MANY of us may look at religious life today and see dwindling numbers, ageing communities and an uncertain future but Sr Mel Williams sees much more.
She sees with a spirit that is utterly positive and excited about what is happening here and now, and it’s a spirit that is infectious.
It’s that spirit that she brings as Brisbane archdiocese’s new vicar for religious, succeeding Josephite Sister Moya Campbell.
It’s the same spirit that stirred her as a young girl to wonder about becoming a religious sister herself and that led her to the Ursuline order.
Like that little girl full of wonder, Sr Mel is eager to learn more about the people and communities she’ll be serving in her new role.
Appointed by Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Sr Mel said she would be helping him fulfil the part of “his role as leader and teacher of the archdiocese that includes caring for consecrated people so they can live out their commitment faithfully and fruitfully within the Church”.
She said it was a pastoral role that included “fostering good relations between the bishop and the (religious) communities, keeping the superiors informed about diocesan life …, and things like promoting consecrated or religious life”.
Considering the challenges and opportunities that offered, Sr Mel’s aware of how some see diminishment in religious life.
“Some people would say that the challenges would be diminishing numbers and ageing … I’m not too sure; I think we go in waves,” she said.
“There have been many waves of growth and diminishment in religious life.
“And, when we look around the world as well, there is in some places a flourishing of religious life – not so much in our area.
“Diminishing numbers – or even ageing – are not really a worry. I think we’re just like the rest of the population.
“Instead of looking at a ‘golden age’, I think we should just look at what we are.
“And there’s a great number of religious men and women in the archdiocese.
“Having lived right through from Vatican II (Second Vatican Council) to now, there’s been wonderful development and change, and I think we’ve come to something, really, very good.
“At Vatican II we were asked to go back to our sources and, of course, that was our foundation and our Gospel – not that we haven’t been with the Gospel before, but we certainly did a lot more of looking at our origins.
“And that gave an enormous energy to religious life or to members of religious life, and there was a diversification in what we did.
“When we look at the group, which has aged and there is not a lot of new vocations in Australia or in our archdiocese, we see we’ve got a body of people who’ve lived a life of closeness to Jesus and I think there’s maturity, there’s wisdom and in some ways I think they’re a bit of a powerhouse, really.”
For Sr Mel, another important point about religious today “is that they’re mostly found at the edge”.
“We have wonderful institutions – we have hospitals and great schools and they are now run by lay people and there are still religious in some of those schools, mentoring,” she said.
“But I’m amazed … A couple of years ago, I went to a prayer for people who work in prisons and I was so amazed at how many religious men and women there were who were working in the prisons.
“I think a lot of the work (of religious) now is hidden but it certainly isn’t (hidden) at the edges – it’s with refugees; it’s in education still, sometimes working with staff; and also there are wonderful foundations (including lay people) like the Mary MacKillop Foundation, Edmund Rice Foundation – they’re wonderful, and they’re adaptable; they’re adaptable to what’s happening.
“(People in religious life) can make a great contribution to the community today, I think, by who they are, now.
“When I see us in our ordinary personalities and our characteristics I’m just so in admiration.
“What I see is that they’re people who’ve been very open to God … and there’s wonderful transformation unfolding.”
Sr Mel sees hope beyond the dwindling numbers.
“Numbers … let’s not worry about numbers. We can get very seduced by numbers,” she said.
“We don’t have to worry about that; we just have to be faithful.
“We still have many active people doing good things.
“I know in our congregation (the Ursuline Sisters) we’ve got people working in parishes still; we’ve got one … leading a parish; we’ve got people in schools.
“I think the work is hidden but not absent.”
Sr Mel relates to a story told about St Teresa of Kolkata (Mother Teresa).
“She was giving a talk to consecrated people in the United States and it was at a period of time when there was a lot of upheaval, and one of the sisters asked her, ‘Where should sisters be today?’,” she said.
“She just looked at her and said, ‘You belong to Jesus …’
“(She was saying) , ‘You’ll find out … be faithful, you’ll find out; just hang in …’
“And I think I feel that way.
“On our level we have to work pretty hard … We’re constantly, with the diminishing numbers and the ageing, looking at new structures all the time.
“That’s the big thing at the moment in religious communities and groups; we’re looking at structures.
“What are the best structures for us to be able to live this life fruitfully now with these circumstances?
“Structures are quite important to support the best way for us to be.”
Sr Mel’s looking forward to being immersed in learning more about the variety of religious congregations in the archdiocese and supporting them.
“I’m interested in people. I’m interested in the life (religious life) and I’m interested in the people who live this life at this stage,” she said.
“I’m interested in how they are going, how they’re interpreting the life, what they think.”
She’s interested in new groups in the archdiocese like the Sisters of Mary Morning Star, a non-cloistered, contemplative community.
“There are some new groups; there’s new thinking. I’m interested to know about those,” she said.
It’s the kind of call and wonder that’s led her through a rich and diverse life as a religious sister serving as a teacher, a counsellor, spiritual director and pastoral associate in a parish.
With the Ursuline Sisters, she’s been a novice directress and, for a total of almost 10 years across two stints in Rome, she was tertian directress which drew her into a key stage of formation for Ursulines from around the world.
“So my work has been largely with religious, regarding religious,” she said.
The Ursulines have been a constant in her own religious story – not only her’s but with her younger sister Gabriel, an Ursuline Sister in Brisbane archdiocese.
As a student of the Ursulines in Armidale, in NSW, young Mel was inspired by the way they lived their lives.
“What drew me … was that they were individuals. They were real. I liked the idea of that,” she said. “And they were very respectful of us as well. I was treated like that; I was treated with great respect.
“I, of course, later found out that’s one of the strong charisms of Angela (Merici, founder of the Ursulines).
“She said at one stage, ‘The more you respect them, the more you will love, the more you love them, the greater care you will have of them’.”
And what’s kept Sr Mel passionate about the religious life and the Ursulines?
“… This central relationship with Jesus, nothing other than that, and to know all along the way – sometimes it’s been hard, of course – but to know all along the way how much I’ve been loved,” she said.