By Cindy Wooden
ROME — With prayer and laughter, songs and furrowed brows, more than 500 superiors of women’s religious orders from around the world gathered in Rome to talk about the challenges they face and the gift those challenges represent for their congregations, the Catholic Church and the world.
Wearing a sari or bright batik skirt or a long black habit or slacks, members of the International Union of Superiors General were meeting May 2-6 and exploring the theme, “Embracing Vulnerability on the Synodal Journey.”
More than 700 superiors were registered for the plenary assembly; 516 of the sisters attended the meeting in person, and the others followed online.
The meeting began with theological and practical explorations of vulnerability and ways the experience of humility, weakness, brokenness and discrimination mirrors the self-emptying of Christ and puts one in solidarity with the poor and excluded.
“Pope Francis’ call to the synodal process is ultimately a renewed call to mission, but not from the hitherto held position of power and authority,” Sister Anne Falola, a Nigerian member of the Missionaries of Our Lady of the Apostles, said May 2.
The communion, participation and mission that are the hallmarks of a synodal church, she said, “cannot be achieved without accepting and embracing our vulnerability.”
Sister Falola told the superiors that there are two forms of vulnerability — “from above,” which involves renouncing the power, honor or rights one legitimately has — and “from below,” which involves accepting one’s limitations and imperfections.
In her own life, she said, she has had to embrace “my own vulnerability as a woman within a patriarchal society and church, an African in a world of global power tussles, a religious in a world of growing religious indifference and intolerance, a missionary in a xenophobic world and one called to the periphery in a world where only the center matters.”
Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, told the superiors May 3 that their organization has been operating in a synodal manner since its founding more than 50 years ago, recognizing each other as sisters and accepting differences among them as something that enriches them all.
Before giving his speech, the cardinal celebrated Mass with the sisters, focusing his homily on the hallmarks of discipleship: fidelity to the teaching of the apostles; promoting communion in the church, with and under the pope; treasuring the Eucharist, “the sign that God wants to be near us always”; and trusting in God’s love.
Claretian Sister Jolanta Kafka, president of the UISG, told the superiors that decades of experience, including experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, had made the sisters increasingly aware that “we can bring our concerns about the needs of people and the planet to many different meetings and contexts.”
“The prophetic nature of religious life calls us as superiors general or congregational leaders to mobilize ourselves as a global sisterhood,” she said. “Our interdependence and our growing understanding of the importance of our intercultural prophetic witness invite us to develop ways of building communion in diversity in today’s world.”
Sister Nurya Martinez-Gayol Fernández, a Spanish member of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus, told the superiors that as women with a specific spirituality defined by their founders and passed on by generations of their members, they have an important contribution to make to the larger church as it looks at fostering the spirituality that must underpin synodality.
Spirituality is “the frame of mind with which we face reality” and even try to take charge of it, she said, while “synodality denotes a way of living and acting that defines the ecclesial community in its relationships.”
Part of accepting vulnerability, she said, is preparing oneself and one’s community for the inevitable disappointment that will come as efforts to create a more synodal church hit snags or delays or outright opposition.
Synodality, she said, “calls for specialists in patience.”