Community living has been an "issue" for my entire religious life. Entering an active apostolic congregation in 1982 at age 25, I had no idea that it would be such a hot topic. I was naive to think that almost anyone could live together. I also was not aware of the painful experiences many Sisters had, living in large institutions or experimental small houses as the renewal of religious life went forward after Vatican II. I also had an expectation that living together in community, whatever it entailed, was as much a priority as ministry. During my own initial formation I came to understand the challenges and the joys of building community. It was not always easy, but in my experiences I realized how essential life in community was for my own transformation and conversion. I came to believe, more than ever, that the witness of a life in common, with all its struggles and demands, was just as important as any ministry in which I engaged.
For the past twenty years in our congregation, the majority of Sisters in active ministry have chosen to live alone or with one other person. We have very few community living situations with more than three members, except for the Mother-house and other retirement facilities. Over the years, especially through my involvement with vocation promotion and formation, I have participated in and planned various congregational processes and programs to try to spark interest in developing new local communities. There has not been a significant positive response, even when Sisters were presented with data that women who feel called to religious life today indicate that community living- under one roof- is a priority. Conversations around this issue raise defenses that continue to be obstacles for us even today. And so we have simply stopped talking about it.
The way forward, I believe, is to accept the reality that for many religious women, community living is not where they choose to put their energies. Sandra Schneiders, IHM has suggested that for ministerial religious, the life-form may have evolved to a point where living under one roof is not necessary and should not be the norm. The expectation that it should be hearkens back to a monastic tradition that does not and should not apply to this new expression of religious life. While I appreciate Schneiders' effort to articulate the evolution of the life-form I have lived as an active religious for the past thirty years, I am uncomfortable with her conclusion. In my opinion she is trying to justify a situation with which many Sisters of her generation have grown comfortable.
So I have accepted the fact that there are few Sisters older than myself who will choose to create small local communities that are a new way of being together. At this point many have lived alone or with an established partner for so long that it would be very difficult, for them and for those with whom they would try to build community. They are not up for it and they should not be coerced. Still, I believe that a renewed version of life in common is essential for the future of religious life. A new wine-skin is needed. Where will it be found? I believe that the women called to our congregations today have the capacity to create it. And the few of us who have continued to strive to build healthy local communities over the past thirty years might have enough of a foundation for the next generation to build on. We need to advocate for them with congregational leaders, formators and the community at large. We need to ask them what they see as they look into the future. We need to let them experiment and give them the resources they need. They may need to seek companions to create community in federations of a common charism, across congregational lines, or with lay folk who desire intentional community living. I hope we will give them our support in every way we can. And I hope to be invited to help create the new along with them.
--Janet Gildea sc