Crisis of Catholic identity in women’s communities: a challenge for vocation ministers

Crisis of Catholic identity in women’s communities: a challenge for vocation ministers

By Terry Rickard OP, c

In a recent conversation with a young woman concerning vocation discernment, she spoke to something that has been forming on the edge of my consciousness and was brought to the forefront by Patricia McCann’s article (see pages 8-11). When my young friend was studying for her master of divinity degree, one of her good friends was a novice. She explained, “When I would go to pray with her congregation, I was astounded by the variety of images for God and the ecclesiology reflected in their prayer. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. But it seemed disconnected from the church I knew. While I was open to the experience, there was little I could recognize from my own tradition … the name of Jesus was never mentioned … no biblical sources were used. In the middle of bowing to the God of the East, I had to remind myself that this was the same God I worshipped, made manifest in human form (or was it)? While I consider myself a progressive Catholic open to alternative images of God (and appreciate the experience), it seemed there was little I could bring to my own ministry in college or in a parish, or even to my own prayer life.”

New Age points to provocative questions

In my experience of prayer with my own congregation and with other women religious this experience of one young adult is more the exception than the rule. However, we can’t deny the growing New Age influence on our prayer and spirituality. This reality challenges us to explore the question of Catholic identity and the influence of New Age spirituality as it relates to attracting and inviting new members. I believe, like the Catholic Church, religious congregations can sustain a great deal of diversity, but are there core Catholic beliefs that are non-negotiable? How do we invite others if our identity is so porous and our mission so ambiguous that we are no longer recognizable as part of the Catholic tradition?

First, I want to locate myself within this discussion on Catholic identity, New Age, and women religious, and the challenges these issues pose for vocation ministry. This sensitive topic emerges at a time when we, as women religious, are most vulnerable. We all come with a history and perspective shaped by our experience. I offer my thoughts, which have been influenced by the time of my entrance, my religious formation and theological training, my parish ministry experience, eight years in vocation ministry, and many conversations with young adults seeking meaning, God, and direction in their lives.

In 1984, at age 26, I entered the Dominican Order. Most of my early religious education and all of my formation and theological training has been in the post-Vatican II church. I was a full-time lay minister when I began the process of becoming a Dominican. I was cognizant of the tensions rocking the church, particularly concerning women’s experience and ministry. In light of this reality, I consciously chose to become a Blauvelt Dominican Sister and commit myself to ministry in the Catholic Church. As a woman religious, I claim my public identity as an ecclesial woman and believe and profess the core beliefs of Catholic Christianity; I pray out of that reality. However, I also find that practices like Tai Chi, massage and running enhance my spirituality and do not detract from my Catholicity. I currently minister in the area of parish renewal and adult faith formation. I believe in the future of religious life, and I am convinced of the need to look at the questions of Catholic identity and New Age influences as we continue to invite new members.

Minority movement away from Catholicism

In my experience the majority of women religious understand themselves as ecclesial women grounded in the core of our Catholic tradition. However, within that diverse group, many of us have become so painfully aware of the dark side of Catholicism that this has overshadowed our appreciation for what is good in Catholicism. There is also a minority of our sisters who have moved away in varying degrees from Catholic belief and worship. All of these factors have influenced our ministry choices, communal life, and common prayer. I wonder if sometimes for the sake of unity and to avoid conflict, we have succumbed to the gravitational pull to surrender to the lowest common denominator in our prayer, lifestyle and congregational commitment.

It appears that women religious, particularly Baby Boomers, can balance the tensions and apparent contradictions between membership in a religious congregation and their seeming disconnection from the church. Thomas Groome, in What Makes Us Catholic, talks about an “atheist” friend who insists he is a “Catholic atheist.” Groome reflects, “Such persistence is particularly true of people soaked in old Catholic marinades, where faith and culture have melded into one; they seep into the marrowbone (Groome, xiii).” It seems for some easier to discard biblical prayer, communal living, and even the celebration of Eucharist than to expunge our Catholic socialization.

Younger Catholics see contradiction

Newer members and particularly younger women attracted to religious life find this seeming contradiction difficult to understand and a bit of a conundrum. More than one woman has said to me, “Why do they stay if they no longer see the church as a viable option?” A young woman recently said to me, “I heard of a nun that doesn’t go to Mass. Is that crazy or what?” It seems that people who grew up in the pre-Vatican II church find shedding their Catholicity entirely almost impossible. This is a different reality from this new generation of Catholics. Many have had periods where they rejected the church, sought meaning elsewhere, and have come back to the Catholic community with vigor and a great desire to become part of something greater than themselves. Some of the devotions that many of us have discarded have become new and meaningful to these seekers. Others from this generation who have found a deeper experience of spirituality and meaning in another faith tradition have left Catholicism. And still others are nominally Catholic and do not embrace Catholicism as a comprehensive way of life.

Is membership emanating from vocation?

Patricia McCann succinctly outlines the ecclesial fractures within women’s communities and how New Age spirituality has blurred Catholic identity. I will continue the conversation by exploring three of the questions she raises relevant to vocation ministry. Firstly, Do we find membership emanating from vocation? As a vocation minister, I posed the following question to myself and other members of my congregation, “Why did you enter?” and “Why do you stay?” I believe the question, “Why do you stay?” is essential to our current conversation. Sandra Schneiders, in the first volume of her tome on religious life, encourages us to “find the treasure” that is religious life. We cannot separate the foundation of the religious life movement from Catholicism. So as we search for the treasure of religious life, we must also rediscover the treasure of Catholicism.

Our theology of call and vocation needs to be shaped and informed by the dialogue between experience and our faith tradition. The question of the relationship between vocation and membership addresses the motivation for living a publicly vowed life within the Christian community. By its very nature, Catholic religious life is not something one does, but a way of life. It is a distinctive state of life emerging from our baptismal call. If we lose our sense of vocation, we become nothing more than dispensers of social service. Do we no longer believe that God is active in our personal and communal lives? Is our spiritual quest for God, our passion for the mission of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ no longer integral to our membership in our religious congregations? All our members will not agree on the meaning of vocation today and its relationship to membership, but what is the sensum fidelium, the consensus of our sisters? The answer to this question is essential to our integrity if we continue to invite women to join us. Are we who we say we are? As Joan Chittister, OSB at the first NRVC convocation I attended in Albuquerque, N.M. challenged us, “Do we have a right to take a life?”

In the church or out?

A second question McCann poses in her article is, “Do we intend to continue as established institutes with members who profess vows in an ecclesial context?” One possible reason for relinquishing our canonical status may be to free ourselves from the tension of struggling with ecclesiastical authorities. Another is the hope that by letting go of our ecclesial ties we would be free to evolve religious life into something new, truer to our experience and more life giving. These are worthy and thought-provoking considerations. However, my concern is that if we formally separate ourselves from the church, we will become a counter-church—rendering ourselves outsiders in the dialogue concerning church renewal and the promulgation of Catholic social teaching. By gaining some freedom we will lose our prophetic edge and our potential to dialogue not only with church officials but also with political groups. In this current church climate, there is a vocal minority within the church who would celebrate our decision to break formal ties.

In relation to vocation ministry, I would like to share another part of the conversation I had with the young woman whom I quoted earlier in this article. She brings an outside perspective to this discussion. She relates another poignant experience, “During a particularly frustrating canon law class, my novice friend whispered that if she weren’t in a religious community, she probably wouldn’t be Catholic. And I wondered if what she was experiencing was truly the Catholic Church? To me, to consider joining a religious community like the one she described was almost stepping out of the struggle and reality and tension of the Catholic Church, and creating another reality. While this is attractive at times, there are reasons I choose to remain (and minister) in the Catholic Church.”

Recapture our Catholic tradition

The third question McCann asks is, “How is the Catholic identity of women religious to be expressed in the 21st century?” My hope is we will enter into a time of recapturing the richness of our Catholic tradition and integrating that tradition in dialogue with our experience into the ongoing development of our communal life, spirituality and mission. Elizabeth Johnson speaks of the need for theological deconstruction and reconstruction to go hand in hand. Entering into the process of reconstruction is not a blind acceptance of doctrines or current liturgical norms and practices but a wrestling with them particularly in light of our experience as women, the new cosmology, and our commitment to the poor and marginalized. For example, Johnson explores the doctrine of the Trinity through a feminist lens. She refuses to discard the Trinitarian doctrine but instead brings something new to the dialogue. She takes the discussion deeper and articulates the truth of the Trinity in a new way. My hope is that we will choose to enter into a period of reconstruction, claiming the best of Catholic religious life and taking it to a deeper place and living it more authentically.

Let us take on Patricia McCann’s challenge and explore together some fundamental questions about our core Catholic beliefs and their meaning as we plan for the future. Let us recapture the best of our Catholic heritage and find the treasure in both Catholicism and religious life—and pass it on to the next generation.

Terry Rickard, OP is a Blauvelt Dominican and a former vocation minister for her community. She is in the Doctor of Ministry in Preaching program at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Mo. She currently ministers in parish renewal and adult faith formation.


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