The Challenge of Corporate Conversion

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

The Challenge of Corporate Conversion

Address to the Vincentian Convocation (Eastern Province) June 16, 1999 Gertrude Foley, SC


When John Freund invited me to address you during this Convocation, he said that he wanted me to speak about our experience at fostering corporate conversion. I told him that I could do that in a few sentences! Actually, as usual with such invitations, I found it a good prompter to reflect on a variety of activities that we have been carrying out that are motivated by this desire. A little background on our congregation will help situate what I want to share with you today. We are a congregation of “black cap” Sisters of Charity. Our community was founded in 1870, and today we have approximately 550 members. About 200 of our Sisters are members of the Korean Province and about 350 remain in the congregation in the United States. The successful development and growth of our 1960 mission to Korea has resulted in posing a question about our congregational structures. So, this July we will have a special chapter of affairs to decide whether or not we will remain one restructured congregation or whether the Korean Province will separate and become a new congregation. Four years ago, we started a construction project on a new motherhouse. The building, to be called “Caritas Christi” has a scheduled completion date of August 4, and the dedication set for October. In the fall, we will launch a program of spiritual renewal that we have called “Transfigured in Christ.” As you may imagine, with all of this change afoot in the congregation, the issue of corporate conversion is a frequent topic of conversation!

Part I: Addressing the issue of corporate conversion

Certainly, the Spirit is active among us these days. Everywhere, it seems, we find a thirst among our members for something “more.” The euphoria of renewal and the reactivity that has seemed to characterize much of the past thirty years appear to be abating. There appears to be a certain readiness now to examine the unintended consequences of so many decisions and projects undertaken with perhaps more enthusiasm than insight. We can imagine two different persons giving their estimates of this apparent readiness. The first person might conclude somewhat smugly (with a kind of “I told you so” air) that this readiness is more of a retreat (in the military sense) a drawing back to an earlier ground, an admission of failure, perhaps, or at least an acceptance of debilitating battle fatigue and severe losses. The second person might interpret this state of readiness as not to be readiness for anything but the undertaker. It is all over, this one might say, like the disciples on the way to Emmaus, “we used to hope.” Both of these imagined surveyors of the current scene would be, I believe, only partially correct. To the first I would say, “Yes, indeed, we are fatigued but we have not failed. There have been losses, but there have also been gains. This is not a retreat but a plateau, a cadence to be expected during any human project of lengthy duration.” To the second person, I would say somewhat the same thing, emphasizing that a plateau is not a graveyard and that hope is confidence in things unseen. Hope is what you have when there is no reason for it! Or perhaps hope is what you have when you can’t quite comprehend God’s design in what you see but you trust in the God whose design it is.

As I ponder our current situation, I, like you, love to roam through the biographies of our founders to see if I might find something that will illuminate, if not the situation then at least my pondering. It is always hard to make a complete identification between the founders’ stories and our own, and recently it occurred to me why this is so. The founders are so darn unselfconscious about what they are doing! What I mean is that one finds a total absence of questions like “Who am I?” “Who are we?” They don’t seem to be muddling around, fretting, wringing their hands, whining “What should we do?” They certainly reached plateaus in their lives and in their works. But they dealt with the plateaus in the same way they dealt with everything else: they listen to what God might be saying in this moment. Sometimes a contradiction appeared right along with the breakthrough, such as the one Pierre Coste describes at the founding of the Congregation of the Mission. Madame de Gondi and her husband had provided a place for the new community to live. Madame di Gondi, however, would not suffer the loss of her personal chaplain and spiritual advisor. The contract, therefore, stated that Vincent de Paul “should continue to reside in their house” and that he should “continue to render themselves and their family the spiritual assistance received from him for many years.” Coste observes: “The contract, by thus separating the superior from his community, might have gravely compromised the existence of the new Institute from the beginning, but Saint Vincent relied on Divine Providence and It came to his aid. Two months after it was signed, Madame di Gondi expired on June 23, 1625, assisted and fortified, as she had so long desired, by her saintly director.” [Coste, Vol. 1, p.149] In light of our exploration of the process of conversion, we might ask whence came this ability to be both apostolically committed and being actively submissive to God’s will at the same time.

Let me turn now to the specific topic of corporate conversion, and tell you where we seem to be in this process. “Conversion,” of course, by definition implies that something, someone is changing. Ordinarily, change implies that there is movement from one state of affairs to another. So, as we begin to think about this process, it is helpful to describe the situation from which we are starting. For the past twenty-five years or so, our congregation has grown (as has yours) more and more informed about the lives, the spirit, and the charisms of St.Vincent, St. Louise, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. We have made connections in our understanding about the relationship between the older Vincentian tradition and the founding of the Sisters of Charity in the United States. These studies, seminars, and retreats have enriched and inspired us. Stories such as the one recounted above from Pierre Coste’s biography of Vincent, for example, have become part of our lore and continue to fill in our understanding and appreciation of the founders. Then, about four years ago, our community was offered an opportunity that proved to be a grace. We were invited to participate in a seminar about the French School of Spirituality.

We had realized that our Vincentian heritage was related somehow to the French School, so we knew enough to accept the invitation. But other than that, we knew little about it. Two of us from the Council participated in the various sessions and lectures. As I listened, however, I began to feel like someone must feel who suddenly discovers in her attic an object of immense value. I was struck by the awareness that in the renewal following Vatican II, we may have discarded certain spiritual practices and customs without appreciating how these practices were significantly related to our characteristic spirituality and therefore to our identity. Two years ago, four of us from the Council participated in a second seminar/retreat, this time with an emphasis on prayer in the tradition of the French School. During the discussion periods, we each acknowledged being grasped by the thought that this new learning was indispensable, if we were to reinvigorate the life and spirit of the Congregation. What was this new learning? The core insight from these seminars is that the key practice of the spirituality of the French School is to understand, internalize, and grow in the interior attitudes that motivated, strengthened, and sustained Jesus himself. This was the goal of meditation on the Scriptures, private and communal prayer, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy. The founders and followers of the French School had an understanding of baptism that we probably thought had been grasped only after the Second Vatican Council. Being incorporated into Christ, the principal duty of the Christian life was to grow into that identity, to make one’s own the interior attitudes and dispositions of Jesus.

Now why was this so astounding to me? On the one hand, it seems so obvious and simple that I am almost embarrassed to admit the power this rediscovery has had for us. On the other hand, however, what came clear to me was that in understanding this spirituality, we would have a key to really understanding the founders, to knowing what made them “tick.” Understanding this spiritual teaching brings one inside the founders. We are no longer observers and followers of the founders in the external sense, trying to claim and imitate them. Rather we become sojourners with our founders on the one Way, which is Christ. It was this daily conforming of their minds and hearts to the mind and heart of Jesus Christ that was the day-to-day source of energy, insight, strength, support, and challenge for our founders. Of the followers of this School, Raymond Deville writes: “None of them was a solitary meteor in the heavens. They knew one another, were keenly aware of the experiences of the people of their time, and all of them desired to renew themselves as Christians. Completely immersed as they were in the age in which they lived, they strove to transform it. In so doing, they fulfilled their own personal mission, long before the philosopher Ortega y Gasset, wrote his famous words: ‘I am myself and the circumstances that are mine, and if I do not save them, I do not save myself, either.’”

Filling in these pieces of our heritage also gave me a new insight about the relationship between Elizabeth Ann Seton and the Vincentian tradition. We are all familiar with the story of how, when she was first presented with the Rule for the Daughters of Charity, Mother Seton observed, “There is nothing here foreign to my spirit.” But we have a new awareness about this scene. Mother Seton’s spiritual directors were Sulpicians. The founder of the Sulpicians, Jean-Jacques Olier, is considered one of the best representatives of the French School of Spirituality. Vincent de Paul, twenty-seven years older than Olier, was a contemporary, friend, and companion of Pierre de Bérulle, recognized as the originator of this School. [Although it is true, as Tom McKenna reminded us yesterday, that Vincent cannot be labeled “French School” in any simplistic way, we know that he was well acquainted with the key figures of this so-called “school.” We also know that Vincent never passed up a good idea when he saw one! He continually incorporated into his thinking all that was best of the theology and ecclesiology of this “school.”] Isn’t it likely that the Sulpicians would have spiritually directed Elizabeth Seton along the lines of this tradition? Isn’t it obvious that when seeking to assist Elizabeth in guiding the infant community, they would bring her a copy of a Rule with which they were quite familiar, one that applied in most practical ways the Incarnational theological emphasis of that School, and which by that time had been tried for almost two hundred years? The emphases on Scripture and Eucharist in this spiritual tradition would have found the heart of Elizabeth well prepared to receive this teaching. Truly, the relationship between Vincentians and Setonians is deeply of the Spirit. It was an act of Providence, not an accident of history.

“Completely immersed as they were in the age in which they lived, they strove to transform it,” says Deville. We could say the same thing about ourselves. This is something on which we all agree, that we want to be completely immersed in the age in which we live in order to transform it. What differentiates us from our forebears in this tradition, however, was that this agreement about immersion in society with the intention of transformation was an agreement not only about strategy but also about what such a strategy demanded. They agreed that the motive of this immersion was that of Jesus himself. And they agreed that the means for achieving the strategy was to support one another in striving to internalize the spirit and heart of Jesus. They did not ask simply, “What did Jesus do?” but also how did Jesus think, how did he evaluate, how did he know the Father’s will? They decided that these questions could only be answered by deep praying over the Scriptures and in the Eucharist. They understood that this prayer had to be both individual and communal. It was essential not only to follow Jesus personally but to follow Jesus as a company. This is, in a nutshell, the goal of our corporate conversion effort.

We are just beginning to plan ways to invite our congregation to this renewed appreciation of the demands of our characteristic spirituality. It is clear to us that a new motherhouse or new congregational governance structures will not suffice to sustain the vitality of the congregation for the good of the Church and the world. I have described for you what the key idea for this program is. Up to this point, we have gathered two groups in consultation about what might be the expected outcomes. Other than that, I do not have a fully designed program to display for your edification and amazement. What I would like to do, however, is to invite you to examine with me what I think are some of the major obstacles to drawing the community into such a program of renewal. I do this because I believe these obstacles are not peculiar to us but are blocks that any of us will have to address, if we are serious about corporate conversion. These blocks are not the result of malice. They are examples of the contradictory dynamics that develop in the life of every organization as it tries to move toward its desired goals. Recognizing these contradictions is the first step to defusing their negative energy. Then we must develop strategies that will weaken or remove them from our path of transformation.

Part II: What blocks our efforts toward corporate conversion?

First block

1. The first block is the residue of our history of the past thirty years. The waves of change since Vatican II have thrown us on the shore of the new millennium. It is this very history that constitutes a powerful block to getting down to brass tacks on the question of corporate conversion. A brief review of “Vatican II: Before and After” might help situate our consideration of this block. Prior to Vatican II, most communities were made up of individuals whose individualities had been intentionally suppressed. This was not some masochistic plan to exert mindless control over unwitting subjects. Rather, it was a plan that can be seen to be well-intentioned and well-designed, given the prevailing larger world view of the times. That world view saw the Church engaged in a life-or-death struggle with the “world.” To engage in that struggle required troops that could move onto the battlefield trusting fully in the wisdom of the higher officers to decide both the field of battle and its strategies. Thus, the highest value was placed on obedience to authority and on conformity in dress and behavior. Since this was the Church, in place of a field manual, we developed various manuals of spirituality that fully explained why this set-up was exactly what God wanted from the Church, from the congregation, and from each member in it.

After the Second Vatican Council and following its mandates regarding the renewal of religious life, every possible aspect of our lives underwent severe examination. We rediscovered the concept of “charism.” searching for it first in the lives of the founders, then realizing that this was a characteristic of our congregations as well and of the individuals in it. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), and The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) overturned the perspective held for centuries of the Church in opposition to the world or in a position superior to and separate from it. We discovered new needs, and strangely enough, discovered that we had a variety of gifts among us to respond to these needs. The consequent move away from institutions and from the houses attached to them changed our relationship with the local church. Concurrent with all of this was a pervasive challenge to traditional images of authority and new claims to the presence of the Holy Spirit in each member.

The past thirty years have left us with many unintended consequences, not the least of which is a community reality that often seems fragmented and aimless. Moreover, this fragmentation seems to be so interwoven with values we have come to esteem quite highly if not absolutely. Thus we find ourselves in an authentic dilemma. We feel an attraction to opposite polls: to the newly highlighted cultural values of individuality, independence, privacy, and option on the one hand and, on the other, to the traditional values of community, order, the common good, fidelity, and commitment. In being stretched on the rack created by these two poles, we are not unlike millions of other Americans. We claim the ideals of being counter-cultural and prophetic, but, pulled by the opposites of the rack, the words sound strangely hollow—coming as they do from our over-stretched larynx!

Seconf block

2. A second major block that needs to be addressed, I believe, is our naiveté regarding the massive cultural shift that grows more and more domesticated, even as we gather. By this I mean that scientists and philosophers have been speaking and writing (mostly to each other) for almost a century now about their awareness that “the edifice that housed thought and culture in the modern era is crumbling. [Scholars] have reached a consensus on one point: this phenomenon marks the end of a single, universal, world view.” Stanley J. Grenz writes: “The postmodern ethos resists unified, all-encompassing, and universally valid explanations. It replaces these with a respect for difference and a celebration of the local and particular at the expense of the universal.” When I say that this massive cultural shift continues to grow daily more and more domesticated, I mean that it permeates media and mass advertising, magazine covers and book jackets, not only MTV but also most of the popular sitcoms on prime time television. This domestication goes on without benefit of reflection, evaluation, or critique. The postmodern ethos is shaping our taken-for-granted reality. A recent Gallup Poll reveals that among the top three issues considered to be of greatest importance to our society today, the first named was “ethics and morality.” But efforts to enforce any standards of ethics or morality draw immediate fire from people of the ACLU mind set. Just a note for those in the audience who decry and deny the validity of the adjective “postmodern”: Certainly there is disagreement among scholars about this term. It is helpful only for naming a collection of phenomena and experiences that reveal a shift from a formerly taken-for-granted reality. The fact that this era can only be named as coming after the “modern” era tells us that we are still struggling with it. My reason for naming this as the second obstacle to be addressed is that I believe that many, many postmodern values attract us, influence us, seduce us, perhaps even though many of these values are contradictory to the values of the Gospel, of the Vincentian way, and of consecrated life. It is never easy to stand outside of one’s times and one’s culture, to free oneself adequately to take a critical view of what is going on and how one is affected by it.

Third block

3. A third challenge to our corporate conversion process lies in our tradition itself. That challenge is the obverse to our treasured virtue that I might name apostolic pragmatism. We are doers, inventors, initiators. We are less practiced and therefore less skilled in theoretical reflection or what I might name apostolic contemplation. This was not a challenge or obstacle for many centuries during which the world view of the West was the underlying framework of thought. During those centuries, the debates among scientists, theologians, and philosophers rose from a common ground of ideas. What seems to have occurred within the last quarter-century is a critical challenge to the idea that there can be any common ground of ideas or anything else. This makes our apostolic pragmatic bent in danger of being unaware of the serious challenges to our tradition that come from the culture itself. You and I may think that fragmentation is a problem; many today would say it’s not a problem, it’s the way life is. Some among us may think that fragmentation is identical with inventiveness, or that at least that it is the unavoidable result of inventiveness. We have become more and more used to the idea of fragmentation, find it less and less disturbing, find ourselves less and less concerned that we are losing the “big picture.” Could it be that we are influenced more than we realize by the culture that says there is no, can be no such thing as the “big picture?”

I have named but three obstacles that we must address as we move into our program of corporate conversion. I have chosen these three because I think they are root obstacles and because I think they may be of interest to you as you think about your own design for fostering corporate conversion. The challenge in the challenges is that none of them can be addressed by a simplistic return to the past. To reclaim the rich, deep roots of our characteristic spirituality must not turn into a museum tour or a nostalgia binge. We must do this reclaiming in the midst of a culture that is vastly different from the culture that produced our tradition. It’s true that in Vincent’s time, begging for the poor might have been declared a crime. But at least Vincent could call people back to the awareness of the social implications of their cultural underpinnings. He could remind them that “what held society together was a theory of social obligation that sprang from the very nature of society and was understood from a theological point of view related to a hierarchically ordered universe ultimately ruled over by God.” Today, we cannot assume any such agreement about the nature of human beings, society, the universe, and their origins. In this environment, we cannot be contented with encouraging merely individual paths to God. We must find a path together. It is corporate conversion, I believe, that will give us some chance at having a strong, competitive voice in society, a voice that competes with the Babel sounds of individual profit, privacy, and independence. The unaddressed philosophy underlying our times has no problems with our proclamations about human rights. It almost fits into their own philosophy of each one for him- or herself. Who will articulate a convincing argument for social rights? Do not expect to find it coming from Wall Street! Could it be that this call to corporate conversion is actually a call from the Holy Spirit? Could it be that the Spirit is calling us as Vincentians to do the serious ground work of corporate conversion that will shape us and strengthen us to be a convincing voice for the poor in our times? Could it be that this call to conversion is more than a matter of restoring practices that are personally and individually comforting and assuring? In “The Great Ideas of Philosophy,” a series of taped lectures produced by The Teaching Company (Springfield, VA), Professor Robinson, referred to the contributions of Charlemagne to Western civilization. He described the importance of a common language in developing a “summoning culture.” Could it be that corporate conversion alone can create the sort of “summoning culture that can sustain our individual convictions about and our individual commitments to the transformation of society? Jordan Hite, commenting on Canon 607, which describes the key characteristics of religious life, gives us indicates just what such a “summoning culture might be: “The common life and communal efforts at evangelical simplicity, consecrated celibacy, and religious obedience result in social patterns, economic interests, and professional attitudes which tend to “separate” the religious from much in the world without separating them from the persons with whom and for whom they minister.”

Setting aside any fine distinctions about whether we are “religious” or not (pace St. Vincent!), the idea that the common life can change us in regard to social patterns, economic interests, and professional attitudes points to what the goal of corporate conversion might be. As I said above, in our congregation, we are going to explore just what the impact might be on our social patterns, economic interests and professional attitudes were we to reclaim (or perhaps understand really for the first time) the characteristic spirit of the Vincentian-Setonian tradition. Perhaps some future historian of our tradition will write as did Deville about the founders of the French School, “Completely immersed as they were in the age in which they lived, they strove to transform it.”