A “holy fire” was ignited on July 7, 2016, in Louisville, Ky., with a goal for those carrying its sparks is to keep burning for years to come.
The communities represented at the 2016 North American Ursuline Convocation processed to the front of the Daisy Room at the Galt House hotel with lighted candles in hand, singing along to CSJ Sister Kathy Sherman’s “Holy Fire.” When they departed the morning of July 10,
they took their candle with them following singing, blessings and hugs until they meet again.
The Ursuline Convocation occurs every three years, bringing together Ursuline Sisters from the United States with those in Canada and Mexico. They share faith, discuss the future of their communities and how to carry out the charism of Saint Angela Merici. This was the ninth Convocation, with the first in 1992.
Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph and Louisville in Kentucky
joined with Ursuline Sisters in Ohio from Cincinnati, Brown County, Cleveland, Toledo and Youngstown. It also brought together Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union in the East, Central and West provinces, as well as Ursulines of Tildonk from New York. Ursulines of the Chatham Union in Ontario, Canada, joined with Ursulines from Mexico to make the convocation a truly international event. The Company of Saint Ursula was also present, as well as associates and friends from several of the communities.
All those present were called to “A Radical Response in the Evolving World: Re-imagining Angela’s Charism.” Two nationally known speakers and authors helped to set that tone in the mornings.
Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, an Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister whose writings on religious life, spirituality and feminism are well known among women religious, spoke on July 8. The speaker on July 9 was Father Michael Crosby, a Capuchin Franciscan who has been instrumental in promoting interfaith cooperation and service to the poor.
“Why are we so anxious about our future?” Sister Sandra said. “Is it because we are fewer in number than we were at our institutional peak? This fear can paralyze us.”
Successful religious congregations are not those that reflect the signs of societal success, such as wealth, power and large numbers, Sister Sandra said
“Deuteronomy says Israel was chosen because they were few in number, but loved by God,” she said. “Jesus saved the world not by conquering, but by being conquered. Wealth and power in religious life have almost always led to corruption.”
She encouraged the sisters who fear their communities are growing too old to be of service. “Old age” was once considered anything past 65, but adulthood is now one-third longer than it was for previous generations, and true old age is now just the final few years of life, she said.
“The vast majority of women religious are in senior adulthood,” Sister Sandra said. “Retiring into pointless or self-indulgent activities is very bad for you.”
What needs to be retired is religious communities clinging to a past in which congregations staffed entire schools or hospitals, she said. Ursulines are one of the best communities at reconfiguring ministries to serve unmet needs, she said, and an emphasis on more individual ministries is essential.
“You cannot order up a third-grade teacher anymore,” Sister Sandra said. “Religious orders were not founded to start schools and hospitals. Sisters should do what they believe in. Real lived community isn’t everyone living under the same roof, doing the same ministry. Preach the gospel where it is most needed.”
Sisters should minister from their community charism to the people of God, Sister Sandra said. She talked about these specific clusters in which sisters are serving unmet needs.
- Social justice, which includes issues involving peace, justice, immigration, nongovernmental organizations and advocacy for the powerless and oppressed.
- Serving victims of social injustice, war and epidemics. Showing compassion for the suffering body of Christ in homeless shelters, with AIDS victims and as spiritual first-responders.
- Intellectuals, scholars and artists. Serving as writers, teachers and theologians, or through liturgical arts, journalism and the “thinking heart of humanity.”
- Those who thirst for meaning and transcendence, focusing on fostering spiritual growth in individuals. Spiritual directors, campus ministry, retreat leaders and speakers.
“Women religious have a feminine way to minister that involves inclusivity and empowering all members, not to maintain the hierarchy,” Sister Sandra said. “We are to devote ourselves to Christ.”
Father Crosby started July 9 talking about the difference in ministry and mission.
“My community decided to start a new ministry. I suggested we put it on the back burner,” he said. “Jesus didn’t have a ministry, he had a mission. Francis of Assisi had a mission, not a ministry. The more I learn about Angela Merici, I know she had a mission.”
The house was the basic business model for Jesus, Francis and Angela, Father Crosby said.
“There were only two options for women in Angela’s time, marriage or the monastery. Angela chose a mystical espousal to Christ. Not to Jesus, to the risen Christ,” Father Crosby said. “The company was a new way of doing business. Jesus created a new family business. Peter and Andrew, James and John, they left the family business to start a new one with Jesus.”
Saint Angela recognized herself as a disciple of Christ, but she couldn’t find a place in the structures of the time, Father Crosby said. “She had to create it herself. It began as female, but became all inclusive. We have to create community wherever we are.”
Both speakers talked about the benefits of ministering with lay people to serve unmet needs.
“The universal call to holiness means ministry cannot be just for the vowed,” Father Crosby said. “Just those who are celibate cannot be responsible for the charism.”
The afternoons of July 8-9 were replete with breakout sessions that dealt with topics as diverse as aging, compassion and the evolution of the Ursuline charism, to schools, associates, poverty, human trafficking and the Ursuline ministry Water With Blessings. Many participants crammed into a room to hear Father Joseph Mitchell of the Passionist Earth & Spirit Center in Louisville discuss “The Life We Are Given – Embracing a New Cosmology.”
On July 9, all the participants joined for Mass in the Daisy Room with joyful music that left the presider, Father William Fichteman, wishing he could hear that sort of singing every week. Sister Clara Fehringer, an Ursuline of Louisville, presented a touching reflection following the reading of Luke 10: 25-37, the story of the “Good Samaritan.”
“We radically respond in this evolving world by loving our neighbor as ourselves,” Sister Clara said. “There are as many opportunities to do roadside ministry today as there are people in this room.”
The sign of peace lasted twice as long as a regular Mass as participants searched out as many people as possible to hug. During the closing hymn, “We Are Called,” many sisters and associates joined hands and lined the room in an impromptu line of love.
The July 10 closing service sent the sisters and associates on their way with their candles and the mission to keep their light shining.
By Dan Heckel, OSUA