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The Interview
Patricia Murray, the UISG secretary. This is how we defend those who live on the margins

Forced to be leaders

 Costrette  a esser leader  DCM-001
07 January 2023

“Each one of us is a leader even if we don’t know it. We sisters, however, are ‘forced’ to be leaders”, says Sister Patricia Murray, 60, an Irish nun from the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and executive secretary of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG ).

The sisters are “obliged” to leadership because congregations and orders have always been engaged in the geographical and existential frontiers of the planet, alongside human beings deprived of their rights because of marginalisation, injustice and poverty. “And as part of our service, we are called to defend their dignity. Moreover, to ensure that they themselves grow in leadership. We sisters can be a catalyst”, Sister Murray emphasizes. However, to achieve this aim they must first understand how to be authentic leaders and not just leaders.

In the light of these considerations, it is not surprising that religious life, and especially women’s religious life, has developed an intense reflection on the issue of leadership. The turning point came in 2017 with the elaboration of the guidelines of the Congregation for Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. An important part of the text is devoted precisely to the way of leading communities. It reads, “Authority cannot but be at the service of communion […] a true ministry to accompany brothers and sisters towards a conscious and responsible fidelity”. The debate triggered by last year’s preparation of the document for the Synod on Synodality offered further insights. This debate gave rise to the ‘New leaders’ project, the advocacy campaign launched last June by UISG to show and reinforce through a series of videos and online training sessions the capacity to be agents of change to satisfy humanity’s hunger and thirst for meaning, peace, reconciliation and liberation. As the UISG secretary warns, “At the heart of our desire to be leaders at the service of human beings and the world is the Gospel. Jesus’ leadership is expressed in the washing of the feet”. 

Yet the term leadership is generally associated with power rather than service.

It is about power, the power to shake up the world and make it at least a little better. Leadership is the ability to see what needs to be changed and to involve others in the effort to bring about change. It is inextricably linked to service; it stems from the desire to serve human beings, starting with the poorest. Moreover, to synodality.  

What does synodality have to do with it?

The leadership that this time, the Church and society need is synodal leadership. It implies listening at a deep level that allows people to speak their truth. Moreover, to discover the Truth together in sharing a fragment of it. It is a spiritual practice. I do not say religious but spiritual instead because it brings out each person's spirituality; their most authentic humanity. It is this that unites us, beyond differences. After all, we all have the same desires. The ways to achieve them change. What unites us, however, is stronger than what divides us. This is learnt in discernment, which is not a method of decision-making but seeks the roots of human aspirations. Discernment and synodality are the two fundamental characteristics of leadership.

Can you give me an example?

In March 2006, at the end of the war in South Sudan, the local bishops invited representatives of women’s and men’s religious life to go to the country to understand the needs of the inhabitants. Six of us went, three men and three women. In four weeks, we went to five dioceses; where we listened to the people describe to us the enormous suffering they had experienced, their current life, and their aspirations. This is a nation where health and education were accessible to all and where they could cultivate their fields and raise their animals in peace. None of them asked us for anything, they just told us. In the end, they thanked us for listening to them. They felt that the world had forgotten them and were almost surprised that the Church had not. At the end of the mission, we presented our experience to the superiors general in Rome and proposed to them that we try to respond, together, religious men and women, to the needs expressed by the South Sudanese, which were too great for any single order or congregation to deal with. Based on what they had asked of us, we offered courses for teachers, nurses, midwives, farmers and animal breeders. Thus was born Solidarity for South Sudan, which is still active today. For me, this is an extraordinary example of synodal leadership. First, we responded to an invitation, we did not go on our own accord with some great idea. Proposals arose from listening to and discerning the desires of a people, and from a subsequent discussion with religious men and women from over two hundred different charisms, brought together in the General Unions. 

What has been your most difficult moment while exercising leadership?

In 1986, there was a big fire in the Dublin house of our community in which six sisters died. It was a major trauma for all of us. At the time, however, as media liaison officer for my congregation, I could not afford to give vent to my grief. I was only able to cry 20 years later when I was interviewed on Irish national TV about the incident. The 1986 burning was the most difficult test of my leadership skills.

More difficult also than when, last May, at the World economic forum in Davos, you had to confront the top leaders of international economic power to propose to them a different vision of the future?

Davos was not a difficult experience. On the contrary, it was an extraordinary opportunity to tell the world's most important managers how the sisters are committed to trying to make a difference in various parts of the world and how, together with them, they could make an even greater difference.

Insomma la Chiesa e, in particolare, la vita religiosa femminile possono essere maestre di leadership per il mondo?

In short, can the Church and, in particular, female religious life be teachers of leadership for the world?

Before teaching, we must learn, with honesty, to be synodal leaders. At the moment, it is our desire, but we must exercise it.

So there is also a leadership problem in religious life?

Certainly, as there is everywhere. Problems arise when those who lead a community or an organisation do so with authoritarianism, without involving others. The opposite of God, the true master of synodal leadership. In the Trinity we have three Persons all involved, in different ways, in Creation and its flourishing. This is what the Church must offer to the present and the future because it is what God asks of us to make our humanity shine.

by Lucia Capuzzi
A journalist with the Italian national newspaper, “Avvenire”