A three-year apostolic visitation to examine the “quality of life” of women’s religious communities in the United States has closed with a submission of findings to Archbishop Joseph Tobin, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Some additional reports are to be completed by spring, though no date for announcing the conclusions has been set by the congregation.

In a statement accompanying a news release about the final phase of the visitation, Mother Mary Clare Millea, apostolic visitor for the Institutes of Women Religious in the United States, said that she had been both inspired and humbled by what she learned and observed during the visitation. “Although there are concerns in religious life that warrant support and attention, the enduring reality is one of fidelity, joy and hope.”

Mother Clare, a native of Connecticut who is based in Rome as superior general of the Congregation of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, responded by email to questions from Register correspondent Judy Roberts about the final phase of the visitation.

How would you summarize the reports you have submitted? What concerns did they identify?

The comprehensive report and the reports on the individual religious institutes contain quantitative data regarding the membership, living arrangements and ministry of the religious, as reported by the major superiors in response to the apostolic visitation questionnaire. They also offer a summary of qualitative data, gleaned from my personal interviews with superiors general, their responses to the questionnaire regarding key aspects of their institute’s life, and the summary reports submitted to me by teams of religious who conducted on-site visits to about one-fourth of the institutes involved in the visitation.

I was truly edified by the deep love and gratitude the major superiors expressed for their members and their solicitude to provide for those sisters who require increased care in their elder years. The outpouring of expressions of appreciation on the part of clergy and laity for the presence of women religious was not only gratifying, but has helped many of us to understand how precious is our presence and service to the Church.

Many institutes have reported that in recent years they have undertaken serious community reflection on their corporate identity and the personal responsibility of each sister to incarnate it in her own life and ministry. This common reflection has led to a heightened awareness of the boundless zeal of their foundresses and founders to evangelize and to alleviate the social injustices of their times. As a result, religious are seeking ways to be more credible witnesses to their founding charism, in response to today’s religious and social needs.

In spite of the decline in many women’s religious communities, did you find sufficient reason to be hopeful about the future of women’s religious life in the United States? If so, were you encouraged merely by the presence of newer and vibrant communities, or did you find signs of life in some older communities as well?

The numerical decline in women’s religious communities is undeniably dramatic. The current number of approximately 50,000 sisters in apostolic institutes today is about one-fourth of what it was 50 years ago. To date, only a small percentage of institutes has not experienced a decline, and some of these have shown a recent increase in the number of new candidates.

I was encouraged to note, however, that many congregations have increased their efforts to present the consecrated life as a viable and joyful way of serving the Church. I have been following with great interest the efforts of the National Religious Vocation Conference to engage women religious in honest dialogue regarding the expectations of young people who are discerning a call to religious life. Conversations on this topic are taking place among religious within their own communities as well as with members of other congregations. This dialogue is already resulting in a comprehensive strategic plan for the promotion of religious vocations involving all components of the Church in the United States. This gives me great hope for a new flourishing of vibrant religious life.

What surprised you most about the findings?

Over the past three years, I encountered many women religious, those who collaborated closely with me in planning and carrying out the visitation, as well as those I met in individual interviews and large gatherings. I have always been amazed and deeply moved by the enormous spiritual energy generated each time we discovered the deep values which unite us. Many of us have rediscovered ourselves as integral members of the Church and have reaffirmed our desire to maintain and strengthen our bonds of ecclesial communion. I’m humbled to have been a part of this process and continue to pray for the ongoing revitalization that the Holy Spirit is clearly carrying out within our communities.

What will you do once the final reports are submitted in the spring? Do you expect to continue to be involved with the apostolic visitation on some level or with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life? Might you be analyzing and speaking about the findings and devising a plan for the renewal of women’s religious life in the United States?

My role as apostolic visitor ends with the submission of the final reports. As you know, my primary responsibility is to serve my own congregation as superior general. This involves promoting the life and growth of my sisters and our varied ministries in 15 nations throughout the world. In addition to coordinating the various levels of governance, I make pastoral visits to each of the local communities, during which I engage in personal dialogue with each of my nearly 1,200 sisters. This is more than a full-time task, to which I am happy to be able to return. At the same time, the apostolic visitation has greatly increased my love and esteem for the women religious in the United States. Should the Holy See request any further involvement on my part for the promotion of religious life, I would be open to considering that possibility.

Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.