January 2010: ‘Renewal’ leads to a God-driven movement

January 12, 2010 by

EDITOR’S NOTE: In each issue of The Messenger, we’ve tried to keep our friends informed about the apostolic visitation that was announced in January 2009. As this issue goes to print, we are in a “holding pattern” — we responded to the Phase II questionnaire by the Nov. 21 deadline and have not heard back from the visitation office as to whether they received our response. As we wait to learn what the next phase will hold, Sister Marcia Allen — president of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia — offers her thoughts on the history of our community and who we are today.

By SISTER MARCIA ALLEN

The apostolic visitation of religious communities of women in the United States has initiated a good deal of soul-searching on the part of those communities.

Have we failed in the single enterprise to which we are committed? Have we not advanced in our commitment to union with God and neighbor through works of service to humanity?

Those questions quickly segue into another: How has our concern for both God’s desire for creation and our living out that desire actually created in us adaptations that make us recognizable to ourselves, but not necessarily recognizable to the general public whom we serve or to Rome, which authorizes our existence?

In the 17th century, the only au-thorized religious life for women was within a cloister. It was a closed world in which women pursued holiness through the severe discipline of isolation from the world. Yet small groups of women in southern France began to gather together in order to feed the hungry, counsel the fainthearted, visit the sick and bury the dead. Many of these tiny groups — including the Sisters of St. Joseph — developed into religious communities of women.

A Jesuit, Jean-Pierre Medaille, passed on to the first Sisters of St. Joseph much of his Jesuit heritage in the “Rule” he wrote for the fledgling congregation of women, enabling them to lead a life of service in their world and yet be “real” religious. This was unheard of in the official tradition of the Catholic Church at that time. It was an adaptation for which there was little precedent and certainly no permission.

But conditions among the people of south central France were so dire that the bishop where the Sisters of St. Joseph emerged could see that these groups of women would guarantee the survival of the culture in which they lived. Some 150 years later, these same French sisters were invited to the United States to provide Catholic education and health care for a burgeoning immigrant population. Government did not provide any type of services, and schools, hospitals and orphanages were viewed as the responsibility of private agencies and organizations.

Six Sisters of St. Joseph came to the St. Louis area in 1836 to begin schools. Their first assignment was a school for the deaf. They quickly drew new members from the American population. They spread throughout the United States and by 1851 were even in Canada. Their institutions became models for the establishment of comparable secular institutions. Their success continued well into the 20th century.

As state governments began to develop and implement certification requirements, many sisters advanced their education and training to meet those requirements. That professionalism began to vie with, if not replace, the apostolic thrust of many of the religious institutes of women.

By the 1950s it was clear that most religious institutes of women needed to revise their approach to their educational and health care institutions. They needed lay boards, additional financial support and educated women for staff. At the same time, the United
States was beginning a cultural revolution that shifted the vision of women. They increasingly found new choices for a successful, fulfilling life of leadership. They no longer had to choose a religious life to find those possibilities.By the 1960s and 1970s it was
clear those factors were contributing to the decline in the number of women entering religious communities. Ultimately, they did not have enough members to continue staffing their own institutions; they began to move the administration, governance, and often the ownership to other entities, many of which were secular. At the same time the Second Vatican Council — Vatican II — decreed that religious communities must renew and adapt. We were to examine our original charism, study the Gospel and adapt to the needs of the times.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia took this mandate seriously and in 1969 had what was called a “renewal Chapter.” This included in-depth study of the charism and the original inspiration from the 17th century. It also included serious study of Sacred Scripture. All of this necessitated a deeper spiritual life — one that could support the new professionalism that the members had achieved.

As a result, our sisters became even more serious about the deepening of our original commitment — union with God and others without distinction.

Forty years later, what has happened?

The community has changed. We have adapted. The Congregation is now more faithful to our original purpose — meeting the needs of a world that is searching for meaning. This leads to a multitude of different services — ranging from care for the earth to advocacy for the unborn, from local engagement to global concern, from work within the
Church to the Church at work in the world.

Yet we are united in our one mission — to enable people to retain their dignity, their relationship with God, self and others, and to be truly human.In adapting like this, we have left our institutions to the care of others and have become relevant in today’s world by reconstituting ourselves as a “social movement organization” (to borrow the phrase from sociologist Patricia Wittberg).

In fact, author Mary Cresp titled her description of the worldwide Communities of St. Joseph “The Joseph Movement.” She describes us as flexible, tensile, adaptable, as finding strength and unity in diversity. Easily responsive to need, we move to where we can most effectively respond to what it is that people and earth need. And we accomplish this through attention to what is happening locally and globally. Ours is a pragmatic approach — counseling services, spiritual direction, food distribution, rent and medicine subsidies, child care, education in schools or parish or civic programs, public free clinics, immigration reform, justice advocacy, energy conservation, organization of civic forums, advocacy for public policy that addresses life issues, and many other services to meet specific needs.

Today, we are diversely engaged in our world. We understand ourselves as one with the world, not removed from it. We suffer its pain and we are glad participators in its triumphs. We partner with others who share our dreams to create projects that we can turn over to them and then move on to new partnerships.

All of this makes us look very different than the religious community of the 1940s and ’50s when we were at the height of our institutionalized form.

So, in this second decade of the 21st century, Rome asks: What has become of you?!

We respond: We have become who we are meant to be in our contemporary world — a religious movement that answers a call to be completely given to what God desires, a self-giving community of love. We do this in our limited human way, but we do it with our whole heart.

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