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The future of religious life

This article is reprinted from the winter 2012 issue of HOPE.

Editor’s note: Every five years, the Sisters of Providence meet at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for the General Chapter. This 10-day assembly includes the election of the new General Superior and General Councilors and a period of goal-setting for the Congregation’s next five years.

We sat down with the council — Sister Denise Wilkinson (SDW), Sister Lisa Stallings (SLS), Sister Jenny Howard (SJH), Sister Dawn Tomaszewski (SDT) and Sister Mary Beth Klingel (SMBK) — to discuss their experiences from the Chapter and how Chapter 2011 will shape religious life for the Sisters of Providence. The following is an abbreviated version of the conversation; a full version of the interview is available on our website at www.SistersofProvidence.org.

From left to right: Sisters Dawn Tomaszewski, Denise Wilkinson, Lisa Stallings, Mary Beth Klingel and Jeneen Howard..

Coming out of Chapter, can you summarize where you think the Congregation is heading for the next five years?

SLS: I kept focusing on that song, “Heaven Knows Where We Are Going.” But we will get there and we will get there together. I think we have made an absolute commitment to doing whatever it is that we need to do for the sake of the mission. We have pledged that we will do it together and bear the cost together. For me, that was the challenge, but also the hope.

SDT: We put that whole notion of assessment and where we are going in the context of meeting global needs — meeting the greatest global needs. We set a focus around women and Earth. That was really very important to me, so that what we are doing is in the context of “what does the world need us to do? What does God need us to do?”

SDW: I think we are headed once again for transforming ourselves, for remaking ourselves. I would use the word urgency for it. I feel like we understand the urgency of the times — not driven by our age or our lacks or anything else — but that the times call for urgent Gospel responses. I want to go back to a really old-fashioned word: sacrificial. There was a sense of whatever it costs — whatever it takes — we are going to do it and we are going to do it together.

SMBK: I think we also will be seeking input and assistance from others who have partnered with us — certainly our Providence Associates, but also many who are here as co-laborers day in and day out. We really will draw upon the gifts and expertise that others have to offer in moving our Chapter commitments forward.

SJH: One concrete action that we have already taken is changing the wording of the Prayer of Reunion: “We unite with all our sisters and ALL WHO SHARE THE CHARISM OF PROVIDENCE wherever they may be. …” Our present reality is inclusive of our Providence Associates, our co-workers as partners in mission, and many, many others who share in the gift and spirit of Providence. We desire to reflect the connectedness we feel as we journey together for the sake of God’s mission.

How does a Congregation of women religious from Indiana “meet global needs?”

SDT: I think the “buzzword” right now is sustainability and we use it sometimes just to talk about White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, but how does sustainability drip into every portion of our being? How do we model sustainability, taking just what we need? How does that play into the spiritual realm? Our sponsored institutions? How can we model that here?

Where do you believe religious life is heading in the next 10 years?

SLS: I think that we will move more intentionally into collaboration. And choose it, not out of desperation but because of the value of the collaboration itself. For me, that feels like a little bit of a shift. It’s not because we have to, but because we are enriched by the persons with whom we collaborate for the mission.

SMBK: I really thought of collaboration as a big piece among religious. I think we’ll do it in terms of focusing our efforts to really make an impact. I think we are aware that systemic change is really important if our planet is to survive.

SDW: So much of what we are up against — what the world is up against — are very powerful systems. How we are going to move in that realm of direct service and systemic change? I think that’s going to get messier, to tell you the truth. Some of the systems we will be up against are the hierarchical Church and the government. If we are going to serve the unmet needs, we are going to be up against a lot of powerful persons. I think that’s going to be a messy time. I think it’s going to call forth new things from us because I think we are going to be moving into places for which we don’t have the training. I’m not sure what the training is, whether it is thinking or processing or systems or what.

SDT: Well, we learned how to shear alpacas!

SDW: Absolutely. And how to keep their numbers down!

(laughter)

SJH: Even in Mother Theodore’s time, the urgency was to respond to the signs of the times. One of the signs of the times today is dealing with systems. I am particularly mindful of people who are on the edges of society, who don’t have the kinds of supports that we have with one another, who have to stand up to the systems, to understand systems so that they might receive what is just. Our mission calls us to love, mercy and justice. … I believe that addressing injustice is one way of responding to the signs of the time today.

SDW: One of the big signs of the times is that the biggest numbers of believers are former Catholics. The largest group of Christians is the people who used to be Catholics. So, to be a religious order of Catholic women — what does that sign of the time have to do with us? That is big.

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Rosie Blankenship

Rosie Blankenship is a graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She previously served in positions for the Sisters of Providence as the web site manager and annual giving manager.

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