A Synod of consecrated women

UISG 2013 Plenary Assembly 

plen 01The largest and most significant International Women’s Assembly of the Catholic Church, which has been defined as the Synod of Consecrated Women, has just come to a close. Convened every three years by the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), the Plenary Assembly took place in Rome from May 3rd to May 8th. More than 800 Congregational Ministers, hailing from 76 countries and representing the almost 800,000 consecrated women of apostolic life living all over the world were present.

The theme, “It will not be so among  you (Mt. 20:26): The Service ofplen 02Leadership According tothe Gospel” was examined from different angles by speakers who, for the first time, were all women, and who represented diverse cultures from Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and South America.  Because it is difficult to summarize the content, I invite you instead to consult the UISG Vidimus Dominum site, which is administered by our very own sr. Giannica Selmo.

I was personally impressed by Professor Costacurta’s presentation on leadership in the Bible, in which she focused on the figures of Vashti and Esther. Vashti feels that she can no longer submit to the King’s will, who asks her to appear at the banquet to display her beauty. As punishment for her disobedience, she is distanced from the plen 04court. Esther, chosen to be the new Queen because of her beauty, enters into the court without revealing her true Jewish identity. Esther embarks on her own intimate journey of personal discovery which brings her to identify with her people, who are in need of deliverance.  She understands her calling and labors to aid her people up till the very end, even at the risk of losing her own life. 

Using all of her resources to interact with the king (intuition, patience, creativity, cunning), Esther is successful in her objective: she saves her people and herself.  In this we witness two stories of women probably caught up in two different moments of their lives, two different ways of reacting to dominant power, and two different vocations.

plen 03Here is the question upon which we were called to reflect: What challenges do we recognize in the way we live out leadership according to the evangelical spirit? From what I observed during our days together, the first challenge is, above all, to recognize the range, the dignity of the prophetic vocation and the charismatic dimension that we represent as consecrated women -- and to adopt a style of leadership, which is suitable to service -- and not for privilege and control—of our communities. But we should not stop there. 

Today, indeed, I believe that the call to the service of leadership is much broader and that it crosses the confined borders of our individual institutes.


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plen 07Cardinal Braz de Aviz reminded us that all together we represent the charismatic dimension of the Church, which is fundamentally equal to the hierarchical dimension.

Only by creating expansive ties among us as consecrated women will we truly offer a great contribution to the dialogue within the Church.

To arrive at this understanding of a broader mission, I believe we need to:

-  have access to adequate means, such as education, material resources, and autonomy, above all in  developing  countries;

-  be able to express ourselves with creativity and pride in our identity as women, confident in the contribution that we can offer;

- to establish our own lines of action with the necessary autonomy, in order to tune into what the poor are asking us to   do, considering them as a sacrament of  God’s will  for us.

plen 08One very important aspect of the Plenary was related to Communications, both on the part of the National Conferences (this time in North America [LCWR] and Brazil) and on the part of several projects sponsored by the UISG, such as Talitha Kum (Human Trafficking), Solidarity with South Sudan and the JPIC Commission. Sr. Florence Deacon, OSF, on behalf of LCWR, had the difficult task of clarifying how the doctrinal evaluation promoted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith is proceeding.

I found her report to be honest, frank and clearly distressing. You have probably read all sorts of comments in the newspapers, but what occurred in that meeting hall was to say what is happening as it really is: a huge underlying misunderstanding and, in my view, a disproportionate use of “corrective” means. Instead, these means could have been substituted with more appropriate and modern methods.  The support of other National Conferences was visible, in the hope that this difficult time can become a moment of new awareness for us all.  

plen 09I, of course, listened with great interest to the report that sr. Marian Ambrosio, IDP, gave on the Conference of Religious Life in Brazil. In speaking about the life of today’s women religious, sr. Marian said she feels challenged by the following question: What is our place as consecrated women in the Brazilian Church and in the world?  Now that the government and the institutional Church are taking on numerous areas that at one time were in the hands of consecrated women, we find ourselves losing the fulfillment of our services.  The challenge is to start over again, beginning from places of theological symbolism, outside of the Temple, in the places where Jesus is not announced. We cannot be content with functioning simply as stand-ins, either for the State or for the Church . . . Samaritans, yes, in order to continue to show the face of Jesus’ mercy as disciples.


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plen 10The Plenary concluded with a private audience with the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. The audience lasted 20 very intense minutes.

These are difficult to describe -- above all because we had so many expectations. What my heart seized upon were, without a doubt, the attention and esteem that the Pope holds for the religious life of women and his encouragement to go forward in living the path forged by our Founders/Foundresses.

 At the same time, during his talk, I felt a sharp pain and I thought to myself: the Pope is speaking about an idea of consecrated women that mirrors only partially the way we feel our call to experience consecrated life . . . he does not know who we have become precisely because of our contact with those existential margins about which he speaks.... And in that very short amount of time in the Paul VI Audience Hall, I realized that, as consecrated women, we are experiencing in a way the condition of those who are voiceless, of those that do not have appropriate places to be able to express themselves and to be heard when they speak their truth. Doubtless it is a partial truth, but it is our truth all the same.

So, as daughters of Mother Frances, what can our response be to this wound in our church?   I think of the theme of our upcoming General Chapter: “To set free the healing energy of Christ!” and, in response, I feel even more strongly the call to commit ourselves to sharing our stories, to activate the potential of our charism – and not obstructing it with our hesitations -- in the belief that it can contribute to the Franciscan call of rebuilding the Church in those vital parts where it needs regenerating.


Sr. Tiziana Merletti, sfp

 Published: June 25, 2013


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