The Sisters and General Chapter: An overview
This summer, the Sisters of Providence will have a 10-day gathering at our motherhouse, called a General Chapter. Recently, I had the experience of taking telephone calls from two sisters who, for one reason or another, told me they could not participate in this General Chapter. I was moved in talking with each of them by their genuine regret at missing this meeting. Each felt deeply that she would be missing something important, something extraordinary.
This might seem strange as General Chapters are regular events in Catholic religious communities. Like most communities, we are mandated by our Constitutions, the rule by which we are organized and live, to have General Chapters every five years. Also like others, our General Chapters include certain common tasks; namely, taking a long and honest look at the state of affairs of our Congregation and selecting the sisters who will serve as our leaders for the next five years.
What makes it hard for sisters to miss a General Chapter is how these seemingly routine tasks are carried out. At our General Chapter, sisters of all ages and from their ministries in the United States and Asia come together to engage in deep and meaningful conversations about what is most important to them. They talk about what they do. They talk about their commitments and how they are carrying them out. They talk about their growing understanding of Providence. Moreover, they share as equals since at this time, the leaders who have been responsible for decision-making step aside. They become listeners and equal contributors in a dialogue in which all are heard and all commit to the outcome of their prayerful discussions. In this circumstance, the sisters experience a oneness of purpose and a sense that they are at the heart of communal religious life. No wonder then that sisters who have had this experience from previous Chapters feel deeply when they cannot be present.
Because of our size, participation in our General Chapter is generally open to all whose circumstances allow them to be actively involved throughout the extended time period. Those sisters are called delegates, and there is a formal election involved in naming them delegates. Those who cannot be delegates contribute by prayer, observation and engaging in meaningful conversations.
During the last days of the General Chapter, the delegates select the leaders for the next five years. There are no slogans, advertising or campaigning. Instead, the delegates focus on the leadership qualities that will be needed to carry the community forward into the next five years. They pray about this. They listen to one another. They listen to the persons nominated. Then, they pray again. One-by-one and over several days, they vote first for a General Superior and then for her councilors.
When the General Chapter closes, most sisters return to their various ministries while the new leaders remain to form themselves into a collaborate team. However, the Spirit that hovered over the days of the General Chapter lingers on at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and wherever a Sister of Providence lives or ministers.