A new model of leadership that’s been refined in the fires of change and conflict is emerging from U.S. religious women.
In June, the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, along with Solidarity with Sisters, invited 150 people to Catholic University for an opportunity to discuss the model of leadership that has developed in Catholic women’s communities around the world over the last 50 years since Vatican II. The event coincided with the release of Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times, an anthology of 10 addresses given by Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) presidents.
Catholic sisters are emerging as leaders ahead of their times. From Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, and Nuns on the Bus to Catholic Health Association CEO Sister Carol Keehan, DC, who helped pass the Affordable Care Act, to former LCWR president Sister Pat Farrell, OSF, who practiced authentic spiritual leadership in the face of the Vatican’s ongoing investigation of that organization (an investigation that Pope Francis should have laid quietly to rest, but has not), religious women are getting notice for their thoughtful, faithful leadership in the face of withering criticism and their own communities’ dramatic changes.
What are the marks of this new leadership?
1. Leadership must begin with facing oneself. Sister Marie McCarthy, SP, calls this taking “a long, loving look at what is.” Developing a prayerful, contemplative consciousness allows illusions and judgments to fall away. What changes are needed so that we can go “deeper into life, into service, into God,” as Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, writes? “The purpose of leadership is not to make the present bearable,” writes Sister Joan, but “to make the future possible.” This kind of leadership is measured and evaluated by the degree to which the people around the leaders are inspired to effective, resilient change.
4. Science has shifted its focus from “matter” to “energy,” which informs how leadership is practiced effectively. Leaders must understand energy as power. “Countercultural, mutual, relational, it is the authentic power integral to the transformation of our church and of our world. It is the power of sisterhood,” writes Sister Mary Ann Zollmann, BVM. True power is energy that bears fruit, not ascendancy over others or even influence to effect external change. “The group leads together,” says Sister Marie, “and the role of the leader is to articulate and fine tune the leadings of the group,” including solidarity with the poor and marginalized, because this relationship informs and transforms leadership. “All leaders must have the poor, voiceless, and marginalized as their spiritual directors.”
Our times require mature spiritual leadership. Our questions are too complex for one answer. Our faith has given us the wisdom, spirit, and living witnesses we need to step boldly—together—into the future.
Rose Marie Berger, a Sojourners senior associate editor, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.
Key to Catholic orders:
SSS: Sisters of Social Service DC: Daughters of Charity OSF: Order of Saint Francis SP: Sisters of Providence OSB: Oder of Saint Benedict RSM: Religious Sisters of Mercy BVM: Sisters of the Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
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