LCWR Keynote Speaker Advocates ‘Cosmological Rethink’ of Religion

Sister Ilia Delio discusses an ‘evolutionary’ approach with the women religious gathered in Orlando for the group’s 2013 annual assembly.

Sister Ilia Delio: ‘Literally, we are stardust.’
Sister Ilia Delio: ‘Literally, we are stardust.’ (photo:

ORLANDO — Sister of St. Francis Ilia Delio, melding science and theology, took her fellow women religious on a journey through the cosmos yesterday in her two-part keynote speech, “Religious Life on the Edge of the Universe,” at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) here. In the second part, following lunch, Sister Ilia emphasized love and authenticity.

“If we are to rethink in terms of religion, we have to think in terms of cosmology,” Sister Ilia said.

“We have to understand the order of the whole,” adding, “There is no cosmos without God, and no God without cosmos.”

Sister Ilia, director of Catholic studies and visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington, has a doctorate in pharmacology as well as historical theology.  

The 825 attendees of the LCWR 2013 assembly — titled “Leadership Evolving: Graced, Grounded & Free” — listened as Sister Ilia discussed the evolving philosophical, theological and scientific theories that she said are shaping man’s outlook of God and nature.

Dionysius proposed everything has its place in the spiritual order, Sister Ilia said. What brought about disorder? Laughter ensued when Sister Ilia stated, “It was sin that led to disorder, and it was attributed to a woman who shows up in Genesis and was never heard from again.”

A mixture of Scripture, philosophy from Plato and other Greek thinkers helped develop our theory of Jesus Christ — unchanging, static — a mechanical God.

Sir Isaac Newton contributed a world of law and order where everything is autonomous and related. Sister Ilia remarked that Newton’s God is the “Florida God. He charges it up, sets it in motion and then retires — probably to Orlando.”

The audience again laughed.

Sister Ilia’s description of her belief as a young postulant about keeping order brought nods of affirmation. “As a postulant I thought — 'If I pray and obey, I can keep my part.'”

God is more than mechanical, and the universe is far from static. “We have an incredible, dynamic, expanding universe. Simply from the point of science, this is awesome,” Sister Ilia said, adding, “Literally, we are stardust.”


Teilhardian Ideas

Sister Ilia is a devotee of Jesuit scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his theories on evolution and love, reminding the audience the Church is not opposed to evolution.

Sister Ilia asked, “Does evolution continue through us? The physical structure of the universe is love. The way physical life works, it is not background to the human story. It is the human story.”

Sister Ilia added, “This universe will have its future based on our decisions. When the level of our awareness changes, we start attracting a new reality. Our challenge this day is to begin to name that new reality.”

In part two of her presentation, Sister Ilia talked more about God’s love.

“God is in love with his creation. He is not a stay-at-home God. God is a communion of Persons in love, eternally and dynamically in love,” Sister Ilia said.

“Creation and incarnation — one act of God’s self-giving love. To be created is to be related,” Sister Ilia said.

Quoting de Chardin, she said Christianity is a religion of evolution. “Gospel life is now life. God is the God of the now."

“We are on the cusp of an evolutionary breakthrough — one that requires our conscious participation as co-creative agents of love, midwives of the new creation,” Sister Ilia stated.


‘Giving Birth to God’

Ending her presentation, Sister Ilia reminded the attendees, “God is within and up ahead — not above. God is the power of the future. To rest on God is to rest on the future."

“Nothing is more awesome than to give birth to God,” she said.

In response to Sister Ilia’s talk, Daughters of the Heart of Mary Sister Anita Baird told the Register: “I think what I love the best is how she situated Christ in the very center as the cosmic Christ. And that term is used a lot. But I think she really gave it new meaning: that Christ is the love of God. He is the fullness of life, and so he is at the very center and core and what that calls us to, in terms of being a part of God’s ongoing plan.”

During the afternoon question-and-answer session, the sisters, gathered at tables in regional groups, pondered and discussed the day’s lessons and how they are challenged or confirmed by them in understanding and living out the religious life.

After the table discussions, sisters stepped up to the open microphones to ask Sister Ilia questions of particular interest to them or their communities.

One sister asked how, after all these years of Christianity, does one reconcile the violence in the world? Sister Ilia acknowledged that we are coming out of one of the most violent centuries ever. She noted that, after 2,000 years of Christianity, there are still wars and violence.

Sister Ilia asked, “How do we model what we hope for?”

Her advice was that the way is not to solve problems, but to model love. “We are complicit — silence, nonparticipation give credence to what is going on.”

Sister of Charity Rosemary Smith of New Jersey posed another question, “If we were open systems, what would we look like?”

Sister Ilia asked, “What are your desires? What’s pulling us to talk together?”

She added, “Freedom to create anew is the source of something new. Let go. Let God.”

Tanya Goodman filed this report from the LCWR’s annual assembly,

which is taking place Aug. 13-16 in Orlando.