PROFILE: Sr Jane Livesey CJ
“I’ve sailed down the Amazon, gone by train across Siberia, been to Nepal, Korea and many remote parts of India, to name but a few of the places where our Sisters are on mission. I’ve had one-to-one meetings with over 1500 Sisters in the Congregation globally, in countless countries!”
As General Superior of the Congregation of Jesus, Sr Jane Livesey leads Sisters working throughout the world – across Europe, Africa, South America & Asia. Sr Jane is based in Rome, but places great importance on spending time visiting the work of her Sisters worldwide:
“A privilege of my role is meeting our members, hearing stories of their ministries and their efforts to be faithful to God and to their lives of service. The work that they do might look the same as the work being done by NGOs, but it is different, because the Sisters have been given a mission in companionship with Christ and with one another. It’s a huge privilege to see that across the congregation worldwide.”
Her international zig-zagging is a modern day echo of the footwork put in by her Order’s legendary founder, Yorkshire woman, the Venerable Mary Ward. In the early 1600s, Mary Ward was remarkable for believing that women should be actively involved in the apostolic life of the Church, at a time when women religious were required to remain cloistered.
She took inspiration from the Jesuits, dreaming of sisters who were free, mobile, and trained for apostolic work. However, Mary faced fierce opposition; three times she and her companions walked to Rome - twice to try to gain Papal approval and the third time following her imprisonment in a convent in Munich and the suppression of her Congregation by Pope Urban VIII in 1631. During this period she founded houses and schools in Liège, Cologne, Rome, Naples, Munich, Vienna, Pressburg (Bratislava) and other places.
The tide eventually turned, although it took a while: “That incomparable woman ….whom Catholic England gave to the Church” was the eventual description given to her by Pope Pius X11 in 1953.
Mary Ward famously said that “women in time to come will do much.” As her 21st Century successor, Sr Jane Livesey tries to model leadership that mirrors the Order’s charism of freedom, justice and sincerity: “Being General Superior, I have a Council – Sisters who are from Chile, India, Korea, Germany, Slovakia & Romania. Building a team is challenging as it is both multi-cultural and inter-cultural. One of the big areas of learning is around cultural differences: how do you live as a community with different cultures? We are not like an NGO as we have a charism, a shared spirituality that is non-negotiable. The charism is shared, but how it manifests itself is very different in different parts of the world.”
In Europe, the Congregation has seen a move away from running schools and towards helping women where they are in most need now - as victims of trafficking and modern slavery, in hospitals and in prisons. In India and Latin America the order still runs schools, seeing that as the best route to improving women’s lives.
Sister Jane felt called to join the Congregation while she was studying law and, after a degree at Cambridge and a period teaching, spent 13 years as headmistress of a school in Dorset. She was then Provincial Superior of her Order in England before being elected the first English General Superior of the Order since the 18th Century.
So what are the most difficult aspects of being in a position of global leadership? “Learning even more than before that Religious are human beings with all the frailties that go with being human beings! It’s about finding the balance between encouraging and challenging them.”
Sr Jane returns repeatedly to the word ‘privilege’ when reflecting on all the work she has witnessed at first hand, in so many countries. She recalls with particular joy a kindergarten in Namchi in the north eastern state of Sikkim in India – in the foothills of the Himalayas.
“Seeing those young children and knowing that the education we are offering will raise their prospects in life is hugely uplifting.” There is also an acknowledgement of the suffering Sisters can endure and of how they put themselves second: “I get to see the conditions some Sisters live in – sometimes awful conditions. For instance in one community in India a classroom by day becomes a dormitory by night for the Sisters there. Eventually they will get a house, but their priority is to be able to offer a classroom.”
Looking back on her years in Rome, Sr Jane says there is one key moment that stands out: “When Pope Francis was elected, I was there on the piazza in front of St Peter’s. At first no-one knew who he was. But when he said: “don’t forget to pray for me”, it was an unforgettable moment! Living in Rome, during this Pontificate, has been hugely enriching.”
Her term in office runs for another two years: “My future has to be what I’m asked to do. Over the years, my life within the Congregation has just unfolded. When I joined, I was asked to be a teacher, then a headteacher, then a Provincial Superior, then a General Superior.”
Has the focus on leadership left her feeling she has missed out on anything? “I would like to have had longer contact with young people. I miss that contact. But this is what the Lord asked. We all signed a blank cheque on joining! I don’t spend too much time thinking ‘what if…’”