The plenary assembly of the International Union of Superiors General wrapped up May 8 with a private meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican’s Paul VI hall.
Over the previous week, 800 participants shared insights, best practices and discussions on the theme "The Service of Leadership at the Service of the Gospel."
In his address to the women religious, the Holy Father underlined the importance of poverty, chastity and obedience, and he spoke of "feeling" with the Church, expressed through fidelity to the magisterium. He also alluded to the maternity of consecrated life, stressing that women religious are mothers, not "spinsters," who bear spiritual fruitfulness.
One of the participants was Congregation of Jesus Sister Jane Livesey, an English general superior. Sister Jane, who is based in Rome, shared her reflections on the plenary assembly, how much the controversies surrounding the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) played a part in the meeting, and how the Pope’s remarks were received, especially in view of the reaction over his reference to "spinsters."
What was your assessment of the plenary meeting? Did it match your expectations?
It exceeded my expectations. I really found it very worthwhile. The quality of the talks was good to quite outstanding. The format was such that you’d have a talk and then some reflection and then what was called "table talk," where you sat at the same table all week and began to learn about each other. It was very intercultural.
I was at a table with an African, an Australian, an Irish general superior from England, and then about three from the United States. We were at language tables for obvious reasons, but with simultaneous translation in six languages for the actual talks.
Each day began with prayer, and I found it thoughtful, prayerful, reflective and really challenging. The theme was "It Shall Not Be So Among You: Leadership at the Service of the Gospel," and it really challenged us women religious about what our leadership is about. And, of course, it’s really synchronous with the views of the Holy Father: that leadership is essentially and only about service.
The media has been making much of the controversy over the LCWR and the Vatican’s "Doctrinal Assessment" [an investigation into women religious in the United States].
Oh yes, absolutely — of course they are.
Was that a major issue at the conference?
We had a half-hour input from the head of the LCWR over the five days, and there was no comment and no discussion. There was a brief report, just as there were brief reports from the Brazilian lady superiors, and there was a brief report on communication. So it was very much a brief report, and no more than that. It was a very minor part of the meeting.
Much has also been made about alleged divisions between Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Religious, and Archbishop Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, over the handling of the LCWR. Was there any evidence of that?
I think what Cardinal Braz de Aviz was drawing attention to was that in America there were two separate processes going on, and most people think there was one. One was the "Doctrinal Assessment," which is the business of the CDF; the other was the apostolic visitation, which is the responsibility of the sacred Congregation for Religious. He basically said: "Look, for the CDF, that’s their business, and the apostolic visitation is mine." I think, to be honest, there was a lack of clarity about that, even among some religious. If you’re not Northern-world-based, it’s not such a big deal.
The question to Cardinal Braz de Aviz had been: The apostolic visitation ended two years ago, and there still hasn’t been any feedback. When’s it coming? And he said: "It’s coming as soon as I can, but I’ve lost my two English speakers; it’s taken time, and I’m sorry about that."
So the Vatican statement was accurate, in the sense that his comments were misinterpreted?
Yes, absolutely. His was a point of information; it wasn’t a point of controversy or contention.
How was the Pope’s message to the plenary participants received?
I wasn’t there, as we only got the private audience very late in the day.
I’d been down there [to the plenary] quite a lot, but, as far as I have gathered, it went down fine. I’ve already been asked about his remarks about "old maids" and "spinsters." There are a couple of things here: First of all, if possession is nine-tenths of the law, context is seven-tenths of understanding.
First of all, the Pope’s remarks were, I think, a kind of continuation of our theme. So, in that sense, he was picking up on what we’d already been talking about, which is service, generosity. Then his comments about careerism: When this Pope speaks, he’s not just speaking to the people he’s speaking to; he has the chance to speak to other people as well.
To be fair, women religious are not widely known, anywhere in the world, for careerism. You do nine years as general superior, and, then, day one of year 10 you could be cleaning the lavatories. That’s the reality.
So that’s one aspect. The other [about spinsters]: We are so Eurocentric in our thinking. We really need to wake up and smell the Latin-American coffee. This is a Latin-American lens. My No. 2 is a Chilean, and I’ve learned in the past year that European ways of thinking and reflecting on matters of faith are different.
Fertility, maternity and the place of Mary in the Latin-American Church cannot be overstated. She is such a model. And what I feel he was saying was: "Look, your religious vocation should be a source of joy to you (because if it’s not a source of joy to you, it’s not going to be a source of joy to anybody else), and you’ve got to be generous and openhearted. That’s where your fertility comes in, from having large hearts at the service of God, the Church and people."
How did his emphasis on being faithful to Church teaching go down? Was that an issue during the conference?
No, not at all. If you look at the website, you’ll see all of the inputs were ecclesially located. It wasn’t even an issue. He discussed the Ignatian principle of sentire (feel) with the Church — and it was an encouragement to do that.
Are those who are dissenting very much a minority?
Yes. I’m sure there are some who don’t agree. There are some things I don’t necessarily agree with on what the Church says, though not on doctrinal teaching. Obedience does not require that one is unthinking.
The vast majority of people [are faithful to Church teaching]. You should have heard the warmth with which Cardinal Braz de Aviz and Archbishop [José] Carballo, the new secretary of the Congregation for Religious, were received — real warmth. There was no doubting that. This wasn’t some sort of "us vs. them" conversation.
So it’s very much a media exaggeration?
Yes. "Nuns Get on With Cardinal and Bishop" is not going to make a great headline.