Giving Voice to the Importance of Peers

Me with some of my GV Sisters at our
2013 National Conference
Regular readers of the blog know that I am involved with (and presently on the leadership team of) Giving Voice, a grassroots peer-led network of younger women religious that creates spaces for younger women religious to give voice to their hopes, dreams, and challenges in religious life.

Having a peer group is something that many of us take for granted in our lives. We grow up with the kids in our neighborhood and/or our classmates in school. In college we bond with age peers with similar interests as we explore new territory and learn by making mistakes. Young married couples with small children often find that they have more in common with the parents of their children's friends than with friends going through different stages of life.  We naturally seek, and developmentally we need, peers with whom we can journey through the ups and downs of life.

In religious life, our elder Sisters in community have always had a large ready made group of age peers to share ministry, prayer, and community life. They have grown up together and are growing old together. While the large group they entered with at 21 has certainly dwindled over the years, as they swam through the choppy waters after Vatican II and aged gracefully, they still share community with a sizable group of women within 5 to 15 years of their own age.

This reality is vastly different for younger women entering religious life today.  Often we are the only younger women, or one of a small group of younger members, in our particular community.  As our elders Sisters retire or move into active prayer ministry, we are just beginning our ministries or seeking to apply our energy to new endeavors.  As our elder Sisters look at leadership and community decisions with more years of religious life lived than on the horizon, we seek to find ways to bring our vital charisms to a needy world with smaller numbers and a very changed society over a longer horizon with many unknowns ahead. 

This also leads to a unique situation in community life. On the one hand, on a daily basis we navigate an unusual dance where women 20, 30, 40, or even 50 years older than ourselves are the women with whom we share prayer, community life, and sometimes ministry. As a result, even though we are by no means their age peers, in many ways as community members we relate as peers. Truth be told this is one of the unexpected gifts of religious life in the early 21st Century, which has become a laboratory for intergenerational and intercultural community living.  I have dear friends in community who are 75 or 84 or even 90. As I've been in the community longer, my treasure chest of shared experiences, in-jokes, and deep love is filled all the more. In many ways, I wouldn't trade this intergenerational experience for a large group of age peers in community. 

On the other hand, there is no denying that it is vitally important to have age peers in religious life as well.  Try as they might, my single or married friends outside community just cannot understand how funny x or y is that happens in community or why even though it makes absolutely no sense not only do I have to z, I really want to.  And try as they might, my elder Sisters in community just cannot understand what it is like to be part of such a small age minority at this transformational time in American religious life.

Luckily, I have always had women within 10 years of my age in community, albeit a small group. Since my novitiate classmate Chero and I entered almost 10 years ago 5 more women have entered. This is a gift.

Another gift has been my network of Giving Voice friends across congregations. I attended my first Giving Voice gathering, a retreat for Sisters in their 20s & 30s, during my novitiate.  I cannot tell you how much that retreat meant to me at that point. Oh wait, actually I already did, in a blog post way back in 2008:
In addition to our times for prayer, play, and more play, we also had some deep conversations about our lives and this larger religious life experience. It helped to have other voices expressing similar thoughts. I left feeling much stronger and part of something bigger. Religious life may be different, it may be smaller, but it will continue. These women are passionate about their communities, passionate about their ministries, and passionate about religious life. God is in the mix, and all shall be well.
In the years since, my Giving Voice peers have been an integral part of my own growth and development as a woman religious in the 21st Century.  We laugh, cry, play, and dream together, across the miles. Another amazing gift of this unique time in religious life is the opportunity to experience so many different charims mixing and mingling.  After every Giving Voice experience, whether it is a conference or a retreat or a conference call, I find myself amazed at the power of the Spirit moving through history.

Our Giving Voice network continues to grow, deepen, and develop with exciting opportunities on the horizon.  I can see more and more how my life as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace will be strengthened and supported  by my Giving Voice peers across congregational lines well into our shared, if unknown, future. When I dream and pray about the future of religious life, I know what I knew at that first retreat as a novice. My Giving Voice sisters and their passion for God, life, religious life, and their own communities will help create that future even as we live it now. God is in the mix, and all shall be well.

I've aged out of the 20s/30s retreat, but it continues! In fact, there's a great article in the Catholic Sun (Phoenix Diocesan paper) that just came out. If you want some positive energy, do yourself a favor and click the link to read the article.

As for me, I continue to be energized and find great hope in my work on the Giving Voice Core Team. And this summer, I will be part of creating a new chapter in our shared history as I help to host our first Giving Voice retreat for Sisters in their 40s! God, my friends, is very good. And so is having peers.


Joan said...

What a neat network! I attended my first weekend retreat to do some discernment, and the very idea - that majority of the sisters at the particular convent were significantly older than I- was somewhat disheartening. While I absolutely agree that one can develop a beautiful friendship with an elder Sister, it seems critical to have at least one other person that is somewhat near in proximity of age. Glad I found your blog! :)

Susan Rose Francois, CSJP said...

Dear Joan
Thanks for the note! Blessings on your journey.