Loretto Community Visit, Day 3: Renewal and Emerging Forms

Today started with a walk to the woods, and sitting in silence. Mary Swain, a community member and Sister here, walks out to the chapel in the woods every morning for 30 minutes of contemplative silence. So we left the novitiate at 6:30am, and walked out to Cedars of Peace, the retreat center of Loretto that is located just a 10 minute walk away into the woods. Cedars of Peace is a collection of hermitages where people take individual silent retreats. Within that small compound, once you walk past hermitages with names like Hope and Namaste, down the cedar path and next to the labyrinth, there is a small chapel that feels more like a meditation room. Walking into it, you take off your shoes and enter into the chapel. There are cushions for four people to sit, two chairs, and windows as large as the walls themselves to look into the woods.

After 30 minutes of silence, where I probably realistically experienced more like 30 seconds of internal silence, I still felt renewed. Just being in the space helped me feel present, grounded, and connected to place. This is what I consider one of the greatest gifts of Sisters’ communities: there is always space to pause, even – and perhaps especially – in the midst of an active life.

Later this morning, I started my meetings with community members. From talking with the community archivist, to lunch with the Emerging Forms Committee, and finally an afternoon conversation with a Loretto who marched in Selma in 1964, it was another incredible day of learning the stories of this community.

Eleanor Craig, the archivist, shared with me even more context for the history and renewal of the Loretto’s. As I learned from Eleanor, renewal of the community started beforeVatican II. In fact, much of the 1950s actually paved the way for more changes to be implemented in the 1960s. And Loretto Sisters were often a part of these global conversations about the future of religious life – from Loretto Sisters studying theology in Europe in the 1950s and learning the ideas that fed into Vatican II, and then Mary Luke Tobin being able to audit Vatican II. Coming out of these changes, the community started to write a new rule for their community, although rather than understanding it as a rule, it was considered a guideline for life. It was called I Am The Way, and was drafted, edited, and revised over 30 years, starting in 1967 and being approved by the Vatican in 1997. This document still feels very alive today in this community.

Around this same time of the original drafting of this document, the community also started to consider the role of co-members in the community. Originally called for by Sisters who were leaving their vowed life but still wanted to associate deeply with the community, the structure of “co-members” was created in the 1970s. Co-members include both women and men of different affiliations and traditions who share the Loretto mission: “to work for justice and act for peace because the gospel urges us.” Today, the Loretto Community includes both the Sisters of Loretto, who are vowed, and co-members, who tend to not be vowed. But as I’ve mentioned, in November 2017, two co-members took vows and started another way of deepening in this community.

If you look on their website, the Loretto’s have a Belonging tab that includes the Sisters, co-membersLoretto Volunteers, and Loretto Circles. As they expand their sense of who belongs, or who counts, in the community, the Emerging Forms committee is holding some of the imagination and direction forward. This is who I spent a nice, long three-hour lunch conversation with.

What is happening in the Emerging Forms committee is incredibly exciting. They are continuously asking the question, what form will community life take in the future? Their method for asking the question is cross-pollinating across traditions and networks, and in fact we have been inspired by many of the same people, including Carol Zinn, CSJ and her talk at Dominican University in 2016, as well as my colleagues from How We Gather, Casper ter-Kuile and Angie Thurston.

In 2012, Susan and JoAnn, the two vowed co-members, began the five-year journey toward their vows. Through deep dives into books, retreats, and discernment, they drafted their own vows, which can be read in this article. The vows are largely inspired by the chakras, intending to commit to these energies in order to release them for the good of community, rather constrain them to a narrow view consumed by power and control. In thinking about the vows, building off of Diarmuid O’Murchu’s book Poverty, Celibacy, Obedience, they often asked themselves the question: “What values need to be radiated?” A vow, as they came to understand it, were energies that have been given to us, and that we want to give to the world. At the core of these vows, as well as vowed co-membership as a whole, was to contribute to the Loretto Community and its future. They wanted to commit to working with the energies that were most “life giving and forward moving.”

I’m so grateful for the innovative and experimental drive that the Emerging Forms committee holds – and for the ways that Loretto have fed and followed this creative energy. The implications of these conversations feel awe-inspiring. With communities facing diminishing numbers, the narrative does not have to be one of despair. It can instead be one of hope and new life – taking root in co-members, in 20-something volunteers, or in lay led community circles.

As I mentioned, after this energizing conversation, I sat with Maureen, who is actually a testament to the value of these emerging forms of religious life. She joined as a Sister in the early 1950s, and ended up leaving in the midst of the “mass exodus” after Vatican II. However, as she says, she never really left. While in law school, she still spent summers with Loretto, and then within a few years she was able to re-join the community as a co-member.

Maureen is someone this community is lucky to have around. As a teacher in the 1950s, she taught her students to be committed to justice and speaking up for important issues. In 1964, she was called upon as a faith leader to join the marchers in Selma, and flew out there from Kansas City to put her body on the line for a greater cause. Trained in non-violence resistance, and formed by those protest songs, she said she still sings them to herself in church when she finds the hymns boring. Even now, in her old age and lessened ability to put her body on the line, since she walks around slowly with oxygen aids and a walker, she still serves in the ways she can. By calling congress, or feeding her fellow community members who can no longer feed themselves, she simply wants to keep spreading gifts, as she has been so gifted in her own life. Because of the co-member model, Maureen remained a part of the community even after leaving her vowed life, and what a blessing for her and the community it has been.

My hope for the future is that the spirit of experimentation and exploration continue in this community and beyond, and that Loretto may be a hint of possibility for those exploring new ways of being together. The hunger for belonging and becoming in communities of spirit in action like this one is increasingly present – in people who stretch far beyond the Catholic Church and the Christian tradition. If the models can evolve, to envelope all those seeking such commitment to these contemplative and justice-oriented ways of life, perhaps another renewal is on its way.

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Loretto Community Visit, Day 2: the founding and the future

Day 2 was dedicated to learning the history and story of this place, particularly the stories of the founding and foundresses of this community. Naturally, in the end, this also became a day about the community’s future: how they are imagining and living into a new stage of religious life.

To start, I walked into the Archives that morning, greeted by their staff with a few pamphlets that were left for me: Courage, American: A sketch of the life of the Lorettine foundressAn Army of Peace: the story of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross and With Captain Dogwood: A Life of Charles Nerinckx. I also looked through their book collections – finding a book from 1929 on Great American Foundresses, one of the few books I’ve seen name and celebrate foundresses specifically. Then I found the books published by Loretto Sisters over the years – commentaries on the evolution of religious life, books of poetry, and creative zines with comics and spiritual insight. A few that piqued my interest: “Toward a Spirituality for Global Justice: A Call to Kinship” by Elaine Prevallet; “Breaking through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Religious Leaders in their Own Words” edited by Maureen Fielder; and “The Porch of Possibility: Poems” by Cicily Jones, SL.

After spending time in the archives, I went to meet with Sr. Kathleen, in one of her favorite rooms at Loretto: The Thomas Merton Center for Creative Exchange. As she shared with me, Merton had developed this idea of a center for creative exchange, a place where people from all philosophical and religious backgrounds could come together for engaging with one another respectfully and creatively. After his death, his friend and former Loretto leader Mary Luke Tobin opened up a Center for Creative Exchange in her house’s basement in Denver, CO, hosting events and gatherings. Then the Center moved to the motherhouse where it’s lived for many years now – housing a collection of works by Merton, works about Merton, and many beautiful photographs and relics from his life.

This is the setting in which Kathleen walked me through the history of Loretto. Using coins and jolly ranchers, because, as she said, she’s used to teaching kids and using visual aids, she told me the story of how Loretto came to be through Catholics from Maryland settling in Kentucky in the late 18thand early 19thcentury. Mary Rhodes was one of these Catholics from Maryland, and she wanted to teach her brothers’ kids in a school. She taught them in a cabin, and soon other kids joined, looking for schooling, and then two other women joined her as teachers. The need for education grew, and the three women also wanted to grow in their own piety. Working with a local priest, he helped them to establish their own order – a distinctly American order not rooted in a community from Europe, but starting with these three women. After they were officially recognized in April 1812, within a few months three more women joined them.  They were now able to elect the first leader – Mother Superior – and they voted in the youngest woman in the group: Ann Rhodes, who at the time was just 19. (What a story to learn on International Women’s Day, huh?)

While there is much more to the story to be explored in a deeper format down the road, the thrust of the story is typical of other Foundress narratives I have heard: a woman or women noticed a need in their community, they joined with other women, they committed to each other and to that work, and they created the response necessary to the need in community through their own creation of community.

Here on the property, they have a diorama of this origin story. It’s labeled: “The Three Foundresses of the Sisters of Loretto – 1812 – Mary Rhodes, Christina Stuart, Nancy Havern.” The diorama shows the three women teaching children in different settings, with backdrops including their seal of the community, the Rules of the School, and finally a map of the “Holy Land of Kentucky.”

This is another fascinating aspect of this place – there seems to be holiness infused into the land. After the Sisters of Loretto began in 1812, within 30 years the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were created, then an order of Dominican Sisters. Ultimately it was the Sisters of Loretto that sold Gethsemani to a group of Trappist monks, which is where Thomas Merton spent his life. This small area in the middle of rural Kentucky is home to several religious orders that have existed for the last 200 years, formed tens of thousands of people in religious life, and collectively started thousands of schools, hospitals, and non-profit organizations across the country and world.

Mary Rhodes was the first one.  Among this overflowing energy of commitment to faith and service in this region, she was the first to say yes to a calling she felt. She was the first in this area to ask what the needs were, and how she could serve. Her legacy lives on today in and is as forward thinking as ever; the Loretto Life states: “We strive to educate and be educated in order to face the challenges of the 21stcentury and beyond.”

The legacy of the founding women lives on today through the many Sisters and co-members that continue to respond to the signs of the times in creative ways, to challenge unjust structures, and to build community as support structure to get work done.

My day unfolded to reveal ever enriching details to the story of the founding of the community, and its continuous evolution.  After lunch, I sat in the Church with Sr. Antoinette, learning about the history of the land and the buildings, receiving her detailed wisdom about the particulars of place and people.  Then I had a tour through the Heritage Museum with the Archivists, two young women who have both started working here both in the last year. These two young women, neither Catholic, are immersing themselves in the story of this community, and preserving these stories for future generations to learn from.

My favorite exhibits in the museum are the ones focused on justice and change. One is dedicated to Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, the leader of the community during the renewal years, who was one of fifteen women present at Vatican II in the 1960s. She also was elected to serve in leadership beyond Loretto, in the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which became known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Tobin, as a close friend of Merton, also brought him to the motherhouse to speak with novices, and even got him to give his opinion on the early drafts of the community’s emerging new document “I Am the Way.”

Another exhibit is on the School of Americas protests, where Sisters have consistently showed up to advocate for non-violence in the face of military aggression. One very apt pin, in their collection of activist pins, says “Pro Future.” This is a political stance that can sum up many social concerns women religious dedicate themselves to today.

Finally, the museum has a giant globe-type-structure you can step into to imagine the future of religious life. There are quotes all around:

  • “I believe the future will surprise us with its beauty when we thought all good was gone.”
  • “We need the skills of open listening, trustful sharing and patient waiting as we walk into the future, so that our Loretto journey can unfold and shape as we go.”
  • “Our future is already here and our mission is to be conscious of it and begin living in it.”
  • “Something new is waiting to be born. We are called to be midwives of a new form of religious life, a model of the single sacred community that is the Universe. Not only is the human sacred. The entire universe is sacred! We are all kin.”
  • “The greatest thanks we can give for our past is to take responsibility for our future.”
  • “No matter what our future holds, I think Loretto values will endure through those whose lives have been touched by us through the years.”
  • “It’s natural to ask: ‘What new ministries are we being called to?’ But I think there is a crucial preceding question: ‘What new understanding of mission is being called forth from us?’”
  • “I am not good at dreaming up the future. However, I believe that we are meant to be a stable rock, a trusted group within the Church and society that people can count on during times of doubt and confusion.”
  • “I hope Loretto becomes a microcosm of what we would like the world to be—inclusive, egalitarian, progressive, joyful, ingenious, just, compassionate, authentic, courageous, flexible and loving—a world worthy of our creator.

 

While museums might be natural places for audacious dreaming for the future and its possibilities, the spirit of openness is present far beyond the museum as well. Over supper with two Sisters this evening, they casually talked about how religious life as they know it is over. Citing Diarmuid O’Murchu’s Religious Life in the 21stCentury, one Sister said that most religious institutions die after 200 years anyways, so the time is ripe for a new form to take shape.

In the meantime of that new form, the current form is an incredible gift. Tonight the community hosted two professional musicians for a private concert held in the Church, a tradition they’ve had for decades, and we enjoyed wine and cheese with them afterward in the novitiate living room. The daily rhythms of life here inspire groundedness and connection, stability and growth, curiosity and compassion. I could not hope for better midwives than communities like the Lorettos to help usher in whatever comes next in religion and spirituality.

Loretto Community Visit, Day 1: entering the mystery

Hello, world. Keeping with tradition of blogging during my trips for the Foundress project, which I outlined in this blog from my trip to the Benedictine Sisters in Erie, PA, I’ll be writing and reflecting during these visits.

Today I arrived into Loretto, KY to visit the Loretto Community.  I say community rather than Sistersbecause I’ll be spending time with both their Sisters and co-members – as they consider themselves to be in one community together, not as separated between those who are vowed and those who are not. Co-members, like oblates, associates, covenant companions, or other names, are lay people who commit to holding the charism of the community alongside the Sisters. Co-members in the Loretto Community now out-number the number of Sisters in the community; there are something like 200 co-members across the country, and 134 Sisters. Additionally, 70 or so Sisters andco-members live here at the motherhouse, and many of the Sisters’ ministries today are now run by co-members or lay people.

This community has been thinking about emerging forms of religious life for years. In fact, last year two long-time co-members, Susan Classen and JoAnn Gates, became vowed co-members, as written about in this piece from Global Sisters Report. Susan and JoAnn are the ones that helped facilitate my coming to Loretto, and they also run the two retreat centers on the Loretto property – Knob’s Haven and Cedars of Peace.

This is actually what initially drew me into curiosity about Loretto. Two co-members professing vows to a religious community was a clear sign that there is something happening in Loretto – there is some sort of radical openness to the evolution of religious life. I needed to come and see it for myself – what was happening, how, and why.  I wanted to learn more about this forward-looking community, understand their past – particularly their foundresses’ stories – and get a feel for how they are living into this transitional moment in religious life.

So – I landed into Louisville, about an hour from Loretto, and Susan graciously picked me up. Immediately, we had too many things we wanted to talk about! Thankfully, we have days to allow our shared passions to all unfold. When we arrived to the convent, we had lunch with Mary Swain, a Loretto Sister, and I became oriented to the space and to the weekend. I’d spend some time in my own personal research on foundresses, visit with Sisters and community members, attend some of the vespers and prayers, and speak to the whole community about Nuns & Nones on Saturday night.

And excitingly, Mary also coordinated a trip for us to go to Gethsemani, Thomas Merton’s monastery. Gethsemani is only about 15 minutes away from Loretto, and actually shares some roots with the Loretto community. We’ll go over on Sunday to explore the grounds, visit Merton’s hermitage and grave, and share supper with some of the Brothers.

Trips like this make me so thankful for divinity school – and for getting out of the walls of academia. Being in communities like this one are what make all the readings and papers on spirituality, contemplation, and formation feel real and relevant.

Anyways, after lunch, Mary showed me to my room – a novitiate room, which is a former classroom from when this building was a school. Winding through the halls, she greeted nearly every plant we saw, cheering on their growth or apologizing for their dryness. We arrived into the room I would stay in, and there was a quotation on the wall that immediately spoke to me – from StoryPeople, it said:

I don’t know how long I can do this, she said. I think the universe has different plans for me & we sat there in silence & I thought to myself that this is the thing we all come to & this is the thing we all fight & if we are lucky enough to lose, our lives become beautiful with mystery again & I sat there silent because that is not something that can be said.

Arriving into this new place, seeing this story above my bed, I felt affirmed that I’m making the right choices in my life that help me to keep living into the mystery. But how do you say that, when people are asking you what you are doing after graduation? “Following the spirit” isn’t exactly what most people would expect from a Harvard Divinity School graduate.  But at least in this space, in this community, there are plenty of people living into the mystery without words, living into the questions without answers, living into the future without certainty. In that sense, places like this feel like home.

Day one finished out gently and beautifully. A slow walk outside. Energizing conversation over supper. And reading Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation in my room while Sisters watched MSNBC in the living room outside my door. A taste of simplicity for these few days while I’m here, and a chance to enter the mystery.

Nuns & Nones: an unfolding expression of spirituality

Here’s a piece I wrote for the CSJ-Boston publication, The More. Read the original here. 

In Diarmuid Ó Murchú’s book Reclaiming Spirituality, prophetically written 20 years ago, the social psychologist and member of the Sacred Heart Missionary Congregation explores the spiritual hunger of our time happening outside of religious institutions. For Ó Murchú, it is increasingly urgent to provide “alternative sacred spaces for the spiritual seekers of our time,” spaces of “accompaniment and discernment” that do not support answers to questions but rather support the nurturing and deepening of those questions. As I read his incisive wisdom about the current moment we find ourselves in, here at the intersection of traditional religion and emerging spirituality, I think of the growing movement I have been a part of for the last year and a half: Nuns & Nones.*

Through our conversations between Catholic Sisters and millennial “Nones”, we see an alternative sacred space where our questions come together to gain the insight and scope earned within intergenerational dialogue. Since we started hosting gatherings in December 2016 – in cities across the country – the particular wisdom about the future unfolding before us, at this coming together of religious and spiritual life, is the greatest gift of such dialogue. As Sister of St. Joseph Pat Bergen said at one of the earlier Nuns & Nones gatherings, we all stand at the “prophetic edge” from which we are collectively able to see the newness emerging.

 

What is this newness emerging? And what does the future that is unfolding before us hold? While we do not know the answers yet, I believe it is in these alternative sacred spaces, through intergenerational accompaniment and discernment and holding big questions together in community, that answers might one day emerge.

 

As I have spent time with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Boston, especially through our own recent Nuns & Nones gatherings, I have increasingly seen women religious embracing and exploring what the challenges and opportunities of religious life today are. With each new conversation, I hear resonance to the same challenges and opportunities of the needs of contemporary spiritual seekers. It causes me to think that we might not just enjoy one another’s company, but more aptly I think we actually deeply need one another as we embark on this future together.

 

In Reclaiming Spirituality, Ó Murchú suggests that our evolutionary unfolding “is about transcending what existed previously in order to grow into the future that beckons us forth.” While we might not know exactly what this future looks like, efforts like Nuns & Nones can model the open dialogue and deep collaboration beyond affiliation and across generation that can allow our future to unfold in such a way that imagines us all having a place. In the midst of the decreasing number of vocations entering religious life, and increasing disaffiliation of young people, I can imagine no better adventure to embark on together: to find where at the edges of religious tradition and spiritual practice we can join together and create the ground on which future life can be rooted and grow.

 

*More on Nuns & Nones

Nuns & Nones is an unlikely alliance across communities of spirit. Bringing together Catholic Sisters and Millennial “Nones” (a term meant to include all those who check “none of the above” in terms of religious affiliation), this intergenerational dialogue and collaboration explores the common ground from which our communities can more deeply communicate and collaborate. As a growing national movement, there have been Nuns & Nones gatherings since December 2016 and hosted across the country, including Cambridge, MA; Bay Area, CA; Kalamazoo, MI; Philadelphia, PA; and St. Louis, MO. Additionally, there are local, on-going gatherings occurring in Grand Rapids, MI; Bay Area, CA; and Boston, MA. In Boston, we have hosted two gatherings with the Sisters of St. Joseph at the Brighton Motherhouse, including in June 2018 where we shared our stories and in July 2018 where we shared in the spiritual practice of contemplative silence. Nuns & Nones as a national movement is facilitated by a team of organizers from across the country, and locally convened with the help of Sr. Maryann Enright, Katie Gordon, Sr. Kathy McCluskey, Sr. Rosemary Mulvihill, and Rachel Plattus.

For more information, visit www.nunsandnones.org.

 

Sources

Ó Murchú, Diarmuid. Reclaiming Spirituality. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998.

2018 Parliament of World’s Religions – closing thoughts

My second Parliament of World’s Religions is in the books. Very grateful to have gotten to participate in one of the largest interfaith gatherings in the world alongside some good friends this past weekend. Some highlights and gratitudes:

-Hung out all day and each night with so many old and new friends who are the “next gen” of the interfaith movement and going to do so many good, important things to help this movement become more intersectional, politically-engaged, critical and constructive. Shout out to y’all. So honored to be doing this alongside you folks.

-Presented on Nuns and Nones to a full room of about 60 people, full of enthusiasm, hope, and a desire to help us spread this movement and model of intergenerational relationship, dialogue and action even further. Some Sisters came up to me afterward to share that I spoke their language and represented them perfectly, which I couldn’t be more honored to hear.

-Learned about how Canada is implementing Truth & Reconciliation efforts in response to the historic and present injustices committed against First Nations tribes across the land. And learned about public awareness efforts Toronto has taken on as a city to recognize, center, and celebrate the First Nations land they are on, a small but important step in the continuous journey toward a more just society. SO MUCH for the US to learn on this front. Also, I was reminded of the essential wisdom of indigenous peoples everywhere, and how turning to elders in this planetary moment might help us navigate ways forward in reconnecting with earth / addressing climate change (https://www.wisdomweavers.world).

-Snuck away one morning to hang out with my colleagues and one of our fav Sisters, Sue Mosteller, CSJ, who has given us so much inspiration through sharing stories from her life with us. Was totally reminded of the greatest gift of my work – which is sitting around on a slow morning with wise and gentle souls, asking searching questions and finding direction through stories and conversation.

-Participated in fun, delicious, and delightful shared rituals, from daily Lungar thanks to the Sikh community to an early morning Sunrise Cosmic Mass with creation spirituality priest Matthew Fox. Plus, enjoyed the overwhelming yet charming exhibit space full of orgs, traditions, resources, knowledge booths, and much more.

Now, back to Divinity School life, filled to the brim from these past few days.

Millennials & Monastics in Erie, PA

One of the most unique things about my experience with the Erie Benedictines was the amount of young people who have chosen to be in community with the Sisters – whether by joining the community or by moving to Erie to do life alongside the community. From all around the country, young people have come to Erie for internships or short-stays and then chosen to move back and live there in order to be closer to the life of the community. I got to spend a lot of time throughout the week with a few of these young women in their 20s and early 30s – the same age cohort as myself – and it was so inspiring to see young people choosing this way of life so aligned with their values, being present to this place and people in order to learn from them more deeply not through short visits, but invested rootedness.

My conversations with Sr. Linda Romey, the Erie Benedictine who hosted me, over the last several months indicated that there was something special about this place – that the young people who are a part of their community are feeding their energy for the emerging future of religious and spiritual life – and once I got there I realized how special it really is there. And thanks to Linda, we got to see a tiny glimpse of what this intergenerational community looks and feels like through a Nuns & Nones-inspired gathering that we more appropriately dubbed, “Millennials & Monastics.” Along with Linda, we gathered 10 folks – 5 Sisters and 5 Millennials – all (save myself) living in and committed to Erie, PA – to share the questions we hold, the gifts of monastic practice in our lives, the way that desire for community shows up for us, and more.

Read Linda Romey’s reflection on the gathering here.

And if you want to read the pieces that sparked Linda and I’s own conversations on the future of religious and spiritual life – here are a few of my favorites. Linda is an essential voice in this conversation, and I’m so indebted to her wisdom and vision from these pieces:

Rethinking Religious Communities: 18 months later

This week, a second piece of mine was republished by Saint Mary’s Press, which had appeared originally in the Grand Rapids Press in January 2017. “The ‘Rise of the Nones’ Part 2: Rethinking Religious Communities.” (Part 1 was on “The ‘Rise of the Nones’: Creating Community in New Ways”)

In this second part, I explore how holy spaces that are open to change might be able to live their religious values while also responding to the needs of their community and engaging the emerging generation. I argue that young people have the potential to bring fresh perspectives to religious traditions and religious life, helping point them back to their own “untamable, countercultural, service-oriented heart” (Citing Krista Tippett’s helpful articulation in Becoming Wise). This piece was the beginning of my love story with this shifting moment in religious and spiritual life. It was when I started to see everything that could be possible if we simply came together.

And interestingly, it was this series of articles on the ‘Rise of the Nones’ that actually sparked my conversation with a Dominican Sister, which turned Nuns & Nones from idea into reality. Fast forward 18 months… I’m sitting in Erie, PA along with the Erie Benedictine Sisters, one of the most forward-thinking religious communities I have come across, and I am literally asked over dinner, “So Katie, if you could change anything about religious life, what would it be?”

I give a few examples of what I’ve seen in various communities that seem exciting, I share some dreams that my Nuns & Nones collaborators and I have discussed, but when it comes down to it… I don’t have any ‘answers’! It is only through our collaboration, our conversation, that I believe together millennials and Sisters might be able to uncover some possible ways forward.

So – backing up to when the original article was posted. I thought I was way out there. Here I was, some twenty-something non-religious person, boldly proposing to religious communities that “Hey! You should listen to us young people! Even those of us who left and never show up anymore!” Honestly, I thought people might roll their eyes at me. Or might be offended at the suggestion. At most, I thought people might kindly ignore my naivety and idealism, and move on with their life.

Thankfully, as I mentioned, at least one Sister emailed me to talk more, giving me hope that maybe there’s something to this after all. 18 months later, here we are. The wheels have kept turning, the movement has kept growing. Among those facing religious decline (which is a good majority of American Christianity!), women religious are proactively opening avenues of dialogue and discernment that are productively assessing the future of their communities and creative possibilities. Through their on-going ministries, hopefully through our Nuns & Nones conversations, and elsewhere, women religious are listening to the yearnings and wonderings of millennials, thinking about the ways our challenges fit into their own. Women religious are coming up with creative ways of inviting in fresh voices to help reimagine the future of religious life. Frankly, other traditions could learn a great deal from these women and the way they face up to this pivotal shift in religiosity.

This topic is even being discussed this very week at the Leadership Council of Women Religious annual gathering in St. Louis. In her keynote address, out-going president Sr. Teresa Maya pointed to listening to the next generation – those within and outside of religious life – as a priority for leaders in religious communities. As quoted in Global Sisters Report, Maya said, “Young people are not the problem. The young – like any one of us, really – are simply looking for authenticity.” In the midst of increasingly secular identification in the US, Maya argued that, “Our nuns, our sisters, our communities need to go forth into these conversations with the ‘nones.’ I have hope in the conversations being convened by the Nuns and the Nones movement.”

Also earlier this week, a commentary in the National Catholic Reporter by John Vitek, president and CEO of Saint Mary’s Press and co-author of Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, responded to questions concerning the upcoming Youth Synod in the Catholic Church. Regarding the shifting religious and spiritual landscape, Vitek suggested the church can engage with Nones in meaningful ways, highlighting the emerging Nuns & Nones communities as a way of “women religious and millennials across the country charting new ways of forming a common religious and human experience.” And in a tweet by John Vitek, he wrote:

@SMP_Prez: Catechesis has been interpreted from the Greek word by the church as “instruction by word of mouth” but can we imagine a new catechesis that is a “listening of the heart?” is showing us an example of new modes of spiritual friendship — hearts listening to hearts.

There really seems to be something here. No answers yet, but relationships that might come up with answers through our journeying together. We both need these answers – Sisters discerning the future of their traditions, millennials wondering what formation and community can be for them – and so much common ground to work from in these questions.

In an interview between Krista Tippett and Joan Chittister in 2007, this was actually something Sr. Joan talked about. In regards to the slow pace of institutional change of the church, she said that what is going on right now “is simply the seeding of the question.” So many new questions have risen, but “the new answers have not yet emerged. They’re only beginning to simmer in this stew that is humanity.” I think these Nuns & Nones conversations, and for that matter any unlikely dialogue that occurs across different backgrounds, are helping these new answers emerge to our on-going challenges. These conversations model a way forward, a communal discernment that invites the collaboration our communities will necessarily live into throughout and as a result of the process.

In my original piece, Rethinking Religious Communities, I closed by suggested that we must ask the questions and welcome the answers. I think we have begun that process. Now we must experiment with possibilities, and see what evolves as we experiment together.