SPIRITUALITY TODAYKathleen McGuire:
Winter 1991, Vol.43 No.4, pp. 325-335.
A Religious Community in Discernment:
Renewing the Face of the Earth
Conversion is more than an individual process. A community of religious women learns collegiality and conversion in responding to sanctuary.
Kathleen McGuire, ASC, served as coordinator of peace and justice issues for the Ruma province of Adorers of the Blood of Christ. She is currently working with the Ruma ASC missionaries in Liberia, West Africa.
MARY Jo Leddy's insightful reflections on the development of religious community life in the United States and her suggestions for creating the climate and preparing the conditions for re-founding smaller but more vital religious communities attracted the attention of many U.S. religious, individuals and groups, leaders and members. 1 think it is a unique characteristic of U. S. women religious to be eager to hear such reflections and suggestions and to be ready and willing to discern what light this new word might bring to us. It is a characteristic which makes us disquiet members in a hierarchical church which lumbers through the centuries, seemingly more intent upon preserving itself and its control over Catholics than on proclaiming the good news of our brother Jesus.
It is most likely the characteristic which, in the early eighties, caused the pope to send a mandate to his brother bishops of the U.S. asking them to help religious figure out how to be more true to the religious counsels. Some suggested, tongue in cheek perhaps, that John Paul was deeply impressed with the effectiveness of renewal among U.S. religious communities and wanted to learn from us how to do it for the whole church. But most of us tended to believe that the pope hoped that local hierarchical pressure, deftly but firmly applied, could quell the disquiet and changing attitudes prevalent in women religious of the United States.
But our brother bishops carried out the mandate with grace rather than threats. Many of them held "listening sessions" inviting us to gather and articulate our experience of religious life. And no matter what happened to the "mission accomplished" report the NCCB eventually filed with the Vatican, we had not only been listened to but had listened to each other and were the richer and wiser for it.
LEARNING COLLEGIALITY AS AN ADORER OF THE BLOOD OF CHRIST
For some years our community, Adorers of the Blood of Christ, had been changing. My perception of community as I originally experienced it was a group of individuals who lived and worked together as each tried to be faithful to her individual religious vocation. The community organization was patterned after and interfaced with the church's hierarchical structures. With Vatican II, collegiality became acceptable and we adopted government structures which provide for shared decision-making at local and provincial levels.
Awkward, at first, with a parliamentary model of decision-making, we gradually became adept at participating in meetings conducted, even ruled by, the model. It provided a forum for debate and majority rule and it served us -- to some extent as we went about the business of "liberalizing" our life style. But when we found ourselves as faith communities being addressed with a prophetic call regarding justice issues, the parliamentary model left us paralyzed.
THE CORPORATE RESPONSE PROCESS FOR ESTABLISHING SANCTUARY
We needed to go beyond rational, logical debate and to enter into faith discernment. Others had begun to make such a path. Communities which had already taken corporate stands on justice issues shared their experience in a Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) publication, "The Corporate Response: Why and How."
Those communities had realized that "the Gospel message of social justice compels us to work in new ways on issues of justice, peace, distribution of world resources and equality for all" (Hofbauer 1). Believing that today fidelity in following Christ means developing the ability to affect public policy, these communities found that they had to be known and identified as groups "committed to address those issues which violate God-given human rights" (Hofbauer 1). They identified the taking of a corporate stance on these critical issues as a real ministry to be carried out by their members.
Experience taught these communities that the complexity of controversial issues readily gives rise to sincere and valid disagreement and frequently renders decisions delicate. They believed that the process for coming to a decision for taking a corporate stance must be "rooted in sound and adequate information and . . . provide a vehicle for the articulation of differing perspectives" (Hofbauer 1). The process outlined in the LCWR document includes establishment of criteria, research and education, the referendum, i.e., a process for collecting the individual responses of the members, and communication of the response to all involved parties.
The LCWR paper insists that each person be given "the opportunity to understand the rationale for taking a corporate stand on the issues, to reflect on the implications of taking such a corporate stand, and to discuss the issue with other persons both within and outside the community" (Hofbauer 3).
THE SUM OF THE INDIVIDUALS IS NOT THE DISCERNING COMMUNITY
While our province knew that individual understanding, reflections and discussion would be essential to such a process, we believed that our faith community was more than a collection of individual believers. We believed that if we were being called to a place of fidelity which would place us outside the law of our country, the call would have to be a community call and the grace, a community grace. Our search for how to hear the call as a community, to receive the grace as a community and to respond to whatever grace was being offered us as a community led us to make the path by walking into the dark.
We looked to the Christian base communities of Latin America to teach us how to hear the gospel as a faith community. There, it seemed, the church of the people had evolved a dynamic which enabled Christians as a community to hear and to respond. We pondered what seemed to be the core of their process and used that core to imagine our own process.
The core of our process was like the pastoral circle or cycle with its four "moments":
1) identifying together our own experience;
3) theological reflection;
4) commitment to action.
It is the group of "guidelines" we evolved in constructing the moments of this process for our ASC province community which are perhaps worth sharing with other communities who hope that God can work new things in their midst.
GUIDELINES FOR A PROCESS
1) Subsidiarity: A New Slant
The principle of subsidiarity says that those whose lives will be most deeply affected by a decision should be the ones to make the decision. We saw that the decisions we had before us (e.g. whether to declare ourselves sanctuary for Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees, whether to declare non-compliance with the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act) would not affect the individual sister's way of life but rather the province community's way of life. Therefore, it was the community, as community, which needed to decide. The decision-making process had to tap into that community rather than merely poll individuals.
2) Mutual Accountability
The accountability which our religious congregational government plan expects of us is prayerful and educational preparation for any voting we do regarding people or issues. The decisions which had been placed before us for discernment certainly called for such preparation. The issues were very complex, and most of us were uninformed about them. Many of us were quite willing to remain so, perhaps not wanting to be responsible for knowing the truth (e.g. about U.S. involvement in Central America or U.S. immigration practices which violate our own laws). We needed a new approach to accountability so that in the end our decision was not based on ignorance or fear.
At the beginning of the discernment process; each sister was sent an invitation to participate in discernment. She was asked to sign the invitation if she intended to enter into discernment and to indicate what experiences she would need in order to prepare herself to help make a faithful decision. Subsequently, the names of all those who wanted to be a part of the decision making and would be preparing with prayer, fasting and education were published. Sisters were welcomed to enter the discernment process even at "the ninth hour." What was essential was that each accepted responsibility to be counted and to prepare herself.
For those facilitating the process, accountability meant that to the greatest extent possible, sisters were provided with the experiences or opportunities they felt they needed to prepare themselves for decision making. For our sanctuary discernment a list of opportunities -- from communal days of prayer and discernment to speakers to an actual week-long pilgrimage to a declared sanctuary -- was offered and each sister's requests were answered individually. The care with which these requests were honored made sisters realize that their understanding, insights and graces were important and essential in the process.
Finally, as the decision day approached and the announcement about the day's activities went out, sisters were invited to come together in a spirit of joy and hope that God's spirit would guide us. At this time, too, sisters who had not been able to bring the question to prayer or were unable to educate themselves about the issues involved, were asked to refrain from participating in making the decision.
This mutual accountability is crucial to fidelity in the faith community. Many of us have learned the lesson Richard Rohr articulated in regarding his experience in the New Jerusalem community, namely that a loving, accepting community does not automatically become a community committed to radical gospel values (9). And a decision made by simple "popular vote" in any on-going group will almost always favor maintenance of the status quo over a commitment to change or to conversion.
This situation is not surprising when we consider how difficult it is for us as individuals to open ourselves to experiences which will lead us to conversion even through there is a wealth of support and encouragement in individual spirituality to help and guide us along the way. For a community of persons seeking to be converted as community, there is almost no help or guidance. Instead, it is presumed that as the individuals undergo conversion one by one, eventually the community will be led to conversion. Our experience does not bear out this expectation. We found that this approach to mutual accountability can cause a new dynamic to happen within the group, and this new movement can lead to conversion.
3) Prayer and Fasting
Gandhi wrote somewhere that "it is because we have at the present moment everybody claiming the right of conscience without going through any discipline whatsoever that there is so much untruth being delivered to a bewildered world." It seemed propitious that we practice some discipline as we approached the weighty decisions of discernment.
The province community was asked to observe days of communal prayer and fasting during the ten weeks of discernment. A time of prayer asking for the guidance of God's good Spirit on our discernment was prepared and sent to each sister who indicated that she preferred to participate in the discernment by supporting it with her prayer. She was asked to gather others with herself in a particular hour of prayer for this grace.
Sisters who indicated they would be a part of the decision-making were sent resource packets to guide them in personal discernment before we came together for communal discernment.
4) Questions of Faith
An insight which guided this discernment process was that we had to focus on the appropriate questions. If we asked questions about the financial or safety consequences of our action and based our decision on such considerations, we would know that these were the gods we honored with our actions. If we asked questions and made our decision based on our need to be law-abiding citizens above all else, then it would be our national status we worshipped above all other gods. If we asked questions about what disturbance this might cause to our style of province life and ministry and based our decision on this answer, then it would be our convenience or our way of life which would be our supreme value.
So, it was critical that the questions we asked each other were those of this community's experience of faith in Jesus Christ and the charism which bonds us together as Adorers of the Blood of Christ. We did not debate-in debate the clever and the articulate can always prevail. We put the questions before us as we were gathered in community and asked sisters to share from their discernment: what has brought you light and courage? what is a Gospel value we dare not ignore? from where has peace come for you in the struggle? what response to the refugee do you find you must make? what response do you hope for from the community? what do you want to share in community at this time?
5) Liturgia, The Public Act
Essential to our discernment and decisions were the integration of religion and spirituality with our lived reality and knowledge. A dualism which keeps religion and lived reality disparate drains the human person and the human community of vision and value, passion and energy. This is the kind of dualism I think Richard Rohr referred to when he said, "you almost have to live your life on two levels at once, the level of the personal-where you accept, forgive, tolerate, let be, make space. And then on the level of "OK, but what are the gospel ideals?" (9).
Dualism establishes divisions and posits antipathies. It is then one small step to judgments of superior and inferior and to sacralization of dominations: spirit over matter, soul over body, male over female, white race over people of color. Eventually dualism sacralizes and idolizes some select part of creation and de-sacralizes or desecrates, in varying degrees, all else.
Authentic worship of an incarnate God saves us from this idolatry, but we seldom worship so authentically. More often we either practice a religion and spirituality unengaged with the lived reality of the human community and what we have is fluff, pie in the sky, "a snare and a delusion." Or, leaving our spirituality and religion back in our homes, convents or churches, we confront the lived reality of those who suffer, respond with powerlessness and despair or denial and escape. Faith interpreting reality or reality infused with faith is the full Truth and the power of the incarnate God loosed upon our world, risen and alive in us.
In order to make clear that our discernment and decision were the most authentic forms of prayer and an act of worship of the God we believed in, our coming together was shaped after the pattern of a eucharistic liturgy. Our sharing around the discernment questions followed the proclamation of the Word of God from scripture. The "balloting" about the sanctuary resolution was the handing of ourselves over to transformation into Christ. As the ballots were brought forward and placed on the altar, we broke into dancing and then shared bread and wine in a celebration whose joy witnessed how deep had been our experience in the weeks just finished. During this culminating celebration, the actual ballots went untallied, of little concern to us in that moment as we expressed our joy at the new things that had happened among us.
Essential to these liturgies were the songs of revolutionary faith and solidarity we learned from Carolyn McDade and Colleen Fulmer. These songs, as they exquisitely expressed our experiences, assured us that other women knew our struggle and our strength and so they enabled us to express the bondedness we were experiencing and to share the strength we were gaining.
6) The Liberating Decision
In religious communities and elsewhere it is common to hear how essential it is to respect the conscience of everyone. What this principle amounts to, more often than not, is that no one is forced to do anything she doesn't want to do, especially by way of change. While this interpretation is appropriate, it can be used to ignore the respect and to withhold the support which is due to those who are willing to respond to a more urgent and radical call to fidelity. Therefore, the resolution which was placed before the assembly for decision called upon each sister to take educational and lobbying actions and to give support to sisters who were willing to engage directly in the ministry of sanctuary.
SUMMARY OF GUIDING PRINCIPLES
In brief, then, when a situation creates a sense of urgency in the faith community-i.e., our fidelity to the Gospel calls us to act or to refrain from participating in something mandated by other authority -- the community needs to enter a time of discerning how to be faithful.
We need a broad base of support for such a decision but only those who are willing to participate in the education, spiritual preparation and reflection can help make the actual decision.
Each person who responds to the invitation to participate is respected for the kind of information and experience she needs to help the community come to a good decision.
If we are willing to be converted as a community, we will ask ourselves what our faith commits us to. We will not debate issues which allow other values to displace our fidelity to the Gospel.
We will show by the way we gather that our discernment and decision making are acts of worship, not moments of unsacred time, extracurricular to our lives as women religious and Christians.
The community response will be framed so that each sister will be free and supported to act according to her faith and conscience.
These are guiding principles. They are not as simple to use as a recipe which lists all the ingredients and tells exactly how to combine them. They presuppose a deep knowledge and love of the community. They are filled with hope that the Christian community wants to be faithful to the Gospel and with trust that the work is God's and that God will do as God wants. With these prerequisites and a creative imagination to guide the process, a community can come to hear the word of God in our day and make a radical response of love.
Deep in the heart of a church, which has for centuries avoided power problems with nation stages by concentrating its attention on individual morality and individual spirituality, there is welling up a powerful experience of community-the base Christian communities of the poor in Latin America and Africa, women religious discounted in the hierarchial church, communities of laity gathered around charismatic leaders. Christians are learning that "community is the matrix in which the gospel is able to be lived" (Rohr 14). I believe that soon these communities will renew the face of the earth and will, as our foundress Maria De Mattias expressed it, "bring about that beautiful order of things which the great Son of God came to establish" on earth.
It is the moment of crisis for religious communities, teeming with opportunity for us to let go of the ordinary way of being "religious" and to become totally fire.
Hofbauer, Rita, GNSH. The Corporate Response: Why and How. Silver Spring, MD: Leadership Conference of Women Religious. N.d.
Rohr, Richard. Interview. "Poverty and Surrender" by Deborah Douglas. In The Other Side. (March-April, 199 ): 8-14.
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