NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Franciscan Sister Nancy Schreck, a biblical scholar and a former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, urged about 800 leaders of congregations of women religious not to give up as they redefine their roles in the modern church and world.
Addressing the group during its annual assembly, held Aug. 12-15 in Nashville, Sister Schreck told the group they have experienced something akin to a biblical exile "in which we have been so changed that we are no longer at home in the culture and church in which we find ourselves."
She also described the sisters as having gone through "a place of darkness in the good sense of the word" and being in a "middle space" where "much of what was is gone and what is coming is not yet clear."
Sister Schreck began her keynote address by noting that the Second Vatican Council's decree "Perfectae Caritatis," on the renewal of religious life, provided direction that women religious have followed and continue to do so making them "more faithful, not less" in the process.
In the 50 years since that document was issued, she said women religious "experienced new realities" and responded to unmet needs.
"We adjusted to the changed conditions of our time and it was more than about habits and convents and schedules. Like a seed becoming a sturdy plant in the dark soil we developed new skills needed for a new time."
This journey can't be reversed, she noted, saying today's women religious leaders "cannot not know what we know."
In her own experience, Sister Schreck said, she believes that "God is doing something new" but her days also are filled with "funerals, data on declining demographics, leadership team decisions to discontinue a precious ministry of the congregation, worry about our sisters in Liberia and in North India, selling property, taking down buildings in trying to right size property and holdings."
In this "middle space" where she said today's LCWR members find themselves, she urged them to continue to "bear witness" to what they know about religious life, diminishing organizations, declining structures and changing world views and "what can emerge from them."
"We bear witness to suffering and the struggle for justice. We bear witness to changing spiritual and theological landscapes," she said.
She also urged them to continue to be faithful to the work they are doing and their contemplation, saying it "just may be the grace needed for our time."
Sister Schreck did not specifically mention the continuing doctrinal assessment of LCWR by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which cited "serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life."
The assessment called for the organization's reform to ensure its fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women's ordination and homosexuality.
"The church and the world need our mature love," said Sister Schreck at the end of her presentation, adding that "however long the night" experienced by women religious experience, "the dawn will break."
In other actions during the assembly, attendees also unanimously affirmed a seven-year plan referred to as "LCWR Call," which outlines initiatives for working with "the evolving realities" faced by U.S. religious life; preparing Catholic sisters for leadership" in the emerging intercultural, global reality"; and pledging LCWR's "collective voice, resources, and power" to bring about economic justice, abolish modern-day slavery, ensure immigrant rights, promote nonviolence, and protect the earth and its biosphere.
LCWR members from the local region led the participants to consider a move toward use of renewable energy sources. After a panel discussion, participants signed postcards addressed to people who have led efforts for clean energy, protecting fresh water, and addressing global climate change issues, expressing gratitude and pledging support for these efforts.
A news release on the assembly noted that U.S. congregations represented by LCWR's members have been making "significant efforts to use renewable energy sources" as well as to implement other sustainable practices on properties they own.
LCWR has about 1,400 members who are leaders of their orders in the United States. The members represent about 80 percent of the 51,600 women religious in the country.
Attendees also passed a resolution to promote a national transition from fossil fuel energy sources to renewable energy sources as soon as possible.
They also passed a resolution to ask Pope Francis to formally repudiate the period of Christian history that used religion to justify political and personal violence against indigenous nations and peoples and their cultural, religious and territorial identities.
More than 270 leaders also joined in a discussion about the needs of children and families fleeing violence in their home countries and seeking refuge in the United States.
At the end of the assembly, Sister Sharon Holland, a member of the leadership team of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Monroe, Michigan, assumed the office of LCWR president for 2014-2015. Prior to her election to congregation leadership, she was one of the highest-ranking women at the Vatican where she spent 21 years on the staff of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
The group also voted in Sister Marcia Allen, a Sister of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas, as its president-elect. Sister Allen, president of her congregation, is also a staff member of a retreat center operated by her congregation called Manna House of Prayer.
The LCWR members also elected Franciscan Sister Mary Beth Gianoli, a leadership team member and congregational secretary of the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Indiana, as the LCWR secretary.