Register Radio - Vatican Report on Women Religious and ‘The Great Reformer’

This week on Register Radio, Dan Burke discusses the release of the Vatican's long-awaited report on women religious with Register correspondent Ann Carey. Also, Jeanette DeMelo talks with author Austen Ivereigh about his new book The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of A Radical Pope.

Ann Carey on the Vatican Report on Women Religious

Ann Carey is a veteran journalist who has written hundreds of articles for many prestigious Catholic publications during her 31-year career in the Catholic press. She is a member of the Catholic Press Association and has won awards for news and feature writing, as well as investigative reporting. Her specialty is women religious, and she is working on a new, updated edition of her book, Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities, to be published by Ignatius Press. She and her husband live in Indiana and are the parents of three grown children.

Carey began by discussing that two different activities were launched by the Vatican simultaneously. The first, she said, was an apostolic visitation to determine the quality of life of the various apostolic orders (not the cloistered) in the United States and to report on issues that had been reported to the Vatican.

The second was when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced that it was conducting a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), “the umbrella group for about 80% of the sisters’ groups that tend to be less traditional,” Carey said.

Carey clarified, as well, that the LCWR is one of two conferences for women religious superiors; the other is the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. The difference between the two lies in part in the orders they represent: “I call them the classic form of religious life,” Carey explained, “where the sisters live in community, pray in common, wear a habit, do a community apostolate, work in the name of the Church, whereas the Leadership Conference of Women Religious [represents] many orders [that] are more diverse — not all of them, but most of them, I would say.”

According to Carey, there are about 10,000 sisters who belong to orders represented by the CMSWR, with an average age of 53, according to the head of the conference as cited by Carey. Compare that to the average age of sisters represented by the LCWR, which Carey estimated to be between 76 and 80.

The apostolic visitation’s results were summarized in a general report written by Mother Mary Clare Millea of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and submitted in January 2012. The Vatican report, released earlier this week, “is kind of like an onion,” Carey said, “in that you have to peel back the layers to see what exactly was in there.”

“At first glance, it looked like a love letter,” she said, “because it was so full of praise. But very gently embedded in the document were several concerns — and that word was used, ‘concerns.’”

One of the concerns mentioned was that many of those coming into religious life lack an adequate formation in theology or spirituality. Another concern was that, though liturgical practices were outlined clearly in some orders’ documents, they are not always put into action. Doctrinal problems were also mentioned, including teachings and practices about God, creation, the incarnation, and redemption. 

Links of interest:

Austen Ivereigh on His New Book, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope

Austen Ivereigh is a London-based Catholic journalist and author of the newly released biography:  The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. A former spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in England, Ivereigh is also the author of How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice and the coordinator for Catholic Voices in the United Kingdom, an initiative that trains Catholics to present and defend Church teaching in the public square.

Asked about his inspiration for writing a book about Pope Francis when there are already so many, Ivereigh replied, “There have been a lot of books about him and about his papacy, but there haven’t been very many biographies. Most of them have been by Argentine journalists and most of them have focused on the later part of his life, when he was cardinal archbishop, which is what most journalists are familiar with. I thought there was really a need for a biography that really digs into his past,” including his intellectual formation and the controversies of the 1970s.

Ivereigh completed his PhD at Oxford on the Church and politics in Argentina over 20 years ago, and so felt particularly qualified to write this book.

During his research, Ivereigh found a number of articles and writings Francis did that were “gathering dust” on a shelf. Ivereigh shared, “I culled through what was really twenty years’ worth of writings on his part, and what comes through is a man of tremendous spiritual depth and discernment. He was a master retreat giver, a wonderful discerner of spirits in that primitive Ignatian Jesuit tradition. He saw himself as a leader, as a provincial, in taking the Jesuits away from the temptation of ideology and focusing them on the raw gospel and on service to the poor and on being missionaries.”

During the time Francis was writing in this way, there was a great deal of division in Argentina. His reform of the Jesuits was to “focus them on the core mission,” Ivereigh said, “and I see a tremendous continuity between that and what he’s doing now as pope and what he later did as cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires.”

Ivereigh uncovers many myths that surround Francis, and points to how they are rooted in his early life in Argentina and his exile from the Jesuits.

“In the laboratory, people basically believe in ideas, believe in artificial human constructs, and they fall in love with them and they try to operate according to those,” Ivereigh said. But, he continued, “if you live on the frontier, you’re in constant interaction with reality, with real human life.” This kind of contrast is really “a key to understanding what [Francis] is trying to get the Church to do,” Ivereigh said, to focus on mission and to encounter people as they really are.

“The really big reform is to turn the Church, which has been sometimes too much filled with clarity, to make it more geared to mission,” Ivereigh said.

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