We (novices) are taking a Contemporary Religious Life class with novices of other religious orders through Aquinas Institute of Theology. Last semester’s class focused on the history of religious life in the United States, as well as on the vows in relation to each of our respective congregation’s constitution.
This semester we’re digging more deeply into the vows but we’re also learning about the evolution of religious congregations - from a historical standpoint, (i.e. – looking back,) to looking at current congregation configurations, to envisioning what the future might hold. We’ve talked about the process of dying in the context of ways of life, ways of living in community, and in ways of thinking of ourselves. We’ve learned that reasons for congregational change (in the form of mergers, unions, completion, covenant agreements and so on) range from financial concerns to diminished numbers of both professed and entering sisters, to visioning the best way forward in order to advance the Dominican mission of preaching and teaching the Gospel - to bring about the reign of God. The latter is how Joye Gros, OP described for us the rationale behind the union of seven Dominican congregations now known as the Dominican Sisters of Peace, (with another congregation joining in 2012 through a merger process.) Unbelievable, and unbelievably difficult, forward thinking!
Certainly, consideration of change is challenging, should be handled with sensitivity, and should never be taken lightly. It is never accomplished without pain. I sure can understand that. But what became clear to me in our class discussions was that ‘death’ is not the enemy unless death is allowed to lead to extinction. Even as a congregation might consider ‘completion’ … its natural ending once the last member has gone to God… how the assets of heritage are disposed of can be decisions that generate new life … in another congregation, in a secular ministry, or in any number of other ways. Passing on one’s heritage is a generative act to all of those who follow. What a gift!
The entire spectrum of possibilities reminds me of composting. Eggshells, banana peels, coffee grounds, apple cores, etc rot if we simply throw them in the garbage. But layer them outside in your garden with leaves, grass clippings, newspaper and other organic matter and in a month (give or take) you’ll discover rich black dirt that can be used to nourish vegetables or flowers! That ‘garbage’ is now home to thousands of beneficial microorganisms. What we once considered ‘dead’ is very much alive, just in another form.
And so it is with religious life, I think. We can ‘throw it away’ or we can compost. As for me, I’m going with composting… and I’m really excited to see what the future holds – for all of us!