VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has strongly praised U.S. institutes of women religious for their contribution to the Church’s evangelizing mission, while urging them to be careful not to lose the centrality of Christ in their apostolic life.
In its response to an eagerly anticipated final report on a three-year apostolic visitation of women religious in the country, the Vatican has also highlighted the challenges they are facing, including caring for aging sisters, financial constraints and the need to “revitalize institutes in fidelity to Christ.”
At a Dec. 16 Vatican press conference, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, the prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, presented his congregation’s response to the report and explained that the 2009-2012 visitation was initiated because women religious are “experiencing challenging times.” There was a need to “gain deeper knowledge” of their contributions, he said, as well as the difficulties that “threaten the quality of their religious life” and, for some, their very existence.
The visitation, not to be confused with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s four-year doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), was an unprecedented and enormous task, involving 341 religious institutes and approximately 50,000 women religious. It did not include cloistered nuns, but the Vatican stressed that its outcome is addressed to the Church’s pastors and faithful as well as women religious themselves.
The general reaction among those closest involved in the process has been overwhelmingly positive, despite initial concerns within a number of institutes.
“It was brought to completion in a very pastoral manner,” said Mother Mary Clare Millea of the Congregation of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, director of the apostolic visitation. “It is a great incentive to all of us to deepen our understanding, appreciation and love of our vocation so we can live it more fully.”
‘Moment of Self-Evaluation’
Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, superior general of the Sisters of Life and coordinator of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), told reporters it offers a “tremendous moment of self-evaluation and self-reflection.”
Meanwhile, Sister Sharon Holland of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said it is an “affirmative and realistic report” in which concerns have “been heard and understood.”
It is not a “document of blame or of simplistic solutions,” she added. “One can read the text and feel appreciated and trusted to carry on.”
The congregation’s response to the report begins by praising women religious for being “courageously” at the forefront of the Church’s evangelizing mission, “selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals, especially the poor and marginalized.”
It notes their legacy in creating the “great majority of Catholic health-care systems” in the United States and how women religious have sought to “more effectively respond to contemporary needs” in a spirit of “creative fidelity to their charisms.” It further points out how women religious “typically engage in volunteer ministry well beyond the normal retirement age.”
The response explains the mechanics of the apostolic visitation and its findings, stressing that the process sought to convey the “caring support of the Church in respectful, ‘sister-to-sister’ dialogue,” as modeled in the Gospel account of Mary’s visitation to her cousin Elizabeth.
The process was divided into four phases: First, superiors general were invited to express their hopes and concerns; second, a questionnaire was sent out to gather data; third, the visitor sent out teams to conduct onsite visits; and, finally, the visitor presented to the congregation a final report and executive summary of general issues, trends and data.
On the empirical findings, the congregation said “great variations exist” not only regarding “charism, mission, spiritual traditions and communal life,” but also in terms of size, geography and the works in which they are engaged.
It notes that the median age of apostolic women religious in the United States is “mid-to-late 70s,” and there has been a decline of about 125,000 sisters since the mid-1960s, when numbers of U.S. religious reached their peak. But it stressed that those large numbers were a “relatively short-term phenomenon” and atypical of the history of religious life in the country.
The document reports that the majority of women religious have a “very strong sense” of the history and charisms of their institutes and founders and “generously and creatively” place their charisms at the service of the Church and the world. But it adds that “many sisters” expressed “great concern” during the visitation because of declining membership, leading some to merge with other institutes.
Noting the decline in new vocations, the report says considerable time is now spent among the institutes in vocation promotion. The final report did not offer a detailed explanation for the weak vocations picture, yet it did highlight that some religious institutes continue to attract young women.
“Underneath that broad brush stroke, there is another trend,” said Mother Agnes in her formal response to the report that highlighted the distinctive religious life embraced by members of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, who have attracted a larger proportion of young vocations.
“Within the 125 communities of CMSWR members, nearly 20% (almost 1,000) of the sisters are currently in initial formation (in the years prior to final vows). The average age of sisters is 53 years — well below the overall trend,” she noted.
“Young women look, above all, to live a religious life founded on the sacraments and which includes a rich, robust and daily common and personal prayer life as an irreplaceable means of personal growth and of spiritual communion in community.”
Amid the release of the Vatican report, media commentators noted that some institutes of apostolic life for women religious have been criticized for veering toward, and in some cases embracing, heterodoxy.
Responding to that critique, the report warned religious institutes “not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith,” and to “carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry” to ensure they are “in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption.”
Further, statements by Church officials confirmed that the final report does not include assessments of specific religious institutes with serious problems. Separate reports will be forwarded to those institutes.
However, some noted that the words “orthodoxy” and “fathfulness to the magisterium” hardly figure in the texts. Sister Sharon agreed, but said the preferred language used is “ecclesial communion,” in which the Church, pastors, religious and laity “are in communion with the whole.”
“Of course, doctrinal orthodoxy is part of ecclesial communion, but it is not the whole of ecclesial communion,” she said. “It’s the language of communion and relationships that’s used in this particular report.”
Mother Mary Clare told the Register she had “no instrument with which to test theological orthodoxy,” adding that the visitation was more about “the lifestyle, the ministries, the issue of aging: topics that are there.” But she highlighted the section where the Holy See “reminds us that the center of our faith is the Person of Jesus Christ.”
Every congregation, she said, “is to compare that statement, which is basic to our faith, to their own lived expression of that.”
Education is the “most common ministry” among U.S. sisters, the apostolic visitation found, but it also highlighted many other areas of ministry, such as leadership, administration, formation, pastoral care, spiritual direction and retreat work. The congregation made a point of gratefully acknowledging the “apostolic zeal” of these women religious.
But Cardinal Braz de Aviz also acknowledged a desire for “greater recognition and support” for women religious on the part of pastors and for greater input in decision-making. The congregation noted that some institutes refused to fully collaborate in the visitation, which was a “painful disappointment for us,” and urged a “respectful and fruitful dialogue.” The Year of Consecrated Life is a “graced opportunity” to foster “forgiveness and reconciliation,” the Vatican said, and to “transform uncertainty and hesitancy into collaborative trust.”
To help this process of fostering ecclesial communion, the congregation announced that it will update the 1978 Curial document Mutuae Relationes, which concerned collaboration between bishops and religious.
In conclusion, the report said the apostolic visitation offered “new opportunities” for women religious to discover God’s presence and salvific action and expressed hope that the dialogue it has sparked will “bear abundant fruit” for the revitalization of religious institutes.
But Religious Sister of Mercy Dolores Liptak, a member of the “core team” Mother Mary Clare appointed to develop documents for the visitation, questioned whether some religious institutes, especially those that had refused to participate in the process, would rethink their resistance.
“At this point, looking at the immediate reactions in the media, there is still the same divide,” Sister Dolores told the Register. “It hasn’t gotten better, though the apostolic visitation report makes it very clear that there needn’t be a divide and that people in the Church … must do all that they can to help heal the divide.”
That said, Sister Dolores also predicted that the tensions that exist in some religious institutes would not escalate. “It won’t get worse simply because of declining numbers” in orders with aging members, she said. “Who will continue the battle if your median age is 80?”
The Call to Revitalize
Asked by the Register whether the final report fully addresses significant problems in religious life over the past 50 years, Mother Mary Clare said, “I’ve heard it over and over again, and I sincerely believe it to be true, that women took the call of Vatican II seriously: to update, to be present to the world.”
“Did we always continue to evaluate ourselves in continuity with Tradition and with the Church? Every congregation needs to answer that,” she said. “Many of them did that in the visitation; many of them are changing the way they do some things.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.