Nerves, tears and chanting: What I saw during the New York Sisters of Charity vote to stop accepting members
In 1968, a brief article by Karl Rahner, S.J., entitled “The Theology of Risk,” appeared in The Furrow, the Irish theological journal. Reflecting on the rapid societal changes being confronted by the church in the world, Rahner posed the mandate of risk as the more courageous way forward. Risk, he suggested, “means relinquishing old, tried ways and risking untried paths, where the future historical outcome cannot be adequately foreseen…. Security lies today no longer in the past, but in the future.”
Fifty-five years later, the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul of New York have chosen to embrace that theology of risk. In early April, five sets of double doors to a hotel ballroom were quietly closed. Sisters and Associates made their way to tables, knowing that the issue of vocations was next on the agenda at the congregation’s 2023 General Assembly. They listened to the report of predictable data: fewer members, a rising median age, a long-standing absence of viable inquirers. Then, the recommendation from the Executive Council called the question. The room became a sea of color as 4-by-6-inch pieces of bright green construction paper were lifted high, wobbling in the air as the delegates’ arms trembled. The wait seemed interminable as the eyes of tellers scanned the room. These cards were ballots, Green signaling affirmation. The final tally? Unanimous! The delegates had just voted to stop accepting new members to the Sisters of Charity of New York in the United States. The air was still. The silence felt like a cloak enfolding the room. There was more to come.
The president, Sister Donna Dodge, took the podium again and with loving resolve proclaimed the second recommendation of the Executive Council. It would require another vote. “The council recommends and asks the Assembly to affirm that we, Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul of New York, will continue to live our mission to the fullest, while acknowledging that we are on a path to completion.” The silence deepened. As their facilitator, I called for the slide that appeared on huge screens bookending the stage. The text of the resolution appeared on the screens, along with the congregation’s logo. The last word hung in the room: completion.
It was unanimous. The Sisters of Charity of New York—one of the oldest American congregations in the country, a historic giant in the boroughs of New York City and beyond—was on the road to completion.
As the recommendation was read, I glanced at the front table where three former presidents of the congregation were seated. Even though they knew this was coming, to a person, their heads jerked back. Then they looked at each other. Without even knowing it, they took a deep breath at precisely the same moment. And held it. Completion.
Sister Donna stepped aside and I took the microphone to call the vote. I had done this hundreds of times over decades as a facilitator at such gatherings. “Will all those in favor, please raise your green card? Thank you. All those opposed, red card. Thank you. All those abstaining, yellow. Thank you.” This time, it felt very different. There was nothing remotely routine about this moment. We waited, side by side, as the tellers read the room. Sister Donna whispered, “My knees are trembling.” I did not have the heart to tell her I was nauseous. Nerves. She reached for the podium to steady herself. Again, the green cards waved. It was unanimous. The Sisters of Charity of New York—one of the oldest American congregations in the country, a historic giant in the boroughs of New York City and beyond—was on the road to completion. There was a brief silence until someone intoned a familiar chant and they began, stretching for the harmony: Ubi Caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
This might sound melodramatic, but the words that came to me at that moment were from the hymn in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “He emptied himself, accepting death, even death on a cross.” This was the sisters’ moment to choose. They chose to take a risk, embracing the unknown work and consequences of completion. To do so requires them to stand with passionate courage, emptying themselves of belief in a limitless future to embrace their ultimate ending.
The birthright of the Sisters of Charity of New York is a loving commitment to service, especially to those living in poverty. When you stand in their presence, you stand with those they serve.
In the late 1960s, Rahner believed that “the courage to undertake risk is today an urgent necessity.” I think the Sisters of Charity of New York sensed a similar call. Throughout the year of preparation for the general assembly, they did not shrink from nor deny their realities but faced them squarely. In fact, from the outset of their preparations, they decided to step outside the norm to hold a shared General Assembly with the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth in New Jersey. The two autonomous congregations, one diocesan and the other pontifical, committed to collaborate in meeting their graced future together. Driven by the question, what can we do better together than alone, they crafted an agenda that gave rise to new relationships and shared Acts of Assembly. For S.C.N.Y., the choice of completion was integral to their freedom to voice with joyful strength the yesses that were still theirs to make. Be assured, those yesses are legion.
The birthright of the Sisters of Charity of New York is a loving commitment to service, especially to those living in poverty. When you stand in their presence, you stand with those they serve. They call to mind for me the words of Johann Baptist Metz, who spoke of the importance of holding the dangerous memory of the marginalized poor, of bringing that awareness to rattle the doors of the church. These sisters who meld mission with ministry to those in need are giants who shake the consciences of all with hearts to see.
Consider this impact report of only a few of their sponsored ministries and you will see the complex task before them to ensure their legacy of charity continues. The Sisters of Charity Housing Development Corporation provides safe, affordable housing for seniors and those at risk. The New York Foundling serves over 1,000 children and adults with developmental disabilities and is expanding to 43 program sites in Puerto Rico with services for new families. St. Joseph’s Medical Center, Yonkers, is the only remaining Catholic hospital in the five boroughs and Westchester County, and works daily to integrate primary care and behavioral health to benefit the whole person. Elizabeth Seton Children’s Center is the largest residential medical center in the United States, serving over 3,000 children with severe complex medical conditions. Life Experience and Faith Sharing Associates serves homeless persons on the streets of New York City. Part of the Solution serves hundreds of hot meals daily, operates a food pantry, and offers clothing, counseling, free legal services and medical care to people struggling with poverty in the Bronx. The College of Mount St. Vincent, celebrating 175 years of academic excellence in the Bronx, educates students, many of them first generation college students. Barbara Ford Peacebuilding Center in Guatemala works for systemic change. These stories and more are not about to end. They are part of careful planning that will ensure the legacy of charity lives on.
The sisters’ choice was not easy, but it was timely. Completion is a word frequently heard these days among women religious in the United States.
The more personal import of the sisters’ decision to embrace the path of completion will take time to embrace. As the news broke on social media, hundreds of people responded with words of compassion and care. While touched by the immediate response of the public, I think the sisters’ leap of faith is going to call them to lean deeply into their faith in the weeks and months to come. Breaking news fades quickly. They will have before them complex choices to make and plans to implement. Elected leadership in religious life is facing unprecedented challenges.
Obviously, given the intensity of the moment, there were tears in the room. One of the delegates, Sister Eileen McGrory, rushed to the side of the stage during the proceedings and whispered, “We need The Slate on stage!” referring to the book that lists the names and dates of death for the thousands of Sisters of Charity of New York from its foundation over 200 years ago to the present day. I moved to the table holding their sacred items of Constitutions and soil from Mount St. Vincent in the Bronx and picked up The Slate. As I moved it to the front of the stage, the presence of those names was felt, along with all those members unable to attend the general assembly, watching the livestream broadcast on screens across the city. The room felt crowded with the spirits of thousands of Sisters of Charity of New York, women who, over the centuries, have embodied the charism of Saints Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, and Elizabeth Ann Seton. These will surely be faithful companions to the current sisters as they move forward on the path of completion.
As members of the larger Charity Federation, they will know the support of other sisters, some of the communities having made the same choice for completion. That afternoon, as the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth returned to the ballroom from their own separate session, you could see the deep sense of communion that had built over the year of shared meetings and conferences as they greeted the Sisters of Charity of New York. I think, to a person, no one felt immune from the challenges facing religious life now. It was the bond and belief in a common charism that held them as sisters.
The sisters’ choice was not easy, but it was timely. Completion is a word frequently heard these days among women religious in the United States. Some prefer fulfillment, others transformation, while some deny its inevitability. The reasons? There are as many answers as there are people in the conversation. But it cannot be a complete surprise. If you consider the projected future of any life form, individual or organizational, completion is a natural step. We are finite beings. Perhaps it just comes down to being a matter of time, degrees or stages. Will new life emerge? I hope so. Isn’t that what we profess? Isn’t new life what the paschal mystery proclaims?
The Sisters of Charity of New York have given a remarkable gift and challenge to religious life in the United States. In their faith, they have embraced a path of risk that will surely demand a price from them, but they are also taking steps to ensure the legacy of their charism for generations to come. Faced with alternatives, they chose, as Rahner described it, “the one which risks more, which is more courageous in introducing innovation…which is the most venturesome course…and has the best chance to win all or at least something.”
One could ask, will the charisms of religious life live on? Join me in lifting a bright green ballot to say, “Yes!” To imagine life without them is inconceivable.