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While the leaders of several American women’s congregations are showing reluctance to participate in the apostolic visitation — a Vatican inquiry into the state of religious life in America — ordinary members who support the visitation report say they are being silenced by their superiors.
BY STEVE WEATHERBEREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
— While the leaders of several American women’s congregations are showing
reluctance to participate in the apostolic visitation — a Vatican inquiry into
the state of religious life in America — ordinary members who support the
visitation report they are being silenced by their superiors.
sister “of almost 20 years now” told the Register by e-mail Dec. 8 that “we too
have been silenced. We were told this was family business, and we are not to
share it with others.”
what her congregation’s leadership is not explaining, she wrote, is the danger
such lack of cooperation with the visitation might pose for the survival of the
is so needed is for a canon lawyer to explain objectively what consequences can
result [from] refusal to participate. … Can we be suppressed? Can we lose our
second sister of 15 years who e-mailed the Register the same day agreed:
“Though we are by no means in the minority (and are, perhaps, even a silent
majority), we are not the ones with power, so our concerns go unheeded.”
went on to describe her congregation as having “fallen from” its tradition,
adopting a “liberal political agenda” and certainly needing the “shot in the
arm” from the Vatican inquiry to get out of the “congregational mess” in which
she and many other faithful sisters find themselves.
can fully attest to the need for this visitation,” she concluded. Her
community’s leaders “want Jesus but not the Church. This separation is
untenable for a Catholic.”
women are members of a new Web discussion group for sisters on the outs with
their leadership about the apostolic visitation.
discussion group, at
Groups.yahoo.com/group/SistersSupportingApostolicVisitation/, was started in
early December to enable sisters who support the apostolic visitation to
communicate with each other anonymously. It’s moderated by Ann Carey, author of
Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic
Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities, a 1996 history of the numerical decline and political radicalization
of many American congregations. By Dec. 21, there were 79 members in the online
the other side of the debate over the apostolic visitation are the leaders of
three congregations contacted for an Associated Press story in early December
that ran under the headline “Catholic Sisters Challenge Vatican Investigation.”
In the story they explained why they were not responding fully to a
questionnaire sent to 340 women’s congregations by the apostolic visitation.
Mary Waskowiak, who is president of the Maryland-based Sisters of Mercy of the
Americas, with 4,000 members, discussed the questionnaire with other leaders of
her congregation via conference call and e-mail. There was a sense that
developed from that that the questionnaire came from “the framework of
religious life that is not current and does not reflect the lived experience of
women religious today.”
the end, as president, she sent the apostolic visitation office a copy of the
congregation’s constitutions and a “very well-crafted letter.” Her congregation
is open and ready for “non-adversarial dialogue.”
Mary said some questions, such as one asking how the members prayed, were
“inappropriate” because they were too personal.
the questions did not relate to the missions of the congregations. “We have a
good story to tell,” Sister Mary said. “We want to tell the story of 150-plus
years of service. … And the questionnaire doesn’t seem to recognize that.”
Nancy Schreck, president of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa,
agreed: “Many of the questions just don’t refer to us and the work we do. We
are highly committed to serving the poor in the world, but there are no
questions about how we are doing in that regard.”
women have concerns about the motivation behind the apostolic visitation.
Sister Nancy notes that while the official motive is a general concern for the
welfare of the “consecrated life” and “religious women,” another reason was
apparently given by Cardinal Franc Rodé, the prefect of the Congregation of
Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, in a news
interview. He spoke of concerns raised at a symposium on religious life at
Stonehill College in Massachusetts last year, which Sister Nancy believes had a
Nancy said the concerns that some feel about the decline in numbers of American
women religious (from 180,000 in 1965 to 75,000 in 2002, according to Kenneth
Jones, author of The Index of Leading Catholic Indicators) may be misplaced.
numbers back in the ’50s were an aberration,” based on promotion by the
institutional Church of the life in orders plus the postwar baby boom that
included many big Catholic families, she said. Ongoing prosperity has led to
smaller families and fewer American postulants, Sister Nancy said.
the religious life isn’t about numbers or having a future as a community,” she
said. “It is about being alive to why we are here now.”
for a recent surge of applicants in Africa, she notes the poverty endemic there
and the resulting strong appeal of the stable and secure life provided by
disagree with that,” said Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan, head of the Religious
Sisters of Mercy based in Alma, Mich. “I’ve been to Africa many times, and the
young women who join are very serious and have a very strong desire for the religious
Sisters Nancy and Mary are both past presidents of the Leadership Conference of
Women’s Religious, which represents well over 90% of American women religious,
Mother Mary Quentin is president of a younger group, the Council of Major
Superiors of Women Religious.
whereas the first organization is under investigation by the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith in a separate apostolic visitation and has questioned
the apostolic visitation of religious communities of women, the Council of
Major Superiors is a self-conscious alternative to the older organization that
is avowedly loyal to the Vatican and supportive of the visitation.
honestly very pleased at the opportunity it gives us to look at our
congregations and to ask questions — like why we are diminishing,” says Mother
that most communities belonging to the council are shrinking. On the contrary,
most are growing, she says, because they are offering what young women really
want from religious life: service, communal prayer and living, and public witness
of the life in Christ through wearing the habit.
American postulants certainly aren’t joining because they are looking for a
meal ticket,” said Mother Mary Quentin. “Most have B.A.s and could hold down
good jobs in the secular world.”
Denied Internet Access
Mary Quentin has heard — she says “to my horror” — from women religious who have
been silenced by their congregation’s leadership. “They have even gone so far
as to block access to the Internet to squelch participation in the visitation.”
can only offer consolation and encourage them to bear their suffering. I can’t
counsel them to disobedience against their leadership,” she added.
of the congregations associated with the Council of Major Superiors is the
Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, whose motherhouse is in Nashville, Tenn. From
there, Sister Marianne Sartain told the Register that the 150-year-old congregation
never doffed its habit nor abandoned its communal prayer, worship and life. It
is attracting 15 new postulants a year and has nearly doubled to 250 members
since she joined in 1965.
congregation has welcomed the visitation. “We don’t have a problem. It comes
from the Church, and we’re consecrated to the Church,” she said. “But in
addition, we welcome any opportunity to deepen our community spiritual life
Steve Weatherbe writes
from Victoria, British Columbia.
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