Consider for a moment how the leadership of the world’s women religious, brought together under the aegis of the International Union of General Superiors (UISG), operates.
Looking for a theme for its 2010 conference, the UISG staff decided to survey the ideas of its membership, the women themsleves. They asked for ideas. What the staff received – and they report, “overwhelmingly,” – was the twin theme of "mysticism and prophecy," the simple idea of examining the interior spirit before determing how they were being called to live and act in the world. Or, as many put it, "two sides of the same coin."
Alas, it became the conference theme.
For the first two days of the UISG conference, now winding down here, the theme was examined in a series of talks by men and women religious and a spirit-filled Rabbi thrown into the mix. The women listened; they engaged in meditation, prayer, and table conversations between the presentations and over coffee breaks and meals.
Following some pretty thorough self-reflection, the 800 women broke down into language groups to further consider the topics, focusing on what it means to be consecrated women religious in the world today, a world filled with much darkness and pain. Scripture and the writings of Saint John of the Cross became vehicles for these reflection.
No one disputed that we live – and the women work – in dark times, given the suffering of so many, given the plight of the planet, given the tensions within the church. So what does this darkness mean? What does the darkness say? Where is hope? Where is light? Where is Jesus?
Few, of course, are better equipped to intuit calls in the darkness than Christians who live and pray and understand and believe in the Paschal Mystery. Yet for each woman the call might be different, just as it would be collective for congregations. And for this increasingly in-Spirited group of women, a response to that call would likely come with new solidarity of purpose.
So following language group discussions and lots of note taking, there were the proverbial reports back to the group, of course. Followed by further language discussions and further refinements, all aimed at and given to the writing committee for a consensus draft.
Then, more last minute reflections and reports: The Spanish group’s final report was lofty and poetic (and a bit long); the French report was prayerful and profound; the Germans, short and to the point; the English, influenced by the 55 U.S. women religious leaders, practical, calling for specific steps, among them women religious on worldwide diocesan women's commissions.
Yes, sometimes stereotypes actually tell us something.
Now the gathering is waiting for a birth of sorts. The draft is to be offered back to the group for final refinement and likely release.
How is that for process?
But wait, one more note. When all was said and done, there was plenty of humor as well. Or was it humor?
Just before the conference concluded its penultimate day, a woman from the floor went to the microphone and before all the assembled suggested the the women declare the year 2011 “the year of consecrated women religious.” She had barely turned from the microphone before the hall broke into thunderous applause.
Well, if not the women then who would declare such a year?
Final declaration to come. The Spirit is at work here. Trust her.
Fox is NCR Editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.