April 4, 2019
Looking back over 30 years of civil rights work, Sr. Kathleen Ryan, a Sister of Notre Dame, credits her many faith-filled encounters with everyday people in Church parishes, schools, government offices, nonprofits and the Greater Cleveland community as one of the best parts of being a sister. The retired director of the Office of Social Action for the Catholic Charities Diocese of Cleveland and former Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland board member draws many parallels between today’s social justice climate and the “issues of the day” that Catholic Charities began organizing around in 1989, including poverty, educational equality, lead poisoning, employment rights and an increased minimum wage.
Sr. Kathleen believes we live in an exciting time, in part because information is more easily shared than it used to be and also “because the gifts that Catholic sisters have always brought to their ministries, such as reflection, prayer, contemplation, action, discernment” are being multiplied through programs like the Sisters of Charity Foundation’s Generative Spirit initiative, designed to cultivate shared learning and relationship-building between Catholic sisters and lay partners.
Keeping this intergenerational and interfaith paradigm in mind, below are five suggestions, based on insights from Sr. Kathleen, to help current and future social justice advocates learn and apply the practices that have sustained Catholic sisters for more than a century of community-based ministry.
- Start with spirituality. No matter who is sitting at the table — public officials, business leaders, community members and activists included — Sr. Kathleen starts every meeting with a prayer. Crediting this practice to Sr. Helen Prejean, a fellow Catholic sister, activist and author most recognized for her book and the resulting movie Dead Man Walking, Sr. Kathleen learned that sharing her loving, peaceful intentions helps set the tone for productive communication and collaboration.
- Practice careful discernment. From the moment they are first nudged toward vocational ministry, Catholic sisters begin to develop their ability to pause and pray before taking action. While the social justice issues we face are urgent, our responses cannot be if we hope to create lasting change. Silent contemplation provides time to listen and notice what your heart is telling you, to consider the long-range consequences of your actions, and to balance feelings with values and intellect. This process should also include frequent, intentional reflection and self-examination once a decision has been made.
- Don’t be afraid to lead. “Sometimes people lead the Church, sometimes the Church leads people,” said Sr. Kathleen, recalling her early work within parishes to develop social action ministries, acknowledging a shift from her early days when people wanted to get involved but didn’t know what to do. Many Catholics looked to the bishops for education and guidance around issues, and it was Sr. Kathleen’s role to educate, empower and equip lay leaders who felt called to civil rights work. Leadership comes in many forms and is not limited to formal titles and organizational hierarchy.
- Seek out deep connections and authentic community. Collaboration is a foundational tenet of today’s social justice paradigm. Nonprofit leaders and community organizers increasingly seek to share resources and ideas for maximum impact, but the camaraderie and mutual support of a spiritual community are valuable in a way that can’t be replicated on the internet, at social justice marches or in the boardroom. Catholic sisters are able to sustain decades of challenging, community-based ministry because of the deep spiritual connections they have with each other.
- Make time for stillness, prayer and meditation. Every day, even during her busiest days, Sr. Kathleen pauses at lunch to ask herself, “Am I staying in the presence of God?” For secular leaders, this question could be “Do my choices support our mission?” or “Am I leading in a way that reflects my values?” On average, Catholic sisters working in the community spend two hours a day in private prayer, re-centering themselves frequently throughout the day. During her time leading the Office of Social Action, Sr. Kathleen also carved out time for weekly prayer and reflection with her whole team, though she admits making that happen was never an easy feat. A few minutes of centering prayer or meditation help ensure that your time, attention and energy are spent on tasks consistent with your values and goals. Prayer and meditation also help provide clarity when you are facing tough decisions, making this an increasingly vital practice in today’s world of choice overload.