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Diversity and religious life presentation draws 134 sisters and a bishop

Author Mary Johnson, SNDdeN, addresses Northwest sisters at a presentation in Renton on diversity and religious life today.

No one quite knew what to expect when sisters across the Northwest were invited to a one-day presentation by the co-author of “New Generations of Catholic Sisters: The Challenge of Diversity.”

The site was the Hawley Conference Center at Providence Health & Services in Renton, Wash., with videoconferencing offered at Providence sites in Portland and Spokane.

The organizers were surprised when 134 individuals, representing 14 congregations of women religious, registered to attend the February 27 event, so many in Portland that registrants had to be moved to a larger room. They also were delighted when one bishop accepted the invitation, Most Rev. William S. Skylstad, Spokane bishop emeritus. Retired sisters at St. Joseph Residence, Seattle, also participated.

“Fourteen congregations! Wow, that is so of the future,” the author, Sister Mary Johnson, SNDdeN, told the attendees. Even more significant was the fact that the gathering was co-sponsored by Region 15 of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC), and the Religious Formation Conference (RFC).

Comprehensive portrait of women religious

Why did this topic resonant with so many sisters? “New Generations of Catholic Sisters” came out in 2014 and is now in its fourth printing. It offers a comprehensive portrait of women religious who have entered since 1965. Sister Mary, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC, said the followup is research on 4,000 women entering today about their needs, challenges and contributions. Already she has interviewed two dozen Sisters of Providence who entered Mother Joseph Province from other countries, including newer members, transfers and sisters who entered as far back as 1959.

Sheila Lemieux, CSJP, speaks in front of images of sisters participating by videoconference in Portland, Seattle and Spokane.

Sister Mary spelled out the challenges presented by the changing demographics and geography of the 80 million Catholics in the United States, about a quarter of the population. Once dominant in the East, they now are equally distributed around the country. This is a young church, with the majority 20- to 30-year-old millennials and post-Vatican II Catholics between the ages of 30 and 40.

Their generations are shaped by events when they were coming of age and that define their culture, giving it distinct values and meanings. The ethnic mixture of the Church is rapidly changing, with Hispanics the largest ethnic group and Asians, the fastest growing. Among women religious, 94 percent in final vows are white, compared to 61 percent in initial formation, Sister Mary said.

A new era

What does that mean for religious life today? “The new sisters look like the church. God is inviting women who will be able to serve the new church in this country,” she explained. “Pope Francis has opened up the true meaning of Catholic: universal.” Cross-generational dialogue is essential, as is receiving and honoring the cultures and traditions of all. “Listen to how they see it. What words and images speak to them? What is God’s action within and across this generation?”

Sister Mary described this as the beginning of a whole new era for women religious. “Where we’re going there is no map.” The book’s authors hope the data they gather will contribute to the dialogue about how to help the nation become a true multiracial society.

Today there often is talk about the dwindling number of sisters in the world, but there are nearly 1 million sisters remaining in the world today, she said. “This is a shift in thinking. It is not about dying; it’s about living.”

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