ATLANTA — On a personal level, contemplation is “transformative” and on a communal level it is “transformational leadership,” Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell told attendees at the 2016 assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in Atlanta.
The Aug. 9-13 assembly drew nearly 800 participants under the theme of “Embracing the Mystery: Living Transformation.” All the speakers pointed to the need for contemplative engagement with the struggles and sufferings of the world.
In her Aug. 11 keynote, Sister Pat addressed the topic “Leading From the Allure of Holy Mystery: Contemplation and Transformation.”
She spoke of centering religious life leadership in contemplation, describing contemplation as “a response to the movement of Spirit that has been stirring in and among us for some time now, becoming increasingly manifest.”
“Where this contemplative impulse might be leading is less obvious. What will be the long-term effect of reclaiming and deepening the contemplative dimension of religious life, of exploring emerging consciousness?” asked Sister Pat, a former LCWR president.
She said when she was given “the gift of time and space for contemplation,” she “found it transformative.”
“I knew that it was not for myself alone, like some private spiritual fitness program for personal enlightenment,” Sister Pat said. “What emerges in any one of us comes as gift from beyond, as leaven given to transform the whole, and in fact has the power to do that.”
Women religious “can only create their future together,” Sister Pat said, “and there is urgent need to be able to sense what is emerging in the group.”
“Communal discernment of some kind has always been part of the dynamic of religious life but there is a new urgency now to deepen our capacity to hear and follow the guidance of collective wisdom,” she continued. “The learning and processes arising from within congregations and through LCWR are both a gift given to us and a call. The future is drawing us beyond the personal toward communal transformation.”
Congregations are “facing critical situations that call for long-range planning for structural, organizational, financial and logistical issues,” Sister Pat said.
Today’s “task-oriented culture makes it easier for many people to deal first with the more concrete and tangible realities,” she said.
But to enable members “to speak together from a contemplative depth,” there must be a focus on what is less tangible, that is creating processes and designs “that tend the inner collective life of the congregation,” Sister Pat said.
“It can be challenging to create spaciousness around leadership tasks that involve tension and complex decision making in order to allow deeper access to the wisdom that is needed,” she said.
The contemplative dialogue process promoted by LCWR is “critically helpful,” Sister Pat said.
“It takes intention and focus to speak together from a deeper source, out of a place of peace, to harvest the wisdom of the whole,” she said. “We are learning together to create a culture among us of deep listening and dialogue.”
Sister Pat cited an example of how the “the value of contemplative spaciousness” stood out for her at the national leadership level. Before LCWR leaders visited the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as part of a now-concluded oversight process of the group, she said, “we sat together in a circle of silent prayer for an hour.”
“We entered that critical Vatican meeting in a state of deep peace.” Sister Pat told the assembly. “I was not aware of any fear whatsoever, either in myself or the other LCWR leaders. I have often wondered what our initial response to the mandate (to meet with the congregation) might have been if we hadn’t come together from that contemplative space.”
Another example of “spaciousness,” she described was the six weeks of public silence following that meeting, which gave LCWR leaders time to formulate a response.
In April 2015, the Vatican and LCWR announced the successful conclusion of the oversight process. The Vatican approved new statutes and bylaws for LCWR, ending a seven-year process of investigating the group and engaging in dialogue with its officers to ensure greater harmony with church teaching.
LCWR has approximately 1350 members who are elected leaders of their religious orders, who represent approximately 80 percent of the 49,000 Catholic sisters in the United States.