Mother Clare Millea was chosen by the Vatican last year to direct the apostolic visitation of women’s religious communities in the United States, an effort that has been welcomed as well as criticized.

Amid the maelstrom of controversy, Mother Clare and her team have pressed on. The visitation recently moved into the phase involving on-site visits to religious communities.

Mother Clare, who is superior general of the Congregation of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, spoke with Register correspondent Judy Roberts about the visitation and her expectations for a positive outcome.

The visitation is now in the third of four phases with the start of on-site visits to religious communities. How are these visits going?

We just finished the first group this past week, and the team members came back over the weekend, so I really haven’t heard from all of them directly yet. We have more than 30 congregations being visited within the next few weeks and in the first week of June. The brief phone calls I have had have been very positive.  [The visitors] were very warmly received, and it was a good experience for all.

What did the visitors you spoke with have to say?

That some of the sisters were moved to tears during the visits and expressed great joy. One said, “This is the first time someone has come from the outside to ask me how I am.” She meant that someone who was representing the Church came in and asked about her life. She felt very honored and moved by that. This one example typifies many of the experiences that are going to take place in the next weeks.

What is involved in each visit? Do the visitors only talk with those who request a meeting?

We’ve asked to have the major superior and her council — her leadership team — meet with the team of visitors to present an overview of the congregation. We also ask that formation personnel and any women they have in initial formation meet with the visitors. We’ve also invited them, if the congregation wishes, to invite a group of nonmembers of the congregation to speak in a group to the visitors. These may be students, patients, board members, anybody they would like. Beyond that, any sister who would like to meet with a visitor will be received. Visitors do not have any previous data about the congregation. Any material received in our office is not available to the visitors. We want them to go in and hear the story firsthand from the leadership team and the sisters themselves. They’re going in fresh and untarnished.

So it’s more of a listening approach?

The visitors have a set of questions they are delegated to ask. They can’t go beyond that, but they’re related to the sisters’ lived experience.

Are you going on any of the visits?

No. I’ve chosen to do it in that way because I really designed the whole process with the group of collaborators and . . . I don’t want to make it look like I would be trying to influence the results. I want people going out who are objective.

How many are making the visits?

We have about 80 visitors who have been trained by us. Some will go out on more than one visit. The number of visitors per congregation depends on the number of sisters. There will be at least two, and we may have up to five or six, depending on the number in the congregation interested in seeing us. 

What kind of training did the visitors receive? How were they chosen?

The dynamics, the guidelines of the visit, the typical visitation, and theological and canonical background on the visitation. We asked at the end if they felt ready, prepared. They felt ready and eager to do this service for the Church.

We had several hundred men and women religious suggested to us by major superiors. From them we chose these people.

How were the communities to be visited selected? Who made the selections?

Those were made by me. I had several people helping me read and summarize the material which was sent to my office. From that, I made decisions based on geographical location, types of ministry, size, age span of the members so that we could get a representative sample. I wanted a broad sampling that would pretty much cover the gamut of religious congregations in our country.

Do you still plan to visit a total of about 100 communities?

We’re hoping to get about 25% altogether. We have a longer time period [for visits] in the fall. Depending on the availability of visitors, we would hope to come up to a 25% sample, which would be about 100.

Some sisters have been outspoken in voicing opinions against the visitation, while others have been more quietly supportive. For sisters who support the visitation and would like to speak to a visitor but are in communities that are less sympathetic to the process, will there be a way to talk with a visitor confidentially?

From the very beginning, I’ve always said any sister is free to contact our office directly. Now, with the on-site visits, every community receiving a visit has been sent a form letter addressed to the major superior. She has given that letter to every sister to tell them input is important to us and to please tell us if you would like to meet with a visitor in person, by phone or in a letter.

One news report called the current apostolic visitation the most controversial ever carried out in this country. Do you agree with that description?

Those are all opinions and judgments. I think we’ve tried our best to be transparent, to be open. Anything we feel is appropriate for the general public has been on our website. Everyone knows what we’re doing. The rest is beyond what we care to engage in or comment on.

Do you think the fears expressed by some sisters about the process have diminished as you have moved through the visitation? What have you done to alleviate concerns of sisters who see this as intrusive?

Basically, I have to concentrate on carrying out the mission that was entrusted to me. I can’t defend the visitation. I would hope the people who have a good impression or who receive a visit will share that with others. I have to focus on what I need to do here. I can’t get involved in that. It would be wonderful if people who have a good experience would share that and let people who are confused know that this is a sign of caring and concern on the part of the Church.

How are you dealing with news reports, blog posts and other information both supportive and critical circulating about the visitation? Do you find these a distraction and try to tune them out, or have you devised a way to stay informed without letting the reports negatively affect your ability to conduct the visitation?

Certainly it’s important to keep abreast of what’s out there. We keep focused on what we need to do. We know this is an attempt to promote the vitality of our congregations. We just keep working on that. We don’t try to be influenced by or brought down by what we hear out there. We know this is something bigger than us and of great service to the Church, and we just focus on that. Religious continue to be an integral part of the Church.  We want to do everything we can to make us even more viable and vital and attractive to new members. Certainly that’s our future: to continue what has gone on before. That’s what we’re focusing on: How can we be better witnesses of religious life in the Church?

Before the U.S. Senate passed a health-care bill providing federal funding for abortion, some sisters made public their support for the bill even as the U.S. bishops opposed it. Were you surprised by such action at a time when the Vatican is looking more closely at U.S. women’s communities and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious? Did these sisters’ actions influence the visitation in any way? Will their involvement in the health-care bill be part of your report to Rome?

I think that in a public forum like this it would not be appropriate for me to make any comment on this.

Are you still expecting to have your part of the investigation completed sometime in 2011?

So far we’re doing well. The on-site visits are on schedule. After that it remains to just have the reports ready to bring to the Congregation for Consecrated Life. I’ve set my deadline for myself for the end of 2011. It may be an ambitious goal, but I would like to be able to complete it in that time.

At this point, has every congregation returned the questionnaire from the Apostolic Visitation Office?

I would say virtually all.

What was the purpose of asking for information on the questionnaire about property holdings and finances? Why did you think it reasonable to withdraw your request for this information?

As a normal part of any visitation for the Church, there usually is some study of the financial viability of the group. We withdrew this after further consultation with civil counsel. It might not be a prudent move to have such data in our office, should there be litigation regarding the groups that we are working with. We don’t want to put anybody at risk. We consulted with counsel because of the concerns [raised by some sisters]. We have been trying in several instances to listen to concerns and revise things if necessary.

Has anything else been changed in response to sisters’ concerns?

I think a very positive suggestion heard from the sisters was to include interviews with laypersons or persons with whom the sisters work and to whom they minister. And that was not contemplated at the beginning. But we did add it, and I think it’s going to be a positive aspect of the visitation.

What can you say to those who are concerned about this visitation to assure them that it is intended for their good and that of the Church?

We can only repeat our purposes, our objectives, which our team members are repeating to all sisters they meet: “This is not an investigation. This is to find out your story. This is to help you, to reflect with you on your own identity and presence in the Church.” That’s our message: to help them to see if there are concerns the Church can help them with, to open up that dialogue, that ability to help them. Other than that, we have no message, because we’re as clear as we can be: This is to help them.

What would you say to those who welcome the visitation and are hoping this will contribute to a renewal of religious life in the way Vatican II intended?

We’re in a process. I think none of us knows how this is going to end and what will be the fruits, but I think we who are working with this day after day see that this is something much larger than we can imagine. We see great signs of hope. Stay with the process. Continue praying for us and all our religious, and God will continue to work through this mission we’re carrying out. We can’t predict the exact fruits, but they will be there.

Are you praying more these days?

Definitely. And I’m feeling the effects of the many people who are joining us.

The cost of the visitation has been estimated at $1 million. What does this cover?

Mainly we’re talking about transportation costs, our own office costs, and training sessions for visitors. The visitors are not paid for doing on-site visits, but we do provide transportation and accommodations as needed. It adds up.

Based on your experience with this process thus far, what is the good news about women’s religious life in the U.S.? What is the bad?

I think it’s kind of premature to make judgment statements at this point.

But you mentioned seeing signs of hope.

I told you about the joy of people who really do connect with the process: the sincerity of many of the women I have spoken with in earlier phases who said despite initial resistance they have seen this process as an opportunity for them to reflect on their identity, their presence in the Church, and see this as a catalyst for renewal in their congregations.

What good do you expect and/or hope will come from all this?

I hope that we will be found faithful and loyal to Christ through his Church so that we will be appealing to young people who are searching. There are young people looking for a way to give their lives to Christ who would be wonderful religious. My hope would be that this visitation would in some way help us to be those more credible witnesses that young people would find appealing.

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.