Earlier this morning I was re-reading Carol Zinn, SSJ’s Presidential Address to the 2014 LCWR Assembly. The Assembly theme was Holy Mystery Revealed in our Midst. Carol points out that Mystery resides in the Heart of God and is revealed “to those of us who put our ear to God’s Heart, listen carefully and follow freely no matter the cost.”
Carol’s references certainly refer to Religious Life as we are experiencing it today. We are in a state of great shift. In twenty years there will be a whole new face to religious life in the United States, both literally and physically. But as I read Carol’s address, I see the promise of Mystery, the promise of Transformation even when the way is not clear. The image of the chrysalis kept coming back to me with its unexpected and mysterious transformation into butterfly.
Yesterday I started to read another article, this one also about religious life. I didn't get past the first paragraph, though I will have to go back to it. The Sister-author begins, “In being asked to reflect on congregational diminishment ….” Admittedly, when I see the word ‘diminishment’ used in the context of religious life, I have a visceral reaction not far from vehemence. Why? Because diminishment means a lessening of. The Merriam Webster Dictionary provides this definition of diminish: “to be or to make seem to be smaller or less important.”
Sisters in the United States do not believe that religious life is less important. We believe this in the face of fewer new members. The broad response to the Apostolic Visitation was that we Sisters grew in solidarity and in confidence. There is a sense that we are stronger now than at the beginning of the Apostolic Visitation.
For these reasons and more, we do a great disservice to ourselves and to those others who are the receiver of our word ‘diminishment’ when it is said or written within and/or among congregations of women religious so freely and without any descriptive qualifiers. When the “d” word is used, are Sisters talking about a smaller number of members? If so, then “diminishment of numbers” is the correct description and terminology. Are Sisters talking about the higher median age, the changing proportion in the number of those Sisters who are “retired” with those who are in “active ministry?” I fear this is the case most of the time. I fear that too many Sisters really do – at least subconsciously – view the process of aging, which gives us our higher median age, as a time of loss and diminishment. That’s what all of society yells at us from every conceivable source.
As a gerontologist, I bring the good news that such a view of aging is totally off base. That’s grit for lots more blog entries! Today, I put the “d” word and its unqualified, unconscious use within the context of Carol Zinn’s Presidential Address. What we too readily see as Congregational loss and diminishment is rather Holy Mystery. We are called by the signs of the times to discern what is emerging, to live into a future we do not know, but which we trust because we have our ear to the Heart of God. The colorful, lively caterpillar with voracious appetite may seem to be regressing as it spins and hides itself in a colorless, hard cocoon. And that caterpillar, living in darkness, cannot imagine the beautiful creature that will emerge totally transformed.
We are in Holy Mystery. No matter how dark, no matter how empty the answers to our questions come back to us, we are emerging into the future. Our task is to be certain that our ears are at God’s Heart, that we “listen carefully and follow freely, no matter the cost.”
Sister Carol Zinn’s Presidential Address can be accessed here