Reconciliation within and among religious communities

Reconciliation within and among religious communities

By Sr. Margaret Eletta Guider O.S.F.

THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE is drawn from a presentation the author gave in Chicago for a celebration of World Day for Consecrated Life in February, 2012 at the outset of the Lenten season.

I. Honoring our covenant, the unrelenting witness of reconciliation

(Genesis 9:8-15) Years ago, when I was a young missionary in Brazil, four sisters and I were riding together in a horse-drawn cart on a red-dirt road. We were returning to our center house after helping with the coordination of a Saturday afternoon liturgy at a near-by residential school for visually impaired children. By all accounts, it was an ordinary day, until the dark ominous clouds rolled in and the torrential rains began to fall. The experience gave new meaning to “soaking wet.” The clouds disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. The sun burst forth from the western sky and, facing east, we caught sight of one of the most amazing rainbows I have ever seen. It hung in the sky directly over the huge cross mounted on the bell tower of our convent, perfectly arched and exquisitely colored. We all fell silent, awe-struck, amazed and totally convinced of God’s powers of self-communication and covenantal love. Noah was not the only person for whom God had put a rainbow in the sky!

Thinking back to the experience, I am reminded of the particular covenant that God has made with us as consecrated persons— individually and collectively. I also am mindful of the way in which this particular covenant cannot be uncoupled from the reality of broken covenants or the work of reconciliation. Constitutive of this particular covenant is the evangelical exigency that we be reconciled with God and among ourselves in order to give credible witness through our unity so as to give glory to God—and to mitigate the historical and present-day scandals of our divisions. In the postmodern reality in which we find ourselves, it is no secret that the very idea of covenant—a relationship that endures over time—poses a certain paradox to a world where little is permanent, where just about everything is disposable, where obsolescence is a given, and where things which are broken are often conveniently thrown away instead of repaired. The idea of covenant is framed by a set of beliefs often associated with traditional society, beliefs about God’s action in the lives of people’s lives, beliefs about mutuality, beliefs about:

  • fidelity—understood as the belief that it is possible to be faithful to one’s promises for a lifetime;
  • trust—understood as the belief that the person(s) with whom I am in relationship is/are worthy of my confidence
  • love—understood as the belief that love is stronger than death and more powerful than the forces of evil
  • hope—understood as the belief that, despite evidence to the contrary, there is reason to hope that the promises made to us by our God and to one another will be fulfilled.

These beliefs, virtues and values are profoundly theological inasmuch as they are bound to God’s action in human history.

As consecrated persons, there is no escaping the fact that the idea of covenant is at the core of our existence. As counter- cultural as the aforementioned beliefs may be, they are nonetheless fundamental convictions—at least according to church documents and the recent documents of many of our respective institutes—upon which our lives are based. Yet, in our effort to live this covenant, two questions call forth from us considerable soul-searching:

  • In our everyday life, are we truly building upon the solid foundations of virtues that support, sustain and foster the covenant? Or,
  • Are there ways in which pretence, self-deception, and sincerely-held fictions are undermining our ability to live the covenant and revealing our need for reconciliation?

If a survey were taken of those in consecrated life, I am fairly confident that many could identify aspects of their life that to some degree go counter to fidelity, trust, love and hope. Mindful of our varied forms of life, I also suspect that many would have direct or indirect knowledge of the polarizing forces understood as the “double opposites” whereby we discover that:

  • the opposite of fidelity is not only infidelity, but also arrogance and mean-spirited self-righteousness,
  • the opposite of trust is not only a lack of trust, but also hypocrisy and deceptive practices that reinforce “life lies” as if they were true,
  • the opposite of love is not only hatred, but also indifference, where the violence of neglect is every bit as grave as that of abuse, and
  • the opposite of hope is not only despair, but also presumption, where the blessings of life are taken for granted with a sense of entitlement.

Any one of these polarizing or opposing forces can contribute to the breakdown and the breaking apart of the covenantal relationship. Theologically speaking, we know that God’s response to broken covenants is reconciliation— not cheap grace or cheap forgiveness or cheap healing, but a costly grace, a costly forgiveness and a costly healing. While we may address the importance of consecrated persons being a “reconciling presence” in the church and in the world, we cannot do so with authenticity, integrity and transparency, unless we are willing to honestly assess the degree to which we—all of us—are truly reconciled (or not) with God and one another, knowing that, like charity, reconciliation must begin at home—in the internal forum and from there extend to the external. For this reason, it is not sufficient for consecrated persons to gather and focus our attentions solely on our contributions to processes of reconciliation taking place in the heart of the church or the world. To be those authentic heralds of the Gospel, to which our consecration calls us, we must not only believe what we proclaim, we must live what we proclaim in the heart of our institutes—respectively and collectively. Therein resides the tension and the challenge of the questions with which we must wrestle both individually and collectively:

  • To what degree am I/are we truly reconciled with God?
  • To what degree am I/are we truly reconciled with my/our own sisters or brothers?
  • To what degree am I /are we truly reconciled with our sisters and brothers in other institutes or forms of consecrated life? And finally,
  • To what degree am I /are we truly reconciled with the church and our ecclesial leaders?

In need of reconciliation with God

With regard to our covenant with God, in what ways are we in need of reconciliation? It is not that difficult to imagine God questioning why we have been so obstinate in refusing to allow ourselves to be led by grace into unknown and unfolding futures, preferring instead to remain in place, believing ourselves to be the masters or mistresses of those monuments (whatever they may be) to our acquired power, privilege and prestige. Why, God might ask us, have we failed or refused to attend to the cries of the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized— not only those outside our gates, but also those within them? Finally, it is not difficult to envision God posing to us the same question repeatedly posed to the “chosen ones” who have gone before us: why do we prefer to offer incense and burnt sacrifices rather than the offering of humble and contrite hearts? (Psalm 51:16-17; I Sam 15:22; Matt 12:7)

Switching perspectives, while we know God is with us always, are there not times when our lamenting hearts cry out: “Where are You?” For those among us who are members of institutes that are in states of decline, diminishment, or serious economic distress, we may be feeling more like Naomi or Job than Abraham. We have been faithful: there is evidence and no doubt, yet why have we not flourished or ceased to flourish or been denied the possibility of flourishing? For others of us who are part of institutes or forms of life facing different kinds of challenges, what response can we offer to those who present themselves as generous young women and men eager to devote themselves to the missio Dei but who are impeded in realizing their vocations because of immigration status or student loans? Why, we might ask, have the lives of some of our sisters or brothers been cut short too early in life or been severely limited by tragic accidents or devastating illnesses? Like the prophet Jeremiah, we might wonder not only why have we been duped, but why did we let ourselves be duped? (Jeremiah 20:7-9). Why is it, we may ask in the “Gethsemanes” of our institutes, do our pleas and laments seemingly go unheeded by a God whom we experience as silent, indifferent or removed from the horrors, persecutions and anxieties that we face? And when the disillusionment of the disciples of Emmaus becomes our own, what meaning can we make of a covenant in which we had hoped, especially when hope seems lost? (Luke 24:21)

Broken covenants in religious communities and in the church

With regard to our covenant with our own sisters or brothers, in what ways are we in need of reconciliation?

This question may be difficult to face, yet if we are serious about being a reconciling presence in our church and in our world, face it we must: How have covenants been broken within our own institutes? Did members leave us? Or are there ways in which we left them first? Why have leaders not trusted members? Why have members not trusted leaders? When have regions or provinces been made to feel “second class,” not worthy of trust, insignificant or financial burdens on the institute at large? When have we treated our sisters or brothers with disabilities or debilitating conditions with indifference, placing them on the margins with no second thoughts or excluded them from participating fully in the life of the institute? Why have sisters or brothers been treated with contempt or disdain because of their family background, race, ethnicity, identity, age, physical appearance, personal beliefs, individual piety? And further, why do some of us persist in asserting that “everything is fine,” living less conspicuously in denial or pretense, rather than mindfully acknowledging a problem and assuming responsibility for challenging and changing problematic realities? For the sake of covenant and communion, what are we really willing to risk? How difficult is it to figure out why we, as sisters and brothers, have sometimes chosen to bind ourselves to unhealed wounds and longstanding hurts rather than take a chance on creating the conditions for mutual understanding and the possibility of reconciliation?

With regard to our covenant with sisters and brothers in other institutes or forms of consecrated life, in what ways are we in need of reconciliation?

This is a question to which we may not have paid a great deal of attention in the past or even in the present, because there were ways in which our focus often is concentrated on the issues and concerns of our own institutes at the exclusion of others. How slow we often have been to offer assistance or to ask for it, especially when autonomy and self-sufficiency are viewed as the hallmarks of stewardship far more than cooperation, collaboration and interdependency. Consider those religious institutes whose sponsored ministries became the big fish that swallowed the little fish of other congregations’ ministries whose heritage and legacy frequently disappeared over time. Consider the school, retreat center or nursing home of one institute that is threatened to be put out of business because another religious institute is competing more effectively for the market share of students, retreatants or residents. Finally, consider the tensions and antipathies of the past three years, 50 years, 200 years, or 800 years, that have led to separations, divisions and seemingly irreconcilable differences among institutes that are part of the same religious family, tensions that have been passed down from one generation to the next, tensions that divide brother from brother, sister from sister, and sisters from brothers. Are there not ways in which, with hearts transformed by grace, we can restore and revive the attitudes of mutual reverence and respect that are the evangelical pre-conditions (Matthew 7:1-5) for furthering the fraternal and sororal practices of mutual understanding, mutual encouragement, mutual support and mutual correction?

With regard to our covenant with the church and ecclesial leaders, in what ways are we in need of reconciliation?

On the one hand, consider the times when the labors of consecrated women and men are undervalued, taken for granted, judgmentally and unfairly scrutinized or eliminated with no due process from one day to the next. On the other hand, consider how we as consecrated persons are able to find the poor, the powerless, the elderly, the homeless, the forgotten, those in need of evangelization, and those most in need of the church’s ministries, yet the question remains, are we sufficiently visible to be found by them? Consider priests, sisters, brothers and seminarians from religious institutes or societies of apostolic life from countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America or Europe who are made to feel like unwelcomed strangers and aliens within a dominant ecclesial culture, rather than being recognized not as “international ministers” but as the missionaries they are. Consider the implications for our covenant and communion as consecrated men and women from many forms of life when prominent voices in the church minimize the contemporary significance of historical religious institutes and their lay collaborators, consigning their contributions to the past and declaring without nuance that the church’s future belongs to new ecclesial movements and new communities. Consider the ecclesial challenges encountered by bishops as well as theologians whose respective ministries are distinctively informed and influenced by their own vocational identities as consecrated persons and members of religious institutes.1

Reconciliation in “Vita Consecrata”

Fraternity in a Divided and Unjust World

51. The Church entrusts to communities of consecrated life the particular task of spreading the spirituality of communion, first of all in their internal life and then in the ecclesial community, and even beyond its boundaries, by opening or continuing a dialogue in charity, especially where today’s world is torn apart by ethnic hatred or senseless violence. Placed as they are within the world’s different societies—societies frequently marked by conflicting passions and interests, seeking unity but uncertain about the ways to attain it — communities of consecrated life, where persons of different ages, languages and cultures meet as brothers and sisters, are signs that dialogue is always possible and that communion can bring differences into harmony.

Consecrated men and women are sent forth to proclaim, by the witness of their lives, the value of Christian fraternity and the transforming power of the Good News, which makes it possible to see all people as sons and daughters of God, and inspires a self-giving love towards everyone, especially the least of our brothers and sisters. Such communities are places of hope and of the discovery of the Beatitudes, where love, drawing strength from prayer, the wellspring of communion, is called to become a pattern of life and source of joy. In an age characterized by the globalization of problems and the return of the idols of nationalism, international institutes especially are called to uphold and to bear witness to the sense of communion between peoples, races and cultures. In a climate of fraternity, openness to the global dimension of problems will not detract from the richness of particular gifts, nor will the affirmation of a particular gift conflict with other gifts or with unity itself. International Institutes can achieve this effectively, inasmuch as they have to face in a creative way the challenge of inculturation, while at the same time preserving their identity.

Communion Among Different Institutes

52. Fraternal spiritual relations and mutual cooperation among different Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life are sustained and nourished by the sense of ecclesial communion. Those who are united by a common commitment to the following of Christ and are inspired by the same Spirit cannot fail to manifest visibly, as branches of the one Vine, the fullness of the Gospel of love. Mindful of the spiritual friendship which often united founders and foundresses during their lives, consecrated persons, while remaining faithful to the character of their own Institute, are called to practice a fraternity which is exemplary and which will serve to encourage the other members of the Church in the daily task of bearing witness to the Gospel.

Reconciliation requires courage, wisdom

I raise these questions and pose these considerations not to provoke, but to draw attention to those realities in which the experience and witness of our covenant and communion as consecrated persons are put at risk, threatened with breaking, and at times, broken—in multi-dimensional ways—vertically, horizontally and spherically. Without naming and identifying the ways in which our covenant and communion with one another and at times with our churchhave been put at risk, threatened with breaking, and broken, it may be important for us to pause and assess the degree to which the “gestalt” of our collective witness as consecrated persons is too often viewed “in parts” rather than as a “whole.” To the extent that this analysis is accurate, can we truly be that reconciling presence so needed in our church and in our world? Among ourselves, within the internal forum, we must dare to face what is often perceived by outsiders as a covenant more often characterized or sensationalized as fragmented or broken, not only in pieces, but in smithereens. If it is on these terms that the so-called “reconciling presence” of consecrated persons is to be evaluated by the people of God, our credibility is inevitably placed in serious jeopardy. Yet … with regard to the integrity and vitality of the covenant, I believe transforming grace is possible. We must seek out sacred opportunities to recognize that we—all of us—with God’s help, are the only and the best hope of the covenant’s restoration, renewal and rebirth.

Indeed, the work of reconciliation is difficult and arduous. It requires courage and wisdom, patience and imagination, the kind of imagination which, even if it cannot bring about the desired reconciliation in the here and now, does not cease to continue to envision and hope for the possibility of reconciliation in the future. To this particular point, the 2011 French film Of Gods and Men, which recounts the story of a group of French Trappist monks in Algeria, is instructive.2 Amidst political violence and civil strife, the monks of the Tibherine monastery, knowing full well that their lives inevitably were at risk, had become a reconciling presence among the people in the region of the Atlas mountains. In a powerful scene, the prior, Christián, seeks to discover what it means to be a reconciling presence among his own brothers who are divided right down the middle as to whether they should remain with the people (and face certain martyrdom) or flee the danger (in the hopes of returning when the conflict is resolved). For those who have not seen the film, I will not be a spoiler except to say that it is a film well worth the time and reflection of consecrated persons interested and invested in the dynamics of reconciliation ad extra and ad intra.

II: Heralds of the word, our pledge to God is a clear conscience

(I Peter 3:18-22) Like our heroes and heroines in religious life, we too have been drawn to stand before God—to cross the threshold of the “door of faith” as consecrated persons— and to find in this “new space” a place that is beyond guilt for what we have done or regret for what we have failed to do, or indignation for what has been done to us and to others or profound grief over losses that cannot be restored—in that sacred space where living with a clear conscience becomes our pledge to God.

The pledge for a clear conscience is a commitment to mindfulness, to attentiveness, to living with an undivided heart, a heart that is humble, a heart upon which the law of the Lord has been written (Jeremiah 31:33). It is a pledge informed by our hearing, proclaiming and living the Word whose herald we are. This pledge is what enables us to become that reconciling presence so desperately needed in our institutes, in our church and in our world. It requires us to pay attention when our lives become unfocused and overwhelmed by distractions, competing claims and discordant voices. In taking into account the multiple demands which are part of our lives, along with the difficulties that we face in trying to keep our lives focused and uncluttered, we do well to remember the struggles of the rest of the world. Such remembrance is also part of the pledge.

Our efforts to live with a clear conscience require of us a daily examen regarding how distractions, mental vacations, open-eyed siestas, not paying attention or attending too much to insignificant things can sabotage our effectiveness as heralds of the Word and place in jeopardy the quality of our everyday experiences of living the covenant. How often does our failure to cultivate a humble and contrite heart result in our inability to perceive and intuit who and what is truly in need of hearing the Word whose ministers we are, because the focus of our attention is drawn more to drama than to substance, to concerns about our own justification rather than the welfare of others? Indeed, sometimes it is our own egos that get in the way, but often we are just not paying attention.

For all of our talk of discernment, how many decisions do we make precipitously without considering the impact and toll they will take on the lives of others? We can stand in horror over the plight of displaced persons in devastated areas of our world who from one day to the next lose everything, and yet when we act with dispatch in the relocation of members, are we really paying attention to the price paid by an elderly brother or infirm sister or a candidate in formation whose life is turned inside out in the blink of an eye? As heralds of the Word, our integrity is put to the test every time our actions betray the message of the Gospel. Consider the reactions of those who are in a privileged place to observe us—at our best and our worst—when as employees, students, residents, vendors, family members, benefactors, or trustees they have occasion to walk away from us with disappointment or disdain, rather than delight or edification, saying: “So, this is what ‘living the mission’ looks like in practice?”

Opening our eyes, ears and hearts

As these examples illustrate, our pledge to live with a clear conscience is not easy, but it is a simple and a constant reminder of the reality to which Francis of Assisi referred when he spoke the words: “Who we are before God, this we are and nothing more” (Hebrews 4:13). Conscious of the fact that we have been called to diverse ministries of reconciliation according to God’s particular will and purpose, we cannot help but be attentive to the demands of the vertical, horizontal and spherical dimensions of reconciliation. Living with this awareness inevitably stirs up in us a profound realization about our roles as consecrated persons at this moment in history where violence, brokenness and every manifestation of the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, abound. Mindful of our pledge, we come not only to realize the weight of reality, but also our particular call as consecrated persons to shoulder the weight of reality and, with God’s grace, to take charge of the weight of reality in ways that contribute to reconciliation and transformation.3

As heralds of the Word, committed to being a reconciling presence amidst the realities in which we find ourselves, our pledge to God to live with a clear conscience implies that we live consciously and conscientiously—with eyes wide open, with ears wide open, with hearts and minds wide open— that, like the Prophet Isaiah (50:4-5), we are awake, despiertos y despiertas, to the reality that God has given each of us a disciple’s tongue, that we might know how to give a word of comfort to the weary. Morning after morning, God wakes us up to listen, to see, to feel and to think like disciples so that we may perceive where reconciliation is most needed and act accordingly. God looks to us to make good on our pledge, without resistance, without turning away, to be heralds of the Word through the witness and the action of our lives.

III. Hearts transformed by grace: repenting and believing the Good News

(Mark 1:12-15) “The time of fulfillment has come, the Reign of God is at hand, repent and believe the Good News” (Mark 1:15). With these words as recorded in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus inaugurates his ministry of calling forth disciples and followers, persons open to having their hearts transformed by grace. For each of us, the experience of call has been mediated in some form or fashion by other consecrated persons who, through their own following of Jesus, have enabled us to recognize those times of fulfillment when we experience that the reign of God is at hand. Years ago, while I was on a retreat, I remember being directed to do a “mapping” of all the various religious institutes and forms of consecrated life that had contributed in some way to my own sense of vocation. At the time, the exercise was most instructive, but perhaps it was not until more recently that I have grasped more fully its significance. In diverse and varied ways, from my early childhood through adulthood, my life has been shaped and influenced at different times and in different places by many groups: the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence, the Joliet Franciscans, the School Sisters of St. Francis, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the Congregation of Notre Dame, the Franciscan Friars, the Kentucky Dominicans, the Sinsinawa Dominicans, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, the Passionist Priests and Brothers, members of Focolare, the Maryknoll Sisters, the Society of the Divine Word, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Jesuits—and if time permitted, the litany could go on. But I believe I’ve made my point. It takes many forms of consecrated life to inspire, guide and sustain each one of us as a consecrated person across the lifespan. In a similar manner, it takes the witness of all of us to remind each one us of the call of Jesus to repent and believe in the Good News.

Repentance, understood as metanoia, a changing of our minds and hearts, cannot be uncoupled from the act of faith that makes possible our belief in the Good News, the evangelion, that is always new. More importantly, neither can it be uncoupled from the experience of God’s transforming grace, an experience that enables us not only to listen deeply, beyond words, but also to see deeply, beyond externals. It is this kind of “seeing”—“eyelash to eyelash,” “the ability to look into the eyes of another” as Sister Joan Scanlon, OP puts it—that speaks to the meaning of reconciliation. And it is precisely the experience of reconciliation that leads us to hope and to a deep sense of joy (1 Thessalonians 5).

At the conclusion of Porta Fidei, Pope Benedict XVI writes:

The trials of life, while helping us to understand the mystery of the Cross and to participate in the sufferings of Christ (cf. Colossians 1:24), are a prelude to the joy and hope to which faith leads: “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). We believe with firm certitude that the Lord Jesus has conquered evil and death. With this sure confidence we entrust ourselves to him: he, present in our midst, overcomes the power of the evil one (cf. Luke 11:20); and the Church, the visible community of his mercy, abides in him as a sign of definitive reconciliation with the Father. (15)

As we ponder the questions put forward here, these reflections afford us an opportunity to enter a “new social space” for the purpose of beginning a journey together—as sisters and as brothers—united by the common bond of our consecration. Let us pray that we may continue to grow in our understanding of what it means to be unrelenting witnesses of reconciliation, heralds of the Word with hearts transformed by grace. May our covenant with God and one another, our pledge of a clear conscience and our belief in the Good News enable us to be a courageous, credible and creative “reconciling presence”—inspired by God’s grace, sent forth in mission, a communion of charisms, united in faith, amidst our diversity— that is God’s delight.

I conclude with these words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose message about the various religious orders of his day remains ever timely:

I admire them all. I belong to one of them by observance, but to all of them by charity. We all need one another: the spiritual good which I do not own and possess, I receive from others.... In this exile, the Church is still on pilgrimage and is, in a certain sense, plural: she is a single plurality and a plural unity. All our diversities, which make manifest the richness of God’s gifts, will continue to exist in the one house of the Father, which has many rooms. Now there is a division of graces; then there will be distinctions of glory. Unity, both here and there, consists in one and the same charity. (From the Apologia as quoted in Vita Consecrata, 52)


1. See Daniel J. Harrington and Donald Senior, 1 Peter, Jude and 2 Peter (Sacra Pagina) (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008) 99-111.

2. See also John Kiser, The Monks of Tibherine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002).

3. See Kevin F. Burke, SJ, The Ground Beneath the Cross: The Theology of Ignacio Ellacuría (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000) 127.

Sister Margaret Eletta Guider, OSFSister Margaret Eletta Guider, OSF, is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate (Joliet, IL) and served as the congregation’s vice president and councilor for mission from 2008-2012. She is an Associate Professor of Missiology at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, formerly Weston Jesuit School of Theology, where she has taught since 1990.


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