for that radical constitution of the life so profound that they sought to implant its pristine freshness in their own time and place? A challenge in every community is to distinguish what the founding narrative did in its particular historical context from why it was done which points to the radical constitution of religious community in the early Christian centuries.
As we engage in this exercise I believe we will find a horizontal discontinuity / continuity dynamic between and among religious institutes living in our particular historical-cultural context. We are coming out of a world in which religious entered, lived and ministered almost exclusively in their own congregations; they lived in discontinuity with other religious in the same city, even in the same neighborhood, silo-ed in continuity with their own founding narrative. Inter-congregational ventures were the exception rather than the rule, and they were often limited to new ventures, and to new members. I believe that this horizontal discontinuity served its purpose in the age of mega-congregations dispersed geographically, maintaining the esprit-de-corps, forming bonds between members and ensuring the social cohesiveness of the group, while the group remained isolated from the wider community as well as from other religious.
Some of today's women religious in the minority cohort in religious life, age cohorts between 20 and 60 years of age, challenge this horizontal discontinuity. Participating in intercommunity formation programs and projects, they experience the richness of these collaborative efforts and ask the dominant cohort: Why is it that we form federations to collaborate with sisters from across the country, but we don't even know other sisters who live down the street?
1Sandra M. Schneiders, “The Radical Nature and Significance of Consecrated Life” (presented at the Theology of Consecrated Life: Identity and Significance of Apostolic Consecrated Life, Rome, February 8, 2011)..

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Future Full of Hope?

Gemma Simmonds CJ, the editor of a new collection of essays exploring contemporary religious life, introduces some of the sensitive but crucial questions with which she and her fellow contributors have engaged. Has there been a loss of the distinctiveness of religious life since Vatican II and if so, what will be the lasting effects on the ministry and mission of women religious in particular? Is the future full of hope? Read more.... and here....

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Re-Imagining Nuns

Sr. Sandra Schneiders has been writing and speaking on the topic of religious life for many years and her name is a household word among many religious communities as she articulates a theology of religious life for today. Her reflections invite us into an exploration of what is emerging in religious life today as we live a period of unprecedented demographic shifts among women religious in the US. I would like to take up the conversation and respond to a paper entitled The Radical Nature and Significance of Consecrated Life she presented at the Theological Seminar held in Rome by the Union of Superiors General of men and women in 2011.1 I hope that in a robust exchange of ideas we can all sharpen our perspectives and explore new horizons.
The recent news regarding the CDF-LCWR issue highlight the importance of continued reflection about the ongoing relevance of religious life and it's emerging realities.

Religious and the “World”

In the paper, Schneiders proposes “the World” as the category for understanding the shift of apostolic religious life at the time of the Council. I'll have to say that she mentioned 'the Council' and I had to ask myself – which council do you mean? I think to most of her audience, it was obvious that it was the council they had lived through. But for those of us who didn't live through it, it's not 'the' council any more than 'the' war is any particular war. In any case, I agree that the world is an important category for understanding the shift that happened in the VCII renewal, and the more significant shift that is underway today as we come to understand the world in its evolutionary cosmology.
Schneiders also points to certain structural elements of religious life that prevailed for most of the first two and a half centuries of the life in the US context. The cloistering of women religious is a huge issue that has had a deep and lasting effect on women's religious life. With the ominously named decree Pericoloso of Boniface VIII in 1298, the complete cloister of women religious became obligatory in the western Church. Although it was variously enforced, it is difficult to overestimate the significance of strict cloister which legislated nearly complete isolation of the entire movement of women's religious life from the wider cultural context for nearly six centuries from 1298 to 1983. Many women religious continually sought ways to engage in ministry outside the cloister and were able to do this, but only with strict limitations on their activities, dress and interactions.
The Second Vatican Council mandated the adaptation and renewal of religious life in its decree Perfectae Caritatis, in which it directed religious to return to the original inspiration for their institutes, to the words and works of their founders and early members. They sought to discover the core values of their institutes and to reinterpret those values for their own age. For institutes of women, this meant returning to the sources only to find that their founding members struggled with the ability to establish a lifestyle that was, on the one hand, true to their inspiration and, on the other hand, conformed to restrictive requirements placed on women's religious life at the time. The founding inspiration sought to incarnate the Gospel in a particular time and place and to gather members around their particular experience of spirituality, community and mission. If the group was to obtain official approval and support, the group was required to adhere to certain external norms of dress, schedule and cloister.
Returning to the sources during the Vatican II renewal of the 60s and 70s, women questioned the value of these very visible external elements which hindered the living of the founding values. These external elements had taken on a huge symbolic value in the intervening centuries, to the point that some equated fidelity to religious life with fidelity to these external structures. These very visible elements are often pointed out critically by ecclesiastics and are a point of dis-juncture among women religious today as we strive to find new stories, new models, new images and new ways to express the age old values in a world hungering for our authentic witness.
 I'll continue this reflection on Schneiders' paper in future posts....

1Sandra M. Schneiders, “The Radical Nature and Significance of Consecrated Life” (presented at the Theology of Consecrated Life: Identity and Significance of Apostolic Consecrated Life, Rome, February 8, 2011).

Sunday, June 3, 2012

We Do Exist

Thanks Susan Francois for this video created by a younger Catholic Sister to tell the story of the women entering religious life today. We Do Exist ... younger Catholic Sisters by SusanFrancois, CSJP on GoAnimate

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