Sometimes the obedience waltz seems more like a tug of war. Here is my own experience of a graced time.
While I was pastoral associate of the cathedral in Saginaw, Michigan, our pastor's nine-year term ended. With no eligible replacement, the bishop invited me to pastor the cathedral for an interim year. After discernment with my community, I told him I didn't want a year of space-holding but would consider a term of three years. He agreed.
I explored this invitation with my local community and our provincial council, who were pleased until I said I believed it important for me to live in the rectory (as had my ordained predecessors) as a significant symbol of my non-ordained pastoral authority over cathedral parish life. Our convent was a block away from the cathedral, so I could often join in prayers and meals. But our provincial council couldn't conceive of it with the convent only a block away.
After some phoning back and forth, I met with our whole council. At the end, our provincial asked: "In obedience, Sister, will you agree to continue to sleep overnight in the sisters' home?"
"Yes, I will," I replied, "but then I will also need to relinquish the bishop's invitation to serve as pastor."
After the meeting, I prayed and received supportive letters from the bishop, Saginaw clergy and sister friends. The day before my annual retreat, our provincial called me with the council's decision: Although some still didn't think I needed to reside in the rectory, all respected my conviction that I did need to. Permission granted!
My initial term of three years gradually evolved into nine. And a friend — a Sister of Charity of Halifax who worked on the diocesan staff — later came to live in the rectory with me.
This grueling experience eventually became normative for all of us, respecting both the essence of conscience and the wisdom of community. Remembering that season of discernment, I still cherish one particular moment during the height of my communal back-and-forth phone calls with our council. Sitting in our backyard, looking out at the cathedral across the street, I prayed for wisdom. Then I noticed a nearby apple tree, just starting to bud. Tight green whorls abounded on the branches, some shyly sprouting tiny white blossoms. No apples in sight, but a promise!
For me, this respectful, organic, holy experience of nature's obedient respect for timing transformed into a symbol of our unfolding communal obedience. Each bud and each sister in our story were responding to the sun, flowering in her time. An obedient tree bears fruit in due season.
That backyard apple tree is still a symbol that through respectful communal discernment; the Spirit of Wisdom eventually yields holy, obedient, ministry-flourishing communal peace. And down the line, maybe even an apple pie.
We’re delighted to share with you this blog from the monthly feature “The Life” courtesy of our friends at Global Sisters Report. This month, The Life panelists reflected on the question: Some consider the vow of obedience the most difficult. How do you or your community balance the demands of communal discernment with your personal preferences for ministry and living situations? CLICK HERE to read more blogs from The Life series, GSR’s monthly feature about the unique, challenging, and very specific lives of women religious around the world.
Image above: Sr. Honora Remes with Bishop Ken Untener when she was inducted as pastor of the cathedral church in Saginaw, Michigan (Courtesy of Honora Remes).