Giving Life to Chapter Directions
Article by Sr. Clare Nolan
Province of New York/Toronto
Some years ago, I was invited to a discussion with a newly forming lay religious community in New York. I jumped at the opportunity since I found the invitation in keeping with our most recent Chapter Directions, expressed in these phrases: "…explore with fresh enthusiasm, …our relationship with God, …challenges, …create ways of living religious life that are relevant, …organizing flexible and life giving, …ways for mission." These words are enlivening to me. So, since that meeting, I have been involved with Benincasa Community, then just an exploration group and now a well-developing, stable community (see www.benincasacommunity.org).
Retreat group discussion:
Clare (back left) with a member of the Benincasa core community.
I learned that the young adults forming this community had strong admiration and friendships with traditional religious communities, such as the Dominicans and Jesuits, or had participated in congregationally sponsored volunteer programs. They also were connected with less traditional religious groups, such as the Catholic Worker Movement (see www.catholicworker.org/communities) or new ecological farm communities. Some had spent time in seminaries or novitiates. Each was qualified or developing professionally in areas such as law, education, or theology. I also learned that despite a strong and loving commitment to Catholic identity, there were many ways they felt like misfits, alienated, rejected, or demeaned by institutional Church structures and representatives. Gay or trans persons had endured harsh and hurtful encounters. Women were belittled or ignored. Thinking adults were discouraged from questions or exploration, and all were weary of the passivity and lack of creativity in the liturgical life of the Church.
This group held a vision of empowered responsibility, conscientious critique of systemic injustice, continual adult faith-learning, and self-directed actions of social justice linked to larger networks. With broad consultation, mentoring, and discernment, a community was born within the physical space of a long-vacant convent. The three core members were amplified by a scattered and supportive group of not-quite-definable members – friends, part-time residents, guests, etc. The community adheres to daily prayer, community development, simple living, actions of justice, and hospitality. While physically in New York, the community has multiple and strong relationships across the USA.
Clare (far right) on the rooftop with other attendees.
Along with general support and friendship, my own commitment with Benincasa has focused on helping to guide an annual trimester formation program sponsored and directed by Benincasa. This formation is now in its third year, with a participant group of 18 persons. The program, currently adapted for remote participation, includes rigorous weekly theological reading (entirely accessible on the internet), a commitment of each to daily times of silence and personal prayer, and structures for sharing reflections and personal growth among themselves. Benincasa leads a monthly participative eucharistic ritual, referred to as "house-church," that draws up to 40 people of all ages and backgrounds; the formation group takes good advantage of this opportunity for broader communal liturgy. Four day-long retreats are held each year, and the curriculum culminates in a personal project related to the concrete promotion of justice that each participant designs and implements in their real-world spheres. This year the formation themes center around anti-racism – a timely national issue. This year's work provokes many challenges regarding Church complicity in oppressive colonialism and the injustice of many forms of discrimination and exclusion. The biggest challenge is each one's participation in reconciliation and the creation of that other world that is possible.
I wonder if communities such as Benincasa are a long-overdue response to the demand of Vatican II to recognize the mission of the laity to "sanctify the world." I wonder if communities such as Benincasa are part of the answer to our own search for radical transformation. I wonder if communities such as Benincasa offer a perspective regarding our concerns about the decline in numbers across traditional religious congregations. Much of my wondering may remain mysterious and unknown in my lifetime. What I do know is that this manner of enacting our Chapter Directions is challenging and exciting. It is also well "in tune" with the world I experience about me; so, I think I'll keep singing with Benincasa.