“We have been pruned ‘to non-existence’ by the Church in Ireland” say Irish women religious

“We haven’t been heard in the past and have found other ways of belonging within the institution. Will we be hurt again if we invest our energy into it? Will it make a difference?,” Ireland’s women religious ponder in their appeal.

In their document ‘Experience and Dreams as Religious Women in the Catholic Church in Ireland’ which was included in the submission of the Church in Ireland to the Synod in Rome, Irish women religious come across as passionate, hurt, angry at their marginalisation, but hopeful that some good will come of the Synodal Process.

It is a cri de coeur from women religious who state that “we keep the impossible dream for a more inclusive Church. Many others have walked away but we stay, often only barely holding on with our fingertips”. The document has been lightly edited for space.

General feelings and hopes:

  • Religious life is a charismatic, prophetic, radical way of following Christ. Despite our declining numbers and high age profile, religious women in Ireland today continue to provide very valuable, meaningful, courageous, and relevant ministries to the poor and marginalised, both in Ireland and overseas.
  • We are very aware of the hurt, pain, oppression, and sadness which was experienced by some of the women and children who were entrusted to our care in the past. For our failure to give the care and compassion which they so needed and deserved we are deeply sorry. We hope that we have learnt from the failures of our past.
  • Hurt, marginalisation and resignation have been expressed by religious women in the institutional Church, referring both to the past, and to today. There is a deep sense that we have been pruned ‘to nonexistence’ by the Church in Ireland.
  • Religious women feel faithful, resilient, hopeful, courageous, and committed – we keep the impossible dream for a more inclusive Church. Many others have walked away but we stay, often only barely holding on with our fingertips.
  • There is a deep desire to grow into new ways of working together as one Church where all people are valued equally, and every contribution matters and makes a difference.

Views about the Synod: An opportunity, but almost afraid to hope:

  • We hope this synod will lead to a new way of being Church where men and women work together as equal partners committed to healing, peace, unity, and new life.
  • We hope this synod will help the institutional Church to “let go and respect change”; to embrace an inclusive language and inclusive roles within the institutional structures.
  • But: is it worth investing energy into? Are we afraid to have hope? Would we be heard? Is it just too complex? We haven’t been heard in the past and have found other ways of belonging within the institution. Will we be hurt again if we invest our energy into it? Will it make a difference? Will a woman’s voice be allowed to come in? What will it take for inclusiveness?
  • The ‘language of synodality’ must be void of clerical imposition. There needs to be a ‘culture of relationship’, not something forced, to ensure that change will happen and will last.

The unique and invaluable gift of women to the Irish Catholic Church today:

  • The many gifts of women in the Church today include creativity, contemplation, warmth, compassion, vision, nurture, intuition, responsiveness, adaptability.
  • Because of an experience of exclusion in the Church women bring a spirit of radical hospitality, a commitment to the inclusion of all and a vision of a Church where everyone can find home.
  • Women are adaptable and in service, quick to realise what is needed and to take appropriate action in response to that need.
  • Religious are not bogged down with dogma; they have a different perspective and often move ahead in many social, environmental and justice issues.
  • We bridge the gap between doctrine and life by grounding our experiences of God in real life situations.
  • As religious women, our way of decision making is very inclusive and involves a high level of participation. This is in contrast to the very hierarchical method which is typical of the hierarchy and parish clergy and which is reflected in how lay people and religious are currently involved in the life of a parish. This needs to be addressed.

Experiences of inclusion and of exclusion in the Church in Ireland as a religious sister

  1. Longing to belong :
  • Recognising that we are one church there is a desire to belong to the wider community of the Church and a longing to create a space big enough for all to participate. It’s difficult to be part of the institutional Church that occurs as outdated, outmoded, lacks authentic dialogue, pays lip service to inclusion, and appears far removed from where women and Religious are.
  1. Exclusion at the parish level:
  • Many clergy are closed to creativity and can be resistant to/refuse change. This limits those within the parish structures such as the parish council, parish planning group, liturgy group, diocesan planning group, etc., who have unique gifts to offer to support the parish, in particular women religious.
  • Clergy are not trained or accustomed to working together as a team.
  • A deep sense of isolation and dissolution as parish liturgy and rituals are no longer nourishing.
  • With an aging clergy and religious conservatism among newly ordained seminarians, some religious ask is it better to let that Church die out?
  1. Exclusion at the sacramental level, including the inclusion of a new layer in the hierarchy:

• When the role of ‘deacon’ was added, this was limited to ‘married men’ and excluded women. Women religious are uniquely qualified and experienced to conduct this role, yet another layer was added to exclude them. Whether women religious would be open to this role or not is irrelevant in the absence of a choice.

  1. Exclusive language:
  • The exclusive language continuously used in the Church and especially in liturgical celebrations, for example, for us ‘men’ and for our salvation.
  1. Scapegoating and feelings of isolation: Media and public perception:
  • Today, religious life in Ireland is given a lot of bad press, with a particular focus on the past, and as women religious many of us feel hurt and challenged in a very deep way. Most media reporting seems happy to use women religious as scapegoats for Church and society.
  • The release of the Ryan report in 2009 was very difficult, primarily for the survivors, and for everybody else affected by it including women religious. The experiences around the recent reports on mother and baby homes have been similarly painful. Despite the reports demonstrating that Irish society as a whole was responsible, the focus of culpability has remained almost exclusively on women religious.
  • The invisibility today of women religious in Ireland: There is a sense of being silenced, but silence is seen as condoning the accusations and giving an impression that “we’re all guilty”. We are partly to blame for our own invisibility as we appear to have gone underground. What can be done? It is difficult for women religious to respond, as we believe “any religious who speaks up would be shut down”.
  • The institutional Church has enjoyed ‘the glory of the schools and education” that the sisters provided. Yet when new ways had to be found due to declining numbers, the hierarchy has tended to withdraw, disassociate or rely on “delay tactics”, refusing to respond to or dialogue with religious orders to look at change and move on with the times.

We dream of a prophetic Church, an inclusive Church, a community of love, the kingdom of God. A Church that embodies faith, hope and love, visible in the here and now. How can we create this Church together?

  • Listening to the voices of all the people of God: The fundamental part is listening – “everything must be on the table” with an emphasis on sincere listening, respect, and inclusivity.
  • The first step is the dialogue, engaging intentionally with a living conversation where the people of God will come together.
  • Dialogue will be at multiple levels, including local (priests, deacons, sisters, lay people).
  • There is need for inclusion of the unique ‘gifts’ of women religious, alongside those of the clergy, and to incorporate these into an inclusive Church.
  • As women religious in Ireland, we are no longer in leadership roles in the Church: i.e. through schools and hospitals. We are in the background, and… we also realise that this is a healthy reminder that our identity was linked too much to what we did.
  • As returned missionaries, there was much we did not know or had not experienced within the Church in Ireland. We felt a great sense of fear on our return, our newness.
  • Sexuality within the Catholic Church / the Church’s understanding of sexuality and the link primarily to procreation; more contemporary understandings and what this means could be healthily engaged with, a sense of the faithful.
  • Our future is working with others: As religious and indeed as Church in Ireland, we are an aging community and those involved in the Church are aging. This will lead to something better.
  • There is absence of community ownership of our faith in Ireland. A Catholic community based on the Gospel with a relationship in the risen Lord and all that flows from and into that is paramount, rather than doctrine.
  • It is necessary to identify ourselves as Church, not as the institution, and to reflect on the question, who are the hosts of the future in our world and align our energy to these people.
  • We will be more vocal to issues that are relevant in our world. Injustices here as we see it. We will support the agenda of climate crisis. We will use our resources, our wisdom to mobilise and raise crucial awareness.
  • We need to keep hope alive in our call – God is working through us at this time. If we look to nature, we see a tree that has died yet one shoot comes out of nowhere and continues life. The seed falling into the ground to die is a silent thing but, given time, something new emerges.

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