The announcement was made officially. With the #NewLeaders advocacy campaign launched in June by the Union of Superiors General (UISG). Videos, communiqués, statements to say that the sisters propose their leadership to confront the challenges of international development. They want to count and speak, independently and as nuns in the great world fora. These events represent opportunities for them to bring their experience, which they claim, and their voice where it is needed, to begin with where the fate of the world is decided and where, generally, only the large entities have the floor.
Religious sisters have something to say, with their knowledge about the planet’s economy, the spread of poverty and marginalisation, the climate emergency and the very possibility of the earth’s existence. Therefore, they go to the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Cop27 on climate in Sharm El Sheik, the Cop15 on biodiversity in Montreal. The great economic conferences, the summits where the fate of the planet is discussed.
For three months, the organisation of women religious sent a clear message to the congregations, and to the Church as a whole, to announce and to encourage the new role of sisters in society, and in the Church. This included not only pious sisters, not only obedient women, not only examples of goodness and solidarity; and not just missionaries ready to sacrifice themselves in the most marginalized places on the planet. All this, of course, remains, but with the awareness of possessing significant experiences, of being able to provide life testimonies and ways of solving the great problems in today’s world. In addition, they are able to exercise leadership, give a concrete example of understanding and direction, while representing those who have no voice and suffer the domination of others; those - they specified from their very first communiqué - who are on the margins in the post-Covid development dialogue.
A turning point. If the aim of the campaign, through its videos, testimonies, and interviews wanted to arouse surprise and curiosity, it was fully succeeded. The questions remain. Why did the sisters and their organisations decide to take such a bold step? What prompted them to propose and announce that they wanted to take a leading role? Moreover, to correct, consequently, their own image as it had been perceived? All in all, this was a bold step, even by the Church’s standards and that part of the clergy that tends to expect them to assume a secondary role.
To understand more concisely, we must begin with the word the superiors general used: leadership. This strong and unusual term, has recently entered the vocabulary of women religious with a precise design, also benefiting from some successful leadership experiences (e.g. the Talitha Kum network). It evokes, in fact, power, authority, and influence. It indicates leadership and followership.
In both the economic and political globalized world, the word “leader” has long since replaced the word “chief”, because this latter term recalls obedience and subordination. Leaders, on the other hand, do not command but convince. Those who follow them do not obey, let alone do so blindly. They are part of the same world. They recognise the leader’s role not superiority, which is precisely what the sisters intend to do. They who work, act on the periphery of the world, and on the existential periphery of humanity, and know its terrible problems, and want to be a voice and a guide. Leaders indeed.
However, leaders are not all the same. The way of being a leader in the political sphere, for example, is different from being a leader in the economic sphere. Even in the Church, leadership takes on different connotations.
It is certain, however, that it is a masculine word.
If nuns use it, it is to define a new figure and new tasks.
Who is “the new leader” of whom the campaign of the superiors general speaks and of whom the world needs? Patricia Murray, executive secretary of the UISG, responds, “As a nun, my leadership role calls me to be keenly aware of the joys and sorrows of people today and to respond as a ‘contemplative in action’. This means bringing a contemplative presence to the experiences of daily life and discerning how to respond as individuals, but also as Sisters together. Somehow, in exercising leadership today, I feel called to help create a global sisterhood where, as sisters from many different congregations, cultures and contexts, we can respond together to the geographical and existential peripheries of our world”.
In brief, sisters together to help those who live on the margins and represent the needs of the world’s peripheries.
In fact, the new leader, sister Murray continues, “is open to meeting others, especially those on the margins” and “builds strong collaborative networks and through these diverse relationships, works with others to live in solidarity and to support new ways of living that demonstrate a profound care and respect for all people and for the planet”.
In the words of this Irish nun, a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as the Sisters of Loreto, leadership is not just what the world of men has been proposing so far; leadership of others, being ahead of others and showing them the way. However, this brand of leadership turns itself inside out, for it builds itself in the relationship with the lowly of the earth in a common path between the sisters and those on the margins of the planet who need to make their voices heard.
In the name of the lowliest, the nuns reach world appointments where the fate of the world is discussed, commencing with those on the environment. Francis’ words in Laudato si’ become action and commitment in places where it is most evident that climate change and the destruction of resources add poverty to poverty.
Sister Sheila Kinsey, a coordinator of the network Sowing Hope for the Planet, explains the new tasks of the nuns as follows, “We want to make the sisters and the communities they support listen, placing their wisdom and experience at the centre of a response to ecological challenges that is driven by collaboration”.
An example of leadership is that of Sr. Anne Carbon, a missionary from St Columba who has worked in the Philippines alongside the indigenous Subaanen people whose lives are threatened by mining projects. Of Sr. Jyotisha Kannamkal, who with her congregation, the Sisters of Notre Dame, gives support to the most vulnerable communities throughout the immense Indian continent. Of Sister Nathalie Kangaji, who as a lawyer fights against the cobalt supply chains that threaten certain populations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Certainly, the leadership proposed by the sisters has its own peculiarity and is on a well-defined path. Certainly - as scholars and the nuns themselves assure - it has its origins in the Second Vatican Council, which sanctioned in any case the end of an apex model that until then had never been questioned. Certainly, it has been confirmed in the synodal path that calls for a different Church ready to listen. Nor is it just “an opening to the world”, as many might think imagining the life of nuns closed in a convent or a mission.
“We nuns are women who have always been ‘in’ the world”, says Sister Grazia Loparco, historian, of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. “Since 1970, for women religious of active life, the world was the natural place of mission. The Second Vatican Council is pervaded by this spiritual conviction. Religious institutes were invited to renew their charism on the needs of the humble. Even then, the organisation of the superiors general had a clear urge to collaborate with international institutions. With the leadership campaign we want to make it clear that the sisters are also part of the women’s movement for change”, Sister Grazia Loparco confirms. A female religious world that many imagine (and some even want) as submissive has decided on a brand of protagonism that has the flavor of a silent rebellion.
The innovation is that the operation with which the world organisation of the superiors general seeks to affirm its new role and tasks, as well as the will and strength of its presence and work, does not take place only within the albeit important perimeter of the Church. Instead, it aims directly outside, or rather, even outside the Church. It is the world, not just the ecclesiastical hierarchy that is the confrontation ground of the new way of being religious.
In evoking leadership, and trying to build a new one, also has a third motive that concerns more specifically women religious and the changes - now so many - in their lives. The need to rebuild the “sisterhood”, of which Sister Patricia Murray speaks, indicates, though not explicitly, another problem to be addressed.
The authoritarian form with which power has often been and sometimes is exercised in convents, monasteries and congregations no longer holds water. Young nuns find it hard to obey. Authoritarianism is no longer “naturally” accepted.
Therefore - thanks also to the climate brought about by the Synod - a new and hitherto postponed reflection became necessary. How can the authoritarianism present in the world of women religious be overcome? The global sisterhood of which the superiors general speak also passes through this change. In addition, through the creation of new leaders, whose authority is no longer entrusted to hierarchy and command, but to the ability to build together with others and to represent the lowliest.
One important fact remains that the new leaders do not state, but those who observe them cannot help but notice. At a time when women are looking for a new role in the Church, the women religious have decided on a new step, and have made what in the game of chess is called a horse’s move, which is a metaphor for a skillful and unexpected initiative when one wants to free oneself from an impediment or get out of a critical situation. On the chessboard, remember, the horse does not move in a straight line and possesses a flexibility that makes it very strong; in fact, it is the only piece that can jump over other pieces.
This is why the battle for a new and more important role in the Church does not only take place inside the ecclesiastical institution but in the world. It is not because convents or monasteries are cramped or closed places - many are beautiful, and in the past, abbesses ruled parts of the world without ever leaving them. Nuns go there where the fate of the planet is debated, in the human, dangerous, places of power, to bring the voice of those who otherwise would not have it. Once again they place themselves “at the service” of others. However, to determine a direction, not to assert obedience.
by Ritanna Armeni
History The UISG was canonically founded in 1965, inspired by the Second Vatican Council. It currently consists of 1903 Superior Generals from all over the world.
Structure The Superiors are organized into 36 regional Constellations. Each constellation elects its own delegate(s) who, together with the members of the Steering Committee, form the Council of Delegates.
Council of Delegates. The Council takes the most significant decisions, which guide the work of the association. It now consists of 52 members who meet periodically.
Steering Committee Consists of a President and members elected by the Council of Delegates, the Steering Committee is the body that is responsible for decisions taken on a daily basis and the implementation of resolutions and directives of the Council of Delegates.
Executive Secretary The Executive Secretary is appointed by the Steering Committee for a three-year mandate, which is renewable. The person holding the position participates in Committee meetings and represents the Union in day-to-day contexts. She is also responsible for the day-to-day administration and management of the Rome office.
Plenary Assembly. The Plenary Assembly meets every three years.