The vice president of the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa, is the new president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and a Sister of St. Francis of Assisi from Wisconsin was chosen as president-elect at the closing of the organization's Aug. 9-12 annual assembly in Garden Grove, where members described themselves as "contemplative activists."

Sister Patricia Farrell assumed the role of president for 2011-2012 at the conclusion of the assembly. She was voted in as president-elect last year. Sister Deacon, director of her St. Francis, Wis.-based congregation, has represented Franciscans at the United Nations and around the world, including as director of the New York office of Franciscan International. She has been an LCWR leader for the past 10 years at the regional and national levels. According to organizers and participants at previous conventions, this year's assembly drew a wider variety of congregations' representatives from across the country, with a predominant number from the East Coast. But attendees concluded that decreasing membership in a large number of religious communities requires a review of LCWR's regional structure. A survey conducted by the organization's Strategic Operational Planning Committee projected that by 2012 there will be at least 100 fewer women religious in each region. Currently, there are a total of 46,451 women consecrated to religious life in the country, down from 60,642 in 2007. A conversation between two members of LCWR's Contemporary Life Committee yielded some conclusions about "three movements" that have developed within the organization. They are: an energy that promotes a different way of understanding how to let go and embrace "a new way"; an urgency to be with the world in ways "we are transforming"; and embracing change, being willing to put everything on the table for the "sake of realigning it in service for God's mission in the world with complete selflessness." The sisters compared the event with a "reflection seen through a mirror" and concluded that the discussions were done "in partnership with God, who lies in labor giving birth all day long." To describe the attitude in the room, the sisters used words such as "hope-filled," "sturdy strength," a "sense of peace, but not quietness," determination, purpose, unity, fearlessness, "less impatient," "less desperate" and "new lightness of being." The women religious admitted there is still an increasing need for solidarity, communion and partnership among them. In talking about the future of LCWR and its membership, past president Dominican Sister Mary Hughes drew on the examples of saints who endured suffering and oppression but conveyed a message of reconciliation and forgiveness. "Forgiveness emanates from freedom," she said, "from tapping into a wellspring of compassion and it never pretends that all is well." She offered four conditions that give way to forgiveness: having a willingness to abandon the right to resentment; seeking not revenge but reconciliation; letting go of hoping for a better past; and letting go of negative attachment to hurt. The assembly stage was set up like a living room for "reflective presentations" and unlike previous assemblies, no rally was held this year. It was replaced by an immigration prayer and panel with lay activists who talked about, among other issues, the struggles of undocumented immigrants and their families forced to live in the shadows or facing deportation. Their presentation offered an illustration of the prior day's keynote speech, which for the first time was delivered in another language, rather than English. A woman religious from Mexico gave the address in Spanish. "Your contributions to theology and spirituality have favored Latin America and Caribbean countries," said Benedictine Sister Maricarmen Bracamontes, coordinator of a theology advisory team to the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious, which includes men and women religious. Her religious community is based in the northeastern Mexican state of Coahuila, which shares a border with Texas and is an area that has become a fertile field for organized crime. "The apostolic visitation had to do with your intellectual formation in different areas and your involvement in civil organizations has increased our respect towards you," said the Mexican theologian. After offering differences and similarities in the way of doing things in the United States and in Latin American countries, Sister Bracamontes stressed on the need of increased solidarity for growth and maturity. "We live in crucial times in every sense of the word," she said, "we must not, we cannot turn back, we have to follow God's dream in terms of values, relationships, institutions and systems. We have to question ways of facing problems and how to respond," she stated. She stressed the importance of using the "Christian memory" when reviewing and interpreting current events, keeping in mind what was significant in the past that could be used in the present. "Efforts to understand events from a Christian perspective are key for pastoral action," she remarked. "We are called to activate the memory of life, death and resurrection of Jesus." She invited participants to "roll away the stone" to nourish growth and maturity and "confront the evil." "There is power in Jesus as a creator and re-creator of life that helps develop a healthy growth to reach a fullness of life; a source of being and life. It's not to impose or force dominion or leadership, but rather develop creative capacity." She left participants with a question for further discussion: How to be active participants in this paradigm shift as a main source of strength?  

Scriptures are ‘indispensable companion’

During the second day of the national annual assembly, leaders of institutes of women religious were encouraged to keep the Scriptures as their “indispensable companion” in order to take better decisions about the future.“As we reflect together on the theme that you have chosen for this conference, ‘Mystery Unfolding: Religious Life for the World,’ I would like to affirm your choice to enter into a time of deep contemplation and I would like to offer that as you do this the Scriptures are an indispensable companion,” said keynote speaker Dominican Sister Barbara E. Reid, professor of New Testament studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.More than 650 women religious and guests, including more than 20 leaders from several European and Latin American countries were welcomed by LCWR national leaders who read congratulation letters from the Vatican and the White House.Shifts in resources, identity, members and traditional ministries; diversity of cultures, worldviews and theologies; restructuring of congregations; and growing collaboration with the laity are among the factors affecting women religious communities listed in the document “LCWR Call: 2010-2015” that has generated an ongoing discussion between women religious and partners.This year’s assembly provides an opportunity to continue the conversation and offers a forum to brainstorm ideas on how to approach the future, said members of the national office.“We know that [religious] life probably won’t go on as it has,” Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Annmarie Sanders, LCWR director of communications, told The Tidings, “so we are here to listen in silence, together, to God’s Spirit and what He is inviting us to be during this time of uncertainty.” The opening ceremony was sprinkled with calls from LCWR leaders and Auxiliary Bishop Cirilo Flores of Orange to exercise collective contemplation based on Isaiah 43 and to reflect on the gifts that are needed from women religious to “continually pledge hope” to the world and to “creatively challenge one another” in their journeys as individuals and in their congregations.Bishop Flores thanked the sisters for serving with “selflessness, generosity and charity” and urged them to be attentive and discerning as they answer the question ‘Are we where God wants us to be?’ and to continue as “witnesses of hope in the Church and the world.” 

Transformation and newness

As Sister Reid developed the three main aspects of her presentation (the mystery of God revealed in Creation, the mystery of God beyond gender and the mystery of death as birth pains of hope), she reiterated the importance of contemplation and discernment to hear what “God is calling us to do now” when “everything in the universe is shifting and when a way of life that seemed predictable and secure, is not.“Chaos is not just a scientific theory, but it characterizes our daily life,” she noted. She suggested listening, openness and the relinquishment of control as elements that will help in the process.“New leadership theories that are more attune to the rhythm of the cosmos ask us not to begin with predetermined outcomes, but to start with deep non-defensive listening and allow our inner woman to emerge and then to co-create with members the actions and structure to move toward our future.”Citing the account in Job when God asks him where was he when He laid the foundation of the Earth, Sister Reid explained how it is that in “times of loss, grief and senseless suffering that radical amazement and creation can draw us to the heart of holy mystery and bring about transformation.“God is directing Job to try to get away from his pain and be directed outward by beauty and awe to a transformative power that is in the center of the cosmos,” she mused.Using several chapters in Genesis the theologian illustrated the creation of a “very good world” where male and female are equals, and citing the Gospel of John she reminded the audience about “the mystery in the death of Jesus that gives way to life and new hope,” which in many instances is explained through the flow of blood and water, “same liquids that accompany the birth process.“It takes courage to die in order to give ways of new life,” she reflected.And then asked “What is it that is able to move us from our fears to rebirth a new world?” and offered the answer: “forgiveness and holding on to each other in the struggle so we don’t lose anyone.”Sister Reid’s remarks were welcomed by participants.“She opened all horizons of faith for men and women,” said Divine Compassion Sister Susan Merritt, from White Plains, New York. “Ways in which we can be much more effective ministers in our world.”“There’s value in suffering and what comes out from it,” said Sister of Saint Joseph of Chambery Barbara Bozak (Connecticut). “We need to keep our courage to keep going.”“Newness comes out of every stage,” reflected Daughters of Mary and Joseph Sister Cristina O’Connor, from Los Angeles.The 2012 LCWR national assembly will be held in St. Louis.

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