Year after year, LCWR brings together 600-900 leaders of congregations of women religious for annual assemblies. The assemblies are rich in communal discernment about living the gospel at this moment. You know the stories of the 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 assemblies. They stand as amazing testimony to the power of God-centered community, discernment, patience, and courage.
I feel awe when I look at those assemblies. Many hundreds of women came together in perilous, ambiguous times of great challenges. They had less than a week together. They emerged ever more in harmony, ever more committed to living the gospel together.
Year after year, LCWR assemblies continue to move forward in ambiguous situations with unambiguous faith and love.
Will that happen at the Synod on the Family?
Imagine if the Vatican had asked LCWR to design the Synod. What an idea! Here are six things I think would be different.
- There would be more women participating. And the women would have votes. Others have addressed this eloquently. Check out Catholic Women Speak, theologian Mary E. Hunt, St. Joseph Sister Christine Schenk, and others.
- Synod bishops would have engaged with their dioceses in face-to-face prayerful discernment, trusting God’s Spirit in and among us. They would have built on a tradition of shared discernment about issues that matter to the community. LCWR’s board meetings, regional meetings, Occasional Papers, and other processes invite this kind of pre-Assembly reflection together. Synod preparations included a one-time solicitation of input. Before the Synod, the Vatican told bishops to consult laity in their dioceses. With a short deadline, many did, sometimes using over 40 extremely opaque questions derived from a Vatican document. But the Vatican told the bishops not to share the results of their consultation with the people in their dioceses. LCWR leaders and staff take seriously their responsibility to foster communication in all directions. Their skills in collaboration and dialogue would have led to a different process.
- The Synod would flow from a contemplative stance. I’m sure there’s prayer at the Synod, but shared contemplation has a unique power to open our minds and hearts to one another and to God’s surprises. Synod preparations and the agenda itself would create well-paced, frequent, gracefully introduced times for contemplation. LCWR assemblies are designed with that awareness. And LCWR members practice communal contemplation in their way of life, so it’s a familiar way of being together.
- In 2012-15, LCWR took the controversial step of keeping public silence until its dialogue with the Vatican’s bishop-delegates had reached fruition. I can’t find the reference, but (in 2013? 2014?) NCR noted that this was a complete reversal of LCWR’s previous openness with the press and public – a reversal NCR didn’t welcome. We’re in different territory with the Synod of Bishops. The institutional church is historically famous for lack of transparency in decision-making. Yet there is a wisdom in some form of quietness that creates and preserves a sense of sacred safety for insights to bubble up and be prayerfully considered before they’re reported in the press, where they easily can boil into confrontation. John L. Allen wrote about the awkwardness of the approach that the Synod is using. His proposed solution reminds me of the way LCWR structures its assemblies.
- The Synod on Family would not have to play catch-up because church policies would be continually refreshed by leaders prayerfully immersed in the diverse communities within the church. Pope Francis knows this as he urges bishops to “smell like the sheep.” He knows the institution and its pastoral practices haven’t kept pace with shifting Catholic family norms. He also knows he has limited time to effect change. So we have the Synod on the Family, 2014-2015. Explicit endpoints invite everyone to jockey for position. In contrast, LCWR resisted any impulse, from inside or outside, to rush its response to the apostolic visitation and Vatican mandate, processes that challenged its integrity from 2008 to 2015. They chose to enter ambiguity together, and that creates very different dynamics. Of course, it would be unthinkably wrong to wait 7 years for deeper, better, more pastoral church policies and practices with regard to family. But imagine if family were enough of a church priority that parishes, dioceses, and national conferences of bishops were continually in dialogue with lay women and men about family needs and concerns. Maybe then we would move forward serenely, rather than with urgency to play catch-up.
- Everyone would be clear that ambiguous, evolving situations need wisdom and pastoral presence. They need people who walk with others as Christ incarnate. Precise, universal, “permanent” answers have a chance to be valuable if the questions are also precise and universal. That seldom happens. LCWR’s assemblies include presentations by people directly engaged in work with immigration, human trafficking, and similar powerful, complex problems with roots and effects in many social, cultural, and political systems. That’s a deliberately wide-angle view. Coupled with time in contemplation, that view invites action that is both strategic and in the moment. LCWR’s assemblies make resolutions for action, rather than internationally binding policies.
My secret hopes are three-fold.
- I’d love to see the church grow a local, national, and international tradition of continuous dialogue and shared contemplative discernment, with lay women and men as full partners both in dialogue and in choosing the focus of the dialogue.
- In this process, I’d love to see the church embrace its call to interpret the gospel in context of the evolving signs of the times, as the Latin American church did in its courageous solidarity with people who are poor and oppressed.
- And honestly, I’d love to see the Vatican and bishops invite LCWR for help in church processes – not just because I’m an LCWR fan, but because I think it would be an excellent step for the church. I’d like LCWR to be contagious. I’d like the whole church to enter into LCWR's steady, courageous honesty about reality and trust in the Holy Spirit. I’d like the whole church to be willing to appreciate the goodness of imperfect people, as Jesus did. LCWR, a conference of leaders, has 50 years of wisdom and experience in a profoundly gospel-centered way of life, and could help church leaders at every level to manifest Spiritual Leadership and Transformational Leadership. (Hint: I think it'd be a fine first step if we and the bishops read the LCWR books you find at these links.)