PHILADELPHIA – I couldn’t resist asking Sister Anne Myers, who once upon a century would have been called Mother Superior, but is now a more prosaic Congregational President, about the harsh depiction of mother superiors in the movies. We were standing in the back of the beautiful chapel in the mother house for the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia at Chestnut Hill College when I asked her about the vow of obedience nuns make.
Q: This vow of obedience, who are you being obedient to?
A: That’s where you’ve heard me say about praying and discerning. Ultimately, we all want to be obedient to God and God’s will.
Q: So how does that play out practically?
A: Years ago obedience meant you got told that you were going to teach third grade at Saint Bartholomew. Period. And you went. Now, it’s more of, ‘All right, so I feel love to teach third grade at Saint Bartholomew.’ I make an appointment and I come to see my ministry coordinator, one of the sisters in our leadership. Then she shares either what the needs of the congregation are or what she thinks in light of what you shared. There’s what we would call a mutual discernment, where you try to discern what you think God’s saying to you.
Q: So that’s how it works?
A: It’s not like the command. It’s not a military obedience anymore
Q: Was it like that when you started out? You were 18 at the time, right?
A: A little bit more.
Q: Did you ever chafe under that?
A: It was kind of starting to change so I didn’t really experience anything that strident.
Q: How did you get the job of congregational president?
A: The nice thing is how we choose our leaders is completely different from what happens in the secular world. Every five years we’re looking at how are we doing, and what God is calling us to in the future. Then as part of those meetings, we elect a new leadership team. So it would be the president and four counselors. Sisters submit your name. It’s a long process. Sisters submit your names and then people pray to see if they would be open to doing this ministry. I mean it’s a real ministry of service.
Q: How so?
A: It’s a service to the congregation. It leaves everybody else free to do their ministries, to teach and to be working in parishes or hospitals. So, that’s the purpose of this — to free our sisters for mission. At the actual chapter meeting itself, we have a lot of processes where sisters discern and pray. Then they’ll ask those of us who are in this what we call a leadership pool to talk a little bit about what our hopes might be for the congregation and for our mission. Then it’s a very prayerful process where we elect the first person and then we elect the second one. … But, you don’t campaign. In fact, anybody who really was ambitious to try to be in this role wouldn’t be elected.
Q: Why did you become a nun in the first place?
A: Not that anybody could be as generous as what Jesus did for us, but I felt like I had to respond with the gift of my life. I mean I think everybody gives their life to God in a different way, but I felt like that’s how God was calling me.