Giving Voice, a peer-led national organization for nuns and religious sisters under the age of 50, convened for a four-day conference to build bridges between religious life and social justice issues.
Eighty of the group’s sisters from around the country and other nations worked together at Fontbonne University to push for change within the church and create a cross-generational culture of community and growth.
In 2016, Pope Francis wrote a letter to men and women religious calling for the church to become experts in spiritual conversation. And at this year’s convention, the sisters examined his letter and found ways to “live boldly” in their faith by communicating and witnessing to others who live various lifestyles.
“For me, a way of living boldly means embracing differences and being vulnerable and sharing myself with the sisters that I live with and accepting someone in their differences,” Sister Kathryn Press of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus said.
Before Press, 35, entered religious life, she was a graduate student at Aquinas Institute of Theology and working in the church in St. Louis. She said through prayer and the witnessing of other sisters, she answered God’s call to take part in her vocation as a sister. During her ministry in the St. Louis area, she taught at St. Ambrose School on the Hill and Cor Jesu Academy in Affton.
Press said that over the past 100 years, men and women religious have been a vital part of St. Louis’ growth, a group that “is unique in its way of sharing religious life with the world today.”
During the course of the conference, the sisters explored 10 topics including sessions on celibacy, combating Christianity’s involvement in white supremacy and colonialism, and ways sisters can handle issues at the border. The conference included two workshops in Spanish.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, eight out of 10 American adults believe the recent accusations of sexual abuse and misconduct against Catholic priests and bishops are a reflection of an ongoing problem in the church.
And while sex abuse scandals and the declining number of sisters may loom over the Catholic Church, some young sisters like Sister Maria Dela Paz, 31, of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, said change cannot happen without sisters at the table.
“Working in the church and being in dialogue with clergy and working in parishes and education is a way to show to effect some change,” Dela Paz said. “I'm not saying that things will change right away, but we do have a voice, and I believe the clergy sex abuse is going to transform the church into something new.”
And through the conference, the sisters collaborated to find solutions to address former and present problems within the Catholic Church. Dela Paz said the church’s history with white supremacy and colonialism is “horrible,” but in order to move forward, the church has to own its faults.
Though statistics from the National Religious Retirement Office state the number of women religious in the U.S. has declined from a peak of 181,421 in 1965 to 47,160 in 2016, Giving Voice uses communion and acceptance to welcome younger generations into sisterhood.
“The church can't continue to function like they had before, because it hasn't worked. And so we as a new generation get to define what that change looks like, and that's what gives me hope in being a religious sister,” Sister Dela Paz said.
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Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.