Last weekend as I was mid-way through my second week of congregation leadership, I found myself thinking of my friends who were gathering in Arizona for the annual Giving Voice retreat for Catholic Sisters in their 20s and 30s. I prayed in gratitude for Giving Voice, a grassroots network of “young nuns,” and in blessing for the next generation of GV Sisters. My prayer is that the relationships they forge today will sustain them well into the future.
As it happens, I aged out of the 20s and 30s retreat a few years ago myself, which is a nice (and unusual) experience as a younger vowed religious … actually being too old for something! But this summer we had our first GV 40s retreat. It was an amazing experience to once again pray, play, and be with my age peers in this life, if only for a few days. It was also perfectly timed to aid in my own discernment, given that it happened directly on the heels of our discernment retreat for the group of CSJP Sisters invited to leave their names in for congregation leadership prior to our Chapter. I had decided to leave my name in, and it was a blessing to sink into that reality with other religious from different congregations who were my own age. One friend had even recently been elected leader of her own congregation which made me feel more normal and helped me to think that I was not entirely crazy.
Tracy Kemme has a post on Global Sisters Report reflecting on last weekend’s 20s and 30s retreat. As I read her column, I found myself remembering the light and love and laughter that filled my heart after my first GV retreat when I was a novice. I could have written her words myself:
At the close of this weekend that went way too fast, we gathered for prayer and to share what the retreat had meant to us. I shared that I felt normal. Usually, I am one of just one or two sisters with a group of peers, or I’m one of a just few young adults in a big group of sisters. In this group of young adult sisters, there was a natural understanding and a relaxed spirit. Women in our circle said they felt grateful, renewed, affirmed, energized, accompanied, strengthened and more.
Religious life is unusual … there is simply no way around that. There is also no way around the fact that, with the median age of Sisters in our communities rapidly approaching 80, being a younger woman religious in your 20s, 30s, or even 40s means that you are pretty much like a unicorn, in that you are one of a rare and exotic species. In community, you have different experiences of church, pop culture, and life than pretty much everyone else. In your circle of friends, you are walking a different path which they most likely respect but to which they cannot relate, no matter how much they try. And with the general public, you tend to elicit sheer disbelief when people find out that you are in fact a young Catholic Sister. “Really? … are you a real Sister?” … I have been asked, many many times.
So imagine the relief when you get together with 5 or 20 or 30 or 100 other young nuns. You get to stop being a unicorn and just get to be yourself. When I was a novice, this was so very important. My discernment was greatly aided by having a network of religious life age peers. It helped me to filter out what aspects and questions and experiences were the byproduct of my age versus what were real questions I had to deal with related to community, ministry, and prayer. GV is a sacred space for which I give thanks. Again, Tracy captures it well:
Younger, newer women religious need these encounters. Of course, we dearly love our own congregations and all of our sisters. Nothing could replace that; the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati are my home. … Being with peers in religious life, and I mean true peers, is indispensable for a young sister’s health – and exciting for the unfolding collaborative future of religious life.
I have grown into my identity as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace in company with my Giving Voice Sisters. The sacred space of GV has helped me to own that I am not, in fact, a unicorn. Younger Catholic Sisters do exist. We are vibrant members of our communities’ present even as we step into a future we cannot yet imagine, but a future in which we deeply believe.
As I read Tracy’s column, I realized that I am in a different space now. My circle of feeling normal has expanded from occasional GV retreats and conversations to who I am in community every day. I carry this circle of friendship and support with me wherever I go. There has been a level of integration for which I am very grateful. GV is part of my context and identity as a finally professed Sister of St. Joseph of Peace, even as I step into the circle of congregation leadership.
To be sure, being a young nun elected leader makes you more of an anomaly than a unicorn. A good young non-nun friend used that word to describe my reality the other day. It caused me pause, but on reflection it fits my present, very unusual reality. I am humbled to realize that I am serving in leadership of my community, a community which I dearly love. The vast majority of my CSJP Sisters have been Sisters longer than I have been alive, and yet, here I am privileged to give my all for our present and as we build bridges to a sustainable future for the generations yet to come.
Giving Voice has been the gift that keeps on giving, especially as I step onto this path of leadership. There are by no means many age peers in leadership (I can count them on one hand), but there are some. I also know that as all of our communities live into the reality of demographic change there will be more who are called to this adventure. I am grateful for the elder Sisters who are recognizing this reality and mentoring the younger Sisters in their community. (If you fit that category, I highly recommend reading my friend Tere’s Open Letter to the Great Generation on Global Sisters Report. I also had a GSR column recently on how this is a unique and important time for all the generations living religious life today.)
Most of all, I am grateful to my loving and mischievous God for breaking through and leading me onto this wonderful crazy path with unicorns and anomalies and friends and laughter and hope and trust and love.