LCWR leader reflects on racism, religious life today, future of vocations

This is a screen shot of an Aug. 13, 2020, address by Sister Jayne Helmlinger, outgoing president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, during LCWR’s virtual assembly. The Sister of St. Joseph of Orange, Calif., told an audience of 1,000 sisters and guests that the destinations beckoning each sister or community will determine the vessel they choose for their voyage. CNS photo/GSR

If religious life was once a cruise ship — imposing, steady, populated — that transported sisters in one uniform trip, today the vocation calls for smaller vessels fit for the uncharted waters each community must navigate, still eyeing the same horizon, said Sister Jayne Helmlinger, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The destinations that beckon each sister or community will determine the vessel they choose for their voyage, said the Sister of St. Joseph of Orange, California, in her presidential address before a virtual audience of 1,000 sisters and guests. She spoke on the second day of the annual assembly, hosted virtually, Aug. 13.

Just as some may need to figure out how to land their large ships in shallow waters, she said, others might need diving equipment to reach the most vulnerable “who are invisible and lost beneath the waves of capitalism, infrastructures of exclusion, and power systems that deny entry.”

Representing 80% of women religious in the United States, congregational leaders in LCWR have spent the last several years discerning the role of sisters in a modern society, one that’s increasingly secular, diverse and interconnected.

Now, that context includes a “pandemic within a pandemic,” as Sister Helmlinger called it, referring to both the global coronavirus still claiming almost 1,000 lives a day in the U.S., and the issue of systemic racism brought to the center of national discourse following Black Lives Matter protests.

Her address was her final task as president of LCWR before transitioning to past-president. As of Aug. 14, she will be joined in the triumvirate presidency with Adrian Dominican Sister Elise Garcia as president, and Sister Jane Herb, an Immaculate Heart of Mary, as president-elect. (Sister Helmlinger will replace Holy Cross Sister Sharlet Wagner as past president.)

The assembly’s theme, “God’s Infinite Vision: Our Journey to the Borders and Beyond,” prompted Sister Helmlinger to reflect on borders surrounding racism, religious life today, emerging orientations and the future as women religious — and the vulnerability that accompanies the hard looks each dimension requires.

Leading by example, Sister Helmlinger put her vulnerability on full display.

What was once “holy disquietude” for Sister Helmlinger — a sensation in her soul that arose as the pandemic began to shift realities earlier this year — has now transformed into “holy anger,” she said, after watching the May 25 footage of George Floyd dying at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“This part of God’s vision is infinitely clear to me: We have work to do, sisters, in our complicity in enabling the insidiousness of racism to flourish within and around us,” she said.

Inspired by the biblical story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, Sister Helmlinger said that watching the video of Floyd’s death she felt that the “scales covering my eyes were peeled away” regarding systemic racism and white privilege.

Then the vulnerable work began, her journey to Damascus.

She remembered playing basketball at 13 and watching in horror as her Black teammate received racial slurs on the court, effectively bursting her childhood bubble that blocked out racism.

She remembered being a novice bound for the Mexican border, feeling a vague tinge of dread and anxiety that she later uncovered to be “an embedded fear within me about Mexico,” the result of a narrow worldview of being born and raised in a small town in Ohio.

“I cannot be, live or lead authentically if I’m not willing to do the inner work required in naming and eradicating the racism that dwells within,” she said.

In the small reflection groups following Sister Helmlinger’s address, Sister Eileen White, a Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart, said they reflected on Sister Helmlinger’s focus on vulnerability, how for them that manifests in their not knowing “how to be a leader in this time,” while still needing to confront the church’s and their congregation’s complicity in racism. Sister White is also chair of LCWR’s Region 3, which includes Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Still, as one sister said in the group-sharing, “Vulnerability painfully frees me from over-responsibility, needing to know it all, that it’s all up to me.”

In her address, Sister Helmlinger continued to expand on the inner work she’s been doing regarding racism and privilege, wondering if, “at times, we become too uncomfortable in our own skin when we pilgrimage into this terrain of racism, leaving too quickly, crossing back over to a place of comfort and protection,” she said, calling it a “false protection” since divisive borders remain intact.

Only when one chooses to “venture into the depths of our being” will they be filled with “God’s transformative grace” to love one another, she said.

“It is a journey across the immense divide that societal structures and systems work so unceasingly and insidiously to uphold. This is our Damascus journey, our Emmaus journey, where we find God in our midst.”

Though the average age of a sister keeps climbing — now approaching 80 — Sister Hemlinger said that the narrative need not be one of diminishment and scarcity, but opportunity and imagination, “a time to harness our collective creativity for religious life itself.”

Sisters who listened to her address, later sharing their reflections in small groups, clung to Sister Helmlinger’s analogy of cruises and small boats, finding it to be a helpful image for the varying needs of older and younger sisters.

As someone in Sister Theresa Sandok’s reflection group said after the address, “there’s a lot of empty rooms on that cruise ship, and it’s falling apart,” Sister Sandok told Global Sisters Report. Getting off and

finding new vessels that respond to the needs of the world is the challenge before them, said Sister Sandok, president of the Servants of Mary and member of the LCWR board of directors.

“It is essential for us to embrace this movement of transnational, transcharism, and transcultural religious life if we are to flourish in the years ahead,” she said.

To treat one’s home congregation “as if we are islands unto ourselves” is a disservice to religious life, Sister Helmlinger said, emphasizing the emerging need for porous borders. Part of that work includes the LCWR board and various committees exploring how to include into their regional meetings the younger and more ethnically diverse sisters and leaders who are not members of LCWR.

“As religious life evolves in the United States and beyond, so too must our structures and focus as an organization assisting elected leaders in their ministry of leadership,” she said.

Their founders accepted their vulnerability, tapped into their faith, wisdom and creativity, and forged new communities and ministries in rugged frontiers, Sister Helmlinger said, venturing “beyond the borders” of their congregations’ birthplaces as they followed the Spirit.

Imagining each sister or congregation on their own vessels, Sister Hemlinger said she sees a “freeing of our newer and younger members to set sail,” following the Spirit’s invitation, sometimes with older sisters, their young peers, or like-hearted men and women. “Do we, will we, provide the types of crafts they need to reach these distant shores?”

“Let us board our vessels and know that where one of us is present, we are all present,” Sister Helmlinger said. “The holy wind of the Spirit is blowing; will we sail with or against?”

Following the presidential address in the reflection groups, Sister White thought of her own Grey Nun community throughout the extended analogy on ships. They are in “completion mode,” said White, a member of its leadership council.

“We know that Grey Nuns won’t last forever, but religious life will; it will just have a new look that we need to be open to finding.”