Eight female-identifying Catholics in their 20s and 30s, all of them students or recent graduates of programs in theology or divinity, gathered June 17-30 at Mount St. Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania, for the inaugural Joan Chittister Institute for Contemporary Spirituality: A Feminist Benedictine Option.
Eight young feminist theologians — master's students, campus ministers, a faith formation director, high school teachers, and a Benedictine Sister of Erie in initial formation — came from across the country and Australia to take part in the institute along with Benedictine Sr. Val Luckey, a 30-year-old sister in formation with the Erie Benedictines. They shared their wisdom and their dreams with us, with the other members of the institute staff, with Sister Joan, and with the prioress and subprioress of the Erie Benedictine community, Srs. Anne Wambach and Susan Doubet, who attended and participated in sessions every day.
The participants came with stories to tell and hopes to share, and they also came prepared to learn. The institute was designed to allow participants to academically and experientially explore Benedictine life through the lens of Sister Joan and her community.
Because the conversations between sisters and participants were so rich, one of the main highlights of the institute was the panel discussion offered at the beginning of the second week, when the eight participants told the Benedictine community about their experiences in graduate school and in ministry. This was an opportunity for the women to share what gifts they bring to the church, where they have struggled as young feminists in the church, and the sort of support they need to continue doing their good work.
Many of the Benedictine sisters were moved by the panel and said it shifted their perception of the participants from young girls to adult women who are already acting as valuable leaders and ministers in the church.
"Hearing the participants talk about their visions for the future really nourished and rekindled hope and energy in me," said Sr. Carolyn Gorny-Kopkowski, who attended the panel. "I heard one young woman say, 'It's a heavy burden to carry other people's hope.' That reminded me that I still have work to do. As I'm growing older, I feel really driven to pass on my resources. I want to journey with these young women so they can learn something about the past and connect it to the future."
Along with the intergenerational connections these women made, part of why the institute was so special for those of us in early adulthood is because it is so rare for young progressive Catholic women to have time and space together where our faith and our leadership abilities are respected.
Being together in person was really powerful and necessary to experience deep spiritual relationships, something so many of us deeply seek. Who knows what this group of women will look like going forward? But we do now know that as young Catholic feminists, we're not alone. And we know that we found a place where we committed ourselves to engaging and encouraging each other on a powerful level, with the help of other strong women of faith who have supported each other for decades.
Breanna Mekuly works with the Benedictine Sisters at their soup kitchen and with Sr. Joan Chittister's ministries. She is also involved in Call to Action's 20/30 cohort of Young Adult Leaders. Jacqueline Small works for Monasteries of the Heart and Benetvision, ministries of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. She has a master's degree in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and a master's degree in social work from Rutgers University. BOth women served as leaders of the Joan Chittister Institute for COntemporary Spirituality.
This is an excerpt of an articlin the Global Sisters Report. Reflections written by two of the institute's participants will follow in a future Monks in Our Midst post.
Please share your reflections as you read about this experience.
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Monks in Our Midst: writings by monks from the 3rd to the 21st centuries.