Mining for Transformation in Grief: Sister Rebecca Ann Gemma Shares at the LCWR 2020 Assembly

Sister Rebecca Ann Gemma, OP waiting to speak at the 2020 General Assembly at Sacred Heart Convent Friday, August 7, 2020.
Sister Rebecca Ann Gemma, OP waiting to speak at the 2020 General Assembly at Sacred Heart Convent Friday, August 7, 2020.

Sister Rebecca Ann Gemma, OP, prioress general of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, was one of three leaders to  share their reflections on the topic Grief as a Catalyst for Transformation and Hope during the Leadership Conference of Women Religious annual assembly, held virtually this year for the first time. The others who shared were Sister Maureen Geary, OP, a Dominican Sister of Grand Rapids, Mich., and Sister Antoinette Gutzler, Maryknoll Missioner from New York. The Maryknoll sisters are also members of the Dominican Family.

The text of Sister Rebecca Ann's reflection is below. Click here for a printable PDF all all three reflections.

The spirit and desires of our General Chapter in 2019 were captured in writing on a half-sheet of paper. It is titled, A Prayer for the Life of the World. Many of us pray it each day, some have it memorized. Each section represents the current movement of the Spirit in our lives calling us toward deep listening, fidelity to Christ, and right relationship with all creation.

The first stanza has become the inner lining of my daily offering as I pray, “Holy Mystery, ever ancient, ever new, we, the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, come before you aware of our interconnectedness in the cosmos, and in solidarity with the rostros concretos of the marginalized.”

Although rostros concretos literally means “specific faces,” in Castellano it is understood more broadly to include any oppressive situation which relegates people or any part of creation to the margins. Never could I have imagined how these words would be tested by our experience of a worldwide pandemic, systemic racism, global economic collapse and abuse of power within our nation and Church.

One evening I was watching the national news. The stay-at-home orders had been in effect for over 70 days; Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd had been killed; protests were rampant throughout the country; national leaders were ranting; and politics had once again made its way into ecclesial settings. In a news segment not more than a couple minutes long, I saw individuals on both sides of the Black Lives Matter movement yelling inches away from each other’s faces; a police-lined barricade ready to engage peaceful protesters; persons running toward the scene while others were running away; and there to the side, stood a child of color with a sign that read, “See Me, Listen to Me, Love Me. I am here!” I darted from the room with that image emblazoned in my heart and it haunts me, challenges me, and is transforming me ever since.

The Haunting

I seem to be going through a “Hound of Heaven experience” these days not unlike the time 40 years ago when I was seriously discerning God’s call to religious life. The child holding the sign comes into view as I pray, read, speak, and wander throughout the day. Like the pursued in Francis Thompson’s poem, I hear the footsteps of those made invisible not only in history texts, but in my own life of privilege. Those whose lives are on the other side of access, recognition, influence and power are calling me to embrace consecrated religious life with a new heart, a different way of being. My vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience seek new expression in a fractured world where institutions and systems no longer defend those most vulnerable. I am being hounded by the vision of a child crying out, “I am here” as Holy Mystery, prompts me to see, listen and love anew.

The Challenge

The challenge before me is personal and it also engages my congregational leadership. As a Dominican sister, I lean into the grace of our charism which is to seek Truth. In an age of 24/7 broadcasts and online news, we can be tempted to assume that we already know the Truth from all perspectives. Yet my lens of privilege often blinds me to seeing how my comforts stand in stark contrast with the suffering of others. Due to the pandemic, many people have become homeless, unemployed and hungry.

I have the benefit of living in community where food, shelter, and clothing are too often taken for granted. I am not preoccupied with my safety due to the color of my skin; with concern that medical care will not be provided; or that I will be on the streets if I don’t bring in a salary. Have I really given up all to follow Christ?

How does my religious life, obligate me to be in solidarity with the rostros concretos? What does this solidarity mean today?

I have come to realize that “fixing it” is neither the responsibility nor a possibility for leadership. However, I do believe those of us in this ministry of service are called to promote healing as we see, listen, and love. Who are the invisible in our communities, those relegated to the margins due to illness, mental distress, or broken relationships? Who are those front and center that loudly voice their disapprovals, yet feel unseen? Who are the lonely, confused, and despairing longing to belong?

I recognize anew the challenge to companion my sisters with honesty, tenderness and humility, as I recognize my own frailties and proclivity toward being judgmental. But it cannot stop there. Trusting our interconnectedness with all creation, I believe as a congregational leader, I am also called to challenge myself and my sisters to recognize how our engagement with one another affects the health and unity of all life. We are neither powerless, nor exempt, from our responsibilities toward all creation.

Yes, we are to claim our own needs, but at the same time, must continually be aware of and attentive to the needs of those in our neighborhoods, cities, countries and universe. This comment is not to be heard as a cliché, nor is it reserved for those in certain age categories or with specific physical capacities. The challenge for all consecrated religious is to manifest with our individual and collective behaviors the belief that we are one in our Creator: if one suffers, we all suffer; if one is rejected, no one is whole; if one is healed, we are all made anew. This certainty pushes us beyond treating all as equals with identical needs.

This worldview is making real the values of justice and equity expressed in caring relationships and the distribution of resources, where diversity is respected, the underserved are given priority, and abuse of power no longer divides us into the haves and have nots. This worldview is best shaped through prayer and outreach.

The Transformation

Sometimes maxims take time to drift off the paper into our hearts and spiritual DNA. One such age-old motif held in great esteem by members of the Order of Preachers has done just that in recent weeks. It states, “Contemplate and give to others the fruits of your contemplation.” For the past four months, I have been struggling with feelings of inadequacy, loss, and vulnerability stemming from these significant global events. What can I really do? What can my congregation do? I have been drawn into more frequent and intense times of contemplative prayer. The fruits of my contemplation are rarely articulated using words, as there seem to be no well-defined answers to my many questions. I have however experienced a deeper recognition of the Spirit’s presence, that of suffering Earth, and most frequently, persons on the margins calling out, as did that miniature prophet in the newscast, “I am here!”

Taking a verse from our Prayer for the Life of the World, I daily plead: “Free our hearts to recognize and attend to Christ in hidden and unexpected places.” I trust that our God of abundance is fashioning something new in me, in religious life, and in all creation. Let us all see, listen, and love.

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