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Thursday, 04 August 2011 04:07

Leading a future of hope

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Just over 120 Sisters, Brothers and Clerical Priests from across Australia took part in the annual assembly in Brisbane from 22-24 June. Joining them was 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.  Also taking part were Bishop Brian Heenan and Bishop Brian Finnegan from the Bishops Commission for Church Ministry, Father John Maher from the Australian Council of Priests and Father Frank Devoy representing the Australian Catholic Council for Clergy Life and Mission.

With the assembly theme, 'See, I am doing a new thing- the changing face of religious life and the challenges', the focus of the three and a half days was on considering the future of religious life.

Sister Veronica McCluskie, CRA Executive Director, said the aims of the assembly were to look at the new things congregations were doing, the challenges and what God is calling Religious to do.

While the reality for most congregations is an ageing and decreasing population, the atmosphere at the conference was hopeful.  Some leaders reported they are continuing to welcome young people to religious life. Others said that organisational changes such as establishing a public juridic person or a new entity had brought blessings.  Greater collaboration between congregations and with lay people had also had significant positive outcomes.

The assembly's five 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.

He said people should be able to look at Religious and feel hope. "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."

Theologian Sister Jan Gray RSM discussed whether religious life was in the 'end times' or is that not what religious life has always been about.

She said Christ did not establish a religion that was meant to resist change.

"We are facing the realities and yet seeking a hope for the future."

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.

She said 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."

Sister 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.

"We also have to be hospitable, welcoming communities and people that practise what we preach," Father Richard said.

CRA's President, Sister Anne Derwin RSJ said there was a lovely 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. 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."