A strong sisterhood

A strong sisterhood
Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein

Tracey is the former editor of Aurora Magazine, the official magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle

It’s a commonplace to say that a young person beginning in the working world today will experience, not only many different positions and workplaces, but many different careers.

It seems to me that this pattern was pioneered, not by Silicon Valley geeks, Byron Bay creatives or even those always on the lookout for something better, but by religious Sisters. Who knew?

When I was young, the congregations I encountered had clear ‘career paths’ – usually teaching, or maybe nursing or missionary work. A determination to serve the poor was commonly the founding impetus, and education and medical care were usually the greatest needs – along with uncompromising ‘RE’ (religious education) – if not faith formation.

In recent years I have interviewed many Sisters, mainly Dominicans and Josephites, asking them to recall their story and share their wisdom. As well as hearing many wonderful anecdotes, and also doubts, fears and long-buried trials, I have gained even greater respect for, and insight into, religious life.

I count many Sisters as friends and so I’ve long since discarded any notion of them as ‘other’, but beyond this, it’s become blindingly apparent that the Sisters are way ahead of their times!

Religious life has always been a radical, if not always fully understood or appreciated, choice. While these days it’s a rare choice, and the earlier tendency to place the religious on pedestals has largely dissipated, I live in a diocese where many Sisters are still ministering – and of course, Sisters never retire!

It’s generally recognised that as the numbers of lay teachers in Catholic schools increased, several decades ago now, Sisters who had been in classrooms moved to other ministries. Many took the opportunity to undergo further academic and spiritual formation, sometimes overseas. Many of those whose congregations were founded overseas were eventually able to visit the places the founder knew: Ireland, Spain, France, Italy and so on.

One Sister I spoke to, asked about the impact of her pilgrimage to the lands of St Dominic Guzman, said simply, “It was like coming home.”

The variety of ‘other ministries’ staggers me. It seems that, as traditional habits were modified and then largely disappeared, Sisters put on ‘new clothes’ and took on new ways.

Those of an academic bent may well have moved into adult education and formation, arguably the greatest need of the People of God. Those with a passion for, and expertise in, particular areas, say liturgy or spirituality, looked for opportunities to share their knowledge and commitment.

Those with specialised skills, for example, in spiritual direction, counselling, accompaniment and supervision, were able to hone their skills and share them with private individuals and with professional people requiring such support.

Many worked – and some continue to work – in parishes, enriching the life of the faith community, supporting the ministry of the parish priest/leader and most importantly, witnessing to the love of God for each of us.

A common thread in the stories is the willingness to go beyond parish and diocesan boundaries, beyond not only convent walls but into situations where accommodation may be rudimentary, people may be welcoming but with little to offer and the needs may be well outside the previous ‘box’ of experience.

Simply being with and for people – women who have encountered domestic violence, prisoners, asylum seekers and refugees, those with mental illness, those with a disability, the dying, the grieving, the lonely – is the ‘bottom line’ for many Sisters.

One Sister I met, post-teaching ministry, joined a group supporting women who had experienced domestic violence and went to extraordinary lengths to understand the women’s situations. She wanted to empathise, not sympathise.     

Another Sister had come to a deep appreciation of the value of interfaith dialogue as a result of various encounters and studies. She spent a sabbatical ministering in an ashram in India with views of the Himalayas!

Yet another Sister who embodies the rare skill of profound listening is not only a valued spiritual director but also a devotee of the Persian poet Rumi and the Bengali poet Tagore.

I have met Sisters whose ‘later careers’ included directing choirs, providing pastoral care/chaplaincy  in various settings, supporting elections in Timor Leste, working with Aboriginal families on Bathurst Island, leading retreats, supporting parishes without a resident priest, working in archives, ministering to HIV-AIDS patients, congregational leadership, adult faith formation … the list goes on!

At a time when the Catholic Church is struggling, I believe we should rejoice in so many strong, committed and uncompromising women who remain faithful to their charism and in so doing, bring the gospel to life.

Career advice anyone?

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