Six visiting scholars from five African countries sponsored by the African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC) have completed a mentoring program for research at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. For six days in September, they, along with other religious and lay researchers, participated in a virtual, ground-breaking event at the 2020 International Consultative Research Conference organized by ASEC and CARA.
Although not a researcher myself, I love reading studies, particularly about religious life. This new endeavor of intentionally training sisters in Africa for data collection and church research will change the landscape of religious life, bringing to public attention much needed information and data about sisters’ lives and work. There is very little academic research about the thousands of women religious who helped build — and continue to build and rebuild — nations around the globe through education, health care and social services, often with limited resources. I look back in amazement at women from the earliest times of Jesus who have been inspired to carry on his work among God’s people. Unfortunately, these women remain a little recognized resource in the Catholic Church, missing from much of its written memory.
This gathering of more than 50 women and men, from Australia, Mexico, Poland, England, India, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania, Vietnam and the U.S. will begin to change the face of church history. Sr. Draru Mary Cecilia, director of ASEC and a member of the Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Gulu, and Fr. Tom Gaunt, executive director of CARA, co-hosted the conference. Over six days, research studies were presented, beginning with Catherine Sexton from the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, London, with her work on the Vitality of Religious Life in the United Kingdom. Fr. Luis Fernando Falco Pliego followed with initial research among women religious in Mexico revealing that dramatic changes in the past 40 years of a decline in members, social capital and finances due to caring for elders and letting go of ministries are rarely spoken about in congregations. Unwillingness to face these issues will have devastating consequences.
Trudy Dantis director of the National Center for Pastoral Research of Australia noted that a study on religious life in 2018, updated from 2009, presented current trends in religious vocations and in organizational changes in congregations. Although vocations peaked in 1964 and gradually declined due to fewer entrants and deaths, women are still entering religious life in that country: 349 in nine years, from Australia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Pacific Islands. However, smaller numbers encouraged congregations to plan for the sustainability of charisms through creative lay and inter-congregational partnerships, cross-congregational transfers, and obtaining legal Public Juridic Person status for ministerial institutions.
From Poland, Fr. Wojciech Sadlon shared research on “Communication on Intimacy, Gender and Sexuality in the Religious Communities in Poland” in a context of 30 years of freedom from communism, the currently strong religious culture and declining vocations.
The goal was to identify how religious understand the deep link between religion and sexuality, and how religious life shapes and impacts gender roles and social relationships. An interesting point he noted was how Polish culture does not recognize women religious as women, but relates to them as neutrally gendered. Even so, the women see themselves differently, and are self-reflective about their sexuality, emotions and physicality. Male religious, on the other hand engage in public life easily, but only theologize about sexuality showing limited self-reflectiveness about emotions and intimacy. Both groups reported positive attitudes about community living but hesitate to communicate among themselves, except for younger women, about personal issues. Wojciech concluded that more education about the connections of religious life with sexuality, intimacy and gender is needed.
Sr. Thu Do, a research associate at CARA and member of Lovers of the Holy Cross, presented interesting research that explored the racial/ethnic backgrounds of religious in the U.S., and how congregations are integrating racially and ethnically new members from within and outside the country into community and ministry life.