Congregational leaders consider the future


It was a gathering of sharing, reflection and inspiration when 120 religious leaders met in Brisbane from 22-24 June for Catholic Religious Australia’s (CRA) annual National Assembly.

The theme for the three and half days was ‘See, I am doing a new thing’ – the title of the survey report into religious life which was launched by CRA in November 2010.

While that report showed that Sisters, Brothers and Clerical Priests were ageing and decreasing in numbers, it also showed that there was a significant broadening of ministries and roles in the past 30 years.

CRA Executive Director Sister Veronica McCluskie SGS said the focus of the assembly was on looking at the new things congregations are doing, the challenges and where they are being called by God.

The assembly’s five keynote speakers gave delegates much to consider when they spoke about religious life from different perspectives.

Columban Father Noel Connolly talked about the missionary role of religious life, saying that people should be able to look at Religious and feel hope.

“So we have to struggle to be more authentic signs of God’s hope in the world and we need to be ready to give people our reasons for hope,” Fr Noel said.

Theologian Sister Jan Gray RSM discussed whether religious life was in the ‘end times’ or “is that not what religious life has ever been about”.

While many felt that they were at the end times of religious life as they know it, those with a number of new members joining had different opinions. For many leaders it was a time of doing things differently with more collaboration between congregations and with lay people.

After recently attending an international conference on religious life involving representatives from Europe, Africa, Americas, Asia and Oceania, Loreto Sister Chris Burke spoke about emerging issues for Religious in different parts of the world.

Sister Veronica Lawson RSM provided much food for thought when she unpacked the biblical story of Tabitha, saying that bringing the new into dialogue with the age-old wisdom of the sacred stories was what Religious always have to do.

“We need to do this because of who we are and because we share a much older story in our biblical texts,” Sr Veronica said.

Sr Veronica said the character of Tabitha is both disciple and prophetic presence and her story can function as a biblical prototype for religious life.

Speaking on the topic of religious life in a media-saturated society, Father Richard Leonard SJ encouraged delegates to engage with contemporary Australian culture.

“We have to learn the language of the culture we live in and take that culture seriously. We need to be players in our media marketplace where minds and hearts are won and lost,” Fr Richard said.

“We also have to be hospitable, welcoming communities and people that practise what we preach.”

Spirit of support for each other’s congregation

Other segments at the National Assembly included snapshots of ministries where Religious are doing something new or working in a different way.

Father Steve Curtin SJ spoke on the Jesuits work with refugees.

Fr Steve said many of the Religious who were working in refugees camps overseas during the 1970s and 80s are now working with refugees and asylum seekers in Australia.

He also spoke about the Shelter Project being piloted by Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) supporting unaccompanied adolescents.

As well as being a new work, the Shelter Project involves collaboration between a number of different religious orders including JRS, Marist Youth Care and the Mercy Sisters.

Fr Steve said JRS and many other religious orders involved in this ministry were responding to new problems in creative and new ways and with much more professionalism and policy experience.

Sister Annette Arnold RSJ reported on work the Josephites have been doing to find ways of strengthening their ministries with indigenous Australians at a time when many Sisters involved are ageing.

She said that following a working party review, the Sisters are proposing establishing a new entity that would be in partnership with other congregations working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Sisters of Good Samaritan will be partners with the Sisters of St Joseph in this new entity and there has also been strong endorsement from the Mercy Sisters. The Brigidine Sisters have also indicated their support.

Sr Annette said their aim has been to establish a sustainable way of maintaining their commitment into the future so that they can offer a multi-disciplinary approach to healing the trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

New ways congregations are supporting overseas Religious coming to Australia and addressing the area of multicultural community living was also reported on and discussed.

Workshops considered the needs of temporary professed Religious with input from Anne-Marie Gallagher RSJ and Augustinian Brother Paul Skippen.

Other workshops explored partnerships and associations with lay people and examined processes that have assisted congregations in establishing public juridic persons (PJP).

On the final evening of the assembly, the leaders were joined by Archbishop Bathersby, Archbishop of Brisbane who presided at Eucharist.

Archbishop Bathersby was joined by Bishop Brian Heenan and Bishop Brian Finnegan from the Bishops Commission for Church Ministry, who also attended the conference.

Also attending the conference were Fijian Sister Nanise Degei SDN representing Asia Pacific and Sister Susan Ross RSCJ, Sister Colleen Keeble RSJ and Sister Julie Brand SM from New Zealand.

CRA President Sister Anne Derwin RSJ said there was a spirit in the group of support and encouragement and a willingness to look out for the needs of each other’s congregation.

“The ‘See I am doing a new thing’ report challenges us as Religious in Australia to be courageous and audacious in cooperating with the new things that God is doing,” Sr Anne said.

I think as a group we are, and some courageous, audacious decisions have been made by some of our members in terms of letting go what has always been for the sake of seeking first the Kingdom of God.

“Over the three days in Brisbane we were nourished in our ministry of leadership in pondering the words of Isaiah 43:18-19 - ‘Do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing. Now it spring ups; do you not perceive it?’ – and were challenged as a group of Religious leaders to be alert to, and welcome the new things God is doing.”

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