Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle praised American religious women as a “great gift” days after being asked by Pope Benedict to help reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

“What I hope and pray for every day is that I, first of all, do as the Lord asks and do as the Holy Father asks,” said the archbishop, describing the task of renewal ahead to CNA on April 23.

He said he hopes “to work in a positive way,” recognizing “the wonderful contribution of religious women in the United States, and to work in a way that shows our continued love and support for their extraordinary contribution.”

Archbishop Sartain made his remarks in Rome only days after Pope Benedict XVI also publicly praised the contribution religious women make to the U.S. Church and society.

“In coming months I will have the honor of canonizing two new saints from North America,” the Pope said in a Saturday April 21 address to the Papal Foundation, a U.S.-based charitable institute.

The Pontiff described Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha and Blessed Mother Marianne Cope, set to be canonized on Oct. 21, as “striking examples of sanctity and heroic charity” who also “remind us of the historic role played by women in the building up of the Church in America.”

“Those are exactly my views,” Archbishop Sartain echoed, “which makes me very happy because, obviously, in the United States the role of women has been important from the very beginning.”

The archbishop explained that it was the women religious of the Archdiocese of Seattle who were the “pioneers” in the “evangelization of the Gospel, care for the poor and the sick and education,” as happened elsewhere across America.

Controversy ignited, however, when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ended a four-year audit of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious on April 18, concluding that the organization was in the midst of a “crisis” of belief. The LCWR has more than 1,500 members, whose congregations represent over 46,000 religious sisters. The average age of membership is 74.

Among its key findings, the assessment documented serious theological and doctrinal errors in presentations at the conference’s annual assemblies in recent years.

Several depicted a vision of religious life that is incompatible with the Catholic faith, the assessment said, with some attempting to justify dissent from Church teaching and showing “scant regard for the role of the magisterium.”

The document also cited one address which spoke of “moving beyond the Church” and even “beyond Jesus.”

Archbishop Sartain stressed that he firmly believed the vocation of women religious continues to be a “great, great gift” to the Church and the world.

He praised what he called the “total consecration of one’s life, of the life of these religious women to Christ, who in every way are giving themselves in sacrifice and love to be the embodiment of the Gospel itself and to be in relationship with Christ their entire lives.

“I think it is such a wonderful witness to the world and something I have had the benefit of seeing throughout my whole life and the four dioceses that I have served."