The following comes from an October 14 Global Sisters Report article by Dan Stockman. Global Sisters Report is a project of National Catholic Reporter.
Religious life in North America and Europe stands on a precipice of transformation to a new form that no one yet knows, and leaders need to embrace that mystery instead of trying to sustain the past, St. Joseph Sr. Carol Zinn told a gathering of women and men religious Thursday.
Zinn, a former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, spoke to more than 100 religious gathered for her session at the national conference of the Resource Center for Religious Institutes. About 500 members of the center are in Anaheim this week for sessions on various aspects of running a religious institute, including sessions on federal privacy rules for medical information and legal structures for sponsored ministries.
Zinn said she fears that leadership teams are so busy making decisions about land, buildings, retirement funds and sponsored ministries that they’re not leading their members into the future.
“I think we’re all trying to sustain the present,” she said. “That’s important, but it’s not the same as shepherding. We are living in a moment where God is saying, to quote Isaiah, ‘Behold, I am doing something new. Do you not perceive it?’ ”
Zinn said all religious communities in North America, Europe and Australia are facing completion, whether they admit it or even know it.
“It doesn’t matter how many members you have, it doesn’t matter how much money you have … we are all in the same boat,” she said.
“It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ when it comes to completion, it’s a matter of ‘when.’
Many leaders do recognize that times have changed and they are working hard to adjust, she said, selling buildings that are no longer needed, letting go of ministries that can’t be sustained and rearranging finances to account for fewer members. But that work only financially sustains the present form of religious life.
She said leaders need to recognize that the current form of religious life will not be the dominant one in the future, and not only will its form and function change. There will be a transformation of its very being, Zinn said, the way religious life in the early history of the church changed from those who embraced chastity and poverty to those who withdrew from the world then changed again to monastics who invited the world in, and so on.
“When the history and cultural context shifts, guess what’s right behind it? The expression of religious life shifts to match it,” Zinn said.