Mother Mary Clare Millea has a mandate: Report to the Holy See on the state of women’s religious life in the United States.

Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, has begun a comprehensive study of institutes of women religious in this country. Called an apostolic visitation, the study will examine nearly 400 institutes across the United States. As “apostolic visitator,” Mother Clare, the Rome-based superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, will have the help of numerous visitation teams.

The project will consist of input from superiors general; information gathering on statistics, activities and community practices; on-site visits in which sisters will be able to discuss challenges and concerns; and a comprehensive and confidential report to the Vatican.

Mother Clare, a native of Connecticut who entered her congregation in 1965, hopes to complete the visitation by 2011. She spoke to Register news editor John Burger Feb. 5 about her mandate.


What is this task the Vatican has asked you to carry out?

The Congregation of Institutes of Consecrated Life has asked me to pilot a study on the quality of the life of the major congregations of religious women in the United States. This will cover all aspects of our religious congregations — the community aspects, their ministries, their membership, their living of the vows — everything that constitutes our life as religious congregations.

The second part of the task is to prepare a report for the Congregation of Consecrated Life on each of the congregations and an overall report on the state of religious life in our country, with recommendations.


Why did the Holy See decide to do this?

The Church certainly values religious life in our country. It’s always been such a vital part of our American Church, and the Church clearly has concerns about the vitality of our congregations. It’s no secret to anyone that our numbers are diminishing, our median age is rising. While there are some pockets of hope in some congregations that do have new members, many of them don’t, and the Church wants to see how it can promote healthy growth in our congregations and also deal with the issues that are related to the diminishing numbers and the diminishing presence of our sisters here.


We’ve just received a report on an apostolic visitation of seminaries; now we’re beginning a visitation of houses of women religious. Can we expect one of houses of men religious, as well?

That really is beyond my ability to answer. I was given the mandate as a woman religious to deal with this issue. I could not speak for the Congregation for Consecrated Life — if they are planning to do one on the men’s congregations. I do know, however, that in the seminary report, many men’s religious congregations were visited, particularly those that have centers of formation or seminaries or houses of training for candidates to the priesthood. So in a certain sense, men’s congregations — some of them have been visited already.

So this would probably be seen as a second initiative of the Holy See. However, the congregation of the Vatican is a different one that is spearheading our visitation, so we are not directly connected.


Is this new visitation taking place only in the United States or in other countries, as well?

To my knowledge, this nationwide study is being held just for the sisters in the United States.


Why?

I was not given that information. Coming on the heels of the other, the part of priestly formation, it seems a logical follow-up, but I wouldn’t want to speak for the Congregation for Consecrated Life on that. I do know that many of our congregations also have sisters in their own communities in other parts of the world, so that dialogue with the congregations in the United States is going to have global effects because of the sisters’ connection with members in other countries. But the direct reason — I really don’t have that answer.

What is your background?

I’m a school psychologist, and I also received a doctoral degree in canon law from the Lateran University. And I’ve been in my own congregation leadership for more than 20 years, so as superior general since 2004, I have had contact with the Congregation for Consecrated Life and with the cardinal prefect for issues in my own congregation, and he’s gotten to know me from that. So it was a personal appointment by the cardinal prefect.


Will you be looking at issues such as the wearing of habits; the teaching of dissent; participation, for sisters who are involved in health care, in illicit medical practices; and involvement in New Age spirituality?

The visitation is to cover all aspects of our religious life, our way of living, our way of praying, our way of being united with the Church’s teaching, with the magisterium. So any issues that are related to that would certainly be objects of our study and our reporting to the Holy See.


How will you choose visitation teams?

This will be a very delicate process. We will need many persons willing to be with us, and, certainly, we will be calling upon the expertise and the personal knowledge of qualified people in our Church in the United States to help us in that discernment process, and each of these persons will be interviewed and selected by more than one person, by a team of persons who have various contacts.


When the report is done, what action is anticipated? Might the Holy See be disciplining particular congregations or taking corrective measures?

My mandate is to inquire and to report. I would not want to speculate as to what action will be taken because that would be the competence of the Holy See and it will depend on the information we are able to report on. I think it would be premature to speculate, and it would only be speculation at this time.


Is this an initiative of Pope Benedict XVI or was this already in the works under Pope John Paul II?

I do not know how long this has been in the making. I do know that Pope Benedict is aware and that he has approved the apostolic visitation. As to a longer history of the topic, I really don’t have that information.

I do want to stress that the very first phase of this visitation is very important. I need the input of the superiors general to help us develop the subsequent phases. We are working on a preliminary document, an Instrumentum laboris, and the sharing of their hopes and concerns on the part of the superiors general will aid us in preparing our detailed questionnaire. First of all, we want to share and communicate to the superiors general, by means of the personal interview with me, either by phone or in person, our respect — our respect for every congregation and our desire to understand their story and to hear how they are today, how they got to where they are, so we can be best able to promote their healthy growth and development in the future.