How can Christians respond in love to heal a divided world? At our recent Sunday Spirit Series event, Sr. Deb Sciano, SSND, guided us in thinking through that question in her talk on “Bringing All To Oneness In A Divided World.”
Introduction and Background
Good evening. It is very good to be with you as part of the Sunday Spirit Series. As you know, I am Sister Deb Sciano and I have been connected with the Milwaukee Catholic Home for several years now as a member of the Board of Directors.
Just a bit about my background – I was born and raised on the eastside of Milwaukee and my family belonged to St. Rita’s Parish, whose parishioners were predominately of Italian descent. Schooling for me began at Hartford Avenue Grade School, followed by St. John Cathedral High School, and then I received my Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. While studying at UWM, I entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame and began an initial formation program with the community.
I was professed as an SSND on August 1, 1981 and then became a Vista Volunteer to be trained as a Community Organizer in 1982. That led me to work for South Community Organization on the Southside of Milwaukee, where I helped neighborhood people to change situations that were not beneficial or safe for them. Then I moved to Florida to further my studies, completing my formal education at St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami, Florida in 1988.
Shortly after law school, I became an Assistant District Attorney in Milwaukee County. I began in the Child Support Enforcement Division in Family Court and then was transferred to the Children’s Court Center, where I spent eleven of the 12½ years that I worked in the District Attorney’s Office. Most of my time was spent representing the State in CHIPS cases – Children in Need of Protection and Services. Occasionally, I handled Juvenile Delinquency matters and Guardianship hearings.
As you can imagine, throughout my time in the DA’s Office, I oftentimes experienced humanity at its worst, along with much heartbreak, especially seeing the ways children suffered violence, neglect, abandonment, and emotional abuse again and again. I believe I never could have made it through the challenges I faced in those ministries without the love and support of my family, my community of sisters and many caring colleagues, who helped me to trust in the goodness of humanity and the loving presence of God through it all.
In 2001, my religious congregation called me to consider community leadership and I was elected as a Provincial Councilor for the Milwaukee Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame for a four year term. Then, in 2005, I was elected to be Provincial Leader for six years. Those ten years brought many blessings and challenges, but I am ever grateful for that opportunity to grow in my ability to be a servant leader and unifier, and to see how the charism and mission of SSND has continued since we were founded as a congregation on October 24, 1833 in Bavaria, Germany.
At the end of that chapter of my life, I went back to UWM to receive Family Mediation Certification. Presently, I serve as a Lawyer and Family Mediator both in my own practice and in conjunction with the Family Mediation Center, located in the Third Ward area of our city. My work is mainly with parents with minor children who are going through divorce, separation, or a paternity action and want to learn better ways of communicating and making decisions together that are in the best interests of their children.
I live in community with one sister, Barbara Linke, who is present here this evening. We stay connected on a regular basis with an extended community of sisters, as well as our community at SS. Peter & Paul Parish, where we are actively involved in the choir.
I will say that all my life’s experiences and relationships over the years have enriched me, tested me and taught me to strive for unity and become an active peacemaker. A consistent prayer life, spiritual direction, attempts to be balanced and unconditional love from those who support me, continually feed me and keep me grounded to continue each day as God’s instrument.
Why the Title?
So, you might be wondering, how did I choose the title of this presentation – “Bringing All to Oneness in a Divided World”? For me, it is part of my daily life, as those words are found within the Mission Statement for the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
If I may read from the beginning of the Constitution of our congregation, You Are Sent, C, 1, 4 and 5:
To each of us at this moment of salvation history, the words of Christ ring clear: “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world… May they be one in us… so that the world may believe it was you who sent me” (John 17:18, 21). We are called and we are sent.
Our mission is to proclaim the good news as School Sisters of Notre Dame, directing our entire lives toward that oneness for which Jesus Christ was sent. As he was sent to show the Father’s love to the world, we are sent to make Christ visible by our very being, by sharing our love, faith and hope.
In carrying out Christ’s mission to bring all to oneness with the Father, we experience and accept the paschal mystery in our lives. We recall with confidence the words of (our foundress) Mother Theresa (of Jesus Gerhardinger): “All the works of God proceed slowly and in pain; but then, their roots are the sturdier and their flowering the lovelier”.
It seems that this mission, this desire, this passion of ours to bring all to oneness is needed now more than ever. At the end of the 23rd General Chapter of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in October of 2012, we committed to a five year Directional Statement, entitled, Love Cannot Wait.
It begins – We, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, are profoundly affected and challenged by the many divisions in our world and church today and by the social, economic and ecological crises of our times.
As an international congregation of apostolic women religious, we are called and sent to address these divisions and crises with audacity and hope.
So what are those divisions we face today? Certainly, they include many areas of life where we experience an “us v. them” mentality. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be different, have diversity in our thinking, or even be competitive to some degree. After all, we are a democratic society with inalienable rights and besides that, we love our sports teams! (Here I need to confess my deep love for our local sports teams and my fanatic nature at times!)
But, it does cause us to think how we can come together and be respectful of one another despite those differences, whether they are political alliances, cultural background, gender, age, race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, financial status, family structure, physical or mental challenges, the list goes on and on…
The divisions that are present today actually happen on many different levels, beginning within myself. Have you ever doubted your own gifts or decisions, or felt overwhelmed by all that is expected of you? Or have you questioned your own faith or at least wondered where God was when something horrible happened within your life or to someone you care about deeply? Without facing those inner questions with someone qualified to help or a person you trust, those nagging thoughts and feelings are surely a cause for division within.
My relationships with others in my family, circle of friends, workplace, or many other community settings, can often lead to misunderstandings, hurtfulness and brokenness that may end up irreconcilable without some kind of intervention or reconciliation.
Beyond our immediate reach, we know about division and a breakdown of communication on a variety of levels, locally, nationally, and internationally, which sometimes lead to crime, violence, hatred, warfare, terrorism, injustice, poverty, bigotry, racism and all the other “isms” out there. We are overwhelmed with negative news reports from a myriad of sources – newspapers, radio, major television networks, cable stations, internet, and social media in a variety of forms. Except for a few positive stories on occasion, do you also get the sense that most of what we take in promotes feelings of divisiveness, fear, anger, helplessness and the need to find someone to blame?
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the lack of connection we might also have with other forms of creation besides human beings. Do we consider plants, animals, birds, and other creatures as our brothers and sisters? And what about planet Earth as a whole and the Universe beyond? We truly are just a small dot in the vastness of outer space and we know so little about life in our solar system.
As we take in all the information, opinions and convincing arguments of others around us and in our electronic devices, we need to search for the truth, and not get swept away by false news, alternative facts, etc… When we feel overwhelmed with fear because of the unknown or not understanding another who is different from me, we are challenged to face those fears and the temptation to indifference, because that is what Jesus would do and what we are called to imitate in this time and place.
That leads us to explore what it means to bring all to oneness. According to Webster’s Dictionary, “oneness” is the state of being completely united with or a part of someone or something. It is the quality, or state, or fact of being one: using words such as singleness, integrity, wholeness, harmony, sameness, identity, unity, and union. That is certainly a tall order, but definitely a goal worth pursuing, it seems to me.
But what is interesting to consider is the fact that when we were created, whether you consider the religious interpretation or even a scientific explanation, we were one with all creation, interrelated with everything, albeit diverse in make-up and abilities. So, in actuality, we are inherently one and just need to acknowledge that fact and perhaps, behave accordingly.
I belong to a videoconference book club with several of our sisters around North America and we are currently reading an excellent book called “Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy” by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. The chapter for this past week was entitled, Coming from Gratitude.
I was especially intrigued by the section that spoke of Gratitude as an Antidote to Consumerism. The authors shared that while gratitude leads to increased happiness and life satisfaction, materialism – placing a higher value on material possessions than on meaningful relationships – has the opposite effect. Affluenza is a term used to describe the emotional distress that arises from a preoccupation with possessions and appearance. The toxic belief at the core of this condition is that happiness is based on how we look and what we have. Whereas, gratitude is about delighting in and feeling satisfied with what you’re already experiencing.
I thought about this in light of the topic today and can’t help but wonder if living out of a sense of gratitude would lessen our desire to be better than others and/or make us more divided from one another. Something to ponder…
In any case, with all the negativity surrounding us and all the expectations we have that are not met, taking time each night before going to sleep to name what I am grateful for can add just a bit more lightness to the world and bring some joy to our hearts. Maybe, if we are unable to return a favor that we recognize as gift, we might choose to pay it forward to someone or something else. Using this approach, we can see ourselves as part of a larger flow of giving and receiving throughout time.
What Can I do?
We can’t change the world on our own, but we can change how we respond to life’s situations and make a difference where we are at this time and place. As Christians, followers of Christ, we are called to be like Jesus, to imitate his life, which is a challenge and a great responsibility.
Here at the Milwaukee Catholic Home you have a special community. Although it is different from my religious community, my guess is that you might resonate with the following words from our SSND Constitution (You Are Sent, C, 7) regarding Community:
Life in our faith community is a giving and a receiving of love and respect, a living together in trust, openness, sincerity, and forgiveness. Through this kind of presence to and for one another, through our prayer, dialogue, and ministry, we become a community of one mind and one heart. Forming community is a life-long process. We say yes to the joys and inevitable tensions of creating and recreating community each day. In our efforts to love one another and to bear one another’s burdens, we experience the reconciling power of our merciful God. Awed by the mystery of God’s action in our midst, we gratefully celebrate life.
I would like to place a special emphasis on authentic dialogue. Sometimes I fear that real conversations with one another will go the way of learning to write cursive in school, but my lifestyle and my ministry count on honest and open dialogue as a tool to becoming more deeply connected and appreciative of our differences.
In mediation the focus is on careful listening, honest sharing, respectful dialogue, and reaching a resolution that is agreeable to both parties. Most times, when each participant has fully entered into this process, the outcome ends up being something neither of them considered before mediation. There is much room for creativity in this approach and a building of trust is often a byproduct of this type of conversation.
I may not always need a neutral mediator to facilitate dialogue with someone I may have a hard time talking to, but I strongly encourage you to try to have those conversations that help us to get to know one another better and grow in appreciation of our diversity, while recognizing our commonalities, as well. Be open and ready to be transformed, but also realize change takes time and we will experience times where acceptance of others is difficult. Isn’t it a blessing that our God is a God of love and forgiveness? And being human gives us the opportunity to grow, to be stretched and to return to love…
At this point, please consider the following scenario and then take a moment of reflection to think how you would respond. Afterwards, you will have a chance to share your reflection with one or two people next to you. At the end of that sharing, I will invite you to share with the whole group, if you so desire.
You are with some companions at dinner or another type of gathering and one of them speaks unkindly about someone who is different in some way and wants you to agree with them? How would you normally react? As you consider the call to bring all to oneness and promote peace is there another way you could respond?
We are called to love, to care about one another, to forgive, to be in right relationship with those around us, to form community with people and with all God’s creation, to accept and honor differences without judgment. No one said it would be easy, but this was the way Jesus lived and died and rose again!
During his homily as he celebrated Mass in Sarajevo in June of 2015, in the presence of over 65,000 people, Pope Francis appealed to all men and women of goodwill to be peacemakers and to carry forward their work “each day, step by step, without ever growing tired”. The Pope stated that peace must be put into practice with acts of kindness, fraternity, dialogue and mercy. This must be done, he said, with compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, patience and a spirit of forgiveness.
The Pope said these attitudes are necessary to become artisans of peace precisely where we live out our daily lives. But, he also said, “we should not fool ourselves into thinking that this all depends on us! Peace is a gift from God” because with God’s Spirit these attitudes are imprinted in our hearts and in our flesh, and can make us true instruments of God’s peace.
So, bringing all to oneness in a divided world is an individual call and a corporate challenge for us all, deeply connected with being artisans for peace in each aspect of our lives.
I would like to conclude with a mantra from John Paul Lederach, who is an American Professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, as well as a Distinguished Scholar at the Eastern Mennonite University.
“Reach out to those you fear. Touch the heart of complexity. Imagine beyond what is seen. Risk vulnerability one step at a time.”
Debra M. Sciano, SSND