By Ann Carey
The Vatican has launched an unprecedented examination of "quality of [religious] life" in women's orders in the United States.
The specific motivation behind the visitation of women Religious is not clear. The visitation's website cites the changes in apostolic works of U.S. women Religious, as well as their aging population and declining membership -- down to 59,000 from a high of about 180,000 in 1965. The visitation does not include cloistered, contemplative orders.
An apostolic visitation is not a routine occurrence: It is an examination directed by the Holy See that is always prompted by some kind of concern. Such a visitation of all U.S. religious orders -- women or men -- has never happened before, though individual orders have received visitations that generally are not publicized.
The news came just weeks after the release of a report on an unrelated apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries that had been prompted by the clerical sex abuse scandal.
The Vatican has assigned responsibility for running the new visitation to Mother Mary Clare Millea, a Connecticut native, and superior general of an international religious institute headquartered in Rome, the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Mother Clare has advanced degrees in special education and psychology and a doctorate in canon law and has served in various leadership positions in her order since 1986.
"I see the present study of our congregations in the United States as a means to help us reflect on, evaluate and improve our authentic response to the founding charisms of our institutes and to the Church's expectations," Mother Clare told Our Sunday Visitor in an e-mail from Latin America, where she was attending ceremonies to open a new religious house for her order, which has 1,250 professed sisters worldwide, including 135 in the United States.
Cardinal Franc Rode, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, talked about the Vatican's concerns for U.S. religious life last fall at a symposium outside Boston.
"The history of the Church in the United States of America is rich with the contributions of consecrated men and women who have left an indelible mark on the culture," said Cardinal Rode, who himself is a member of a religious order, the Vincentians. "Despite this past greatness and present vitality," he continued, "we know -- and it is one of the major reasons we are gathered here today -- that all is not well with religious life in America."
Cardinal Rode may have realized that U.S. Religious would welcome some Vatican assistance after some of the 600 Religious at that symposium broke into spontaneous applause when a sister asked him if he would consider doing an apostolic visitation of U.S. Religious. Yet, announcement of the visitation seems to have taken everyone in this country by surprise.
Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told OSV that because the visitation is not a USCCB endeavor, no one there would have a comment.
A spokeswoman for one of the two organizations representing U.S. Religious, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said it had learned about the visitation the day it was publicly announced and knew little about it beyond what is on the visitation website. Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Annmarie Sanders, LCWR director of communications, said the LCWR will encourage their member congregations to participate in the process as fully as possible.
"Women Religious continuously seek to deepen and intensify our commitment to God, to a faithful living of our vows, and in apostolic service," she said in a statement to OSV. "We welcome any information and analysis that will help us continue our commitment to a life of prayer, community and service."
Mercy Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan, chairperson for another U.S. organization, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, said she welcomed the visitation. "We are praying for a fruitful outcome for all involved," she said.
The visitation will have four stages and is expected to take two years. First, a letter from Mother Clare will go out to all superiors general of the nearly 400 institutes of women Religious in the United States. She will invite those superiors to write and meet with her to talk about their hopes and concerns for their orders.
In her response to OSV, Mother Clare said that the first phase of the visitation is very important, because it gives her an opportunity to listen.
"I want to hear how each congregation is living the founder's vision in the Church today," she wrote. "This respectful listening will give us a good base for understanding the multifaceted face of religious life in America today and help promote its vitality."
Second, a questionnaire will go to all orders, soliciting data like statistics, activities and community practices, as well as observations and aspirations. Third, visitation teams will visit communities that are selected after analyzing results of the first two steps. And fourth, a comprehensive report will be compiled for the Vatican.
Further details will be ironed out as the process gets under way, said Sister Eva-Maria Ackerman, a Sister of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, who is communications assistant for the visitation. Sister Eva-Maria said that when a community is visited, each sister may speak privately to a member of the visitation team.
Sister Eva-Maria admitted that the visitation is a daunting task, but called Mother Clare a very capable administrator who has wide experience doing visitations to her own order's houses and sisters, a practice that canon law requires of every superior. And she was confident that adequate resources and capable personnel would be available.
"Sisters are doing this job," she observed. "It'll get done."
A previous study of religious orders in the United States was carried out between 1983 and 1986. However, that study was not an apostolic visitation.
Pope John Paul II was concerned about plummeting numbers of Religious in the United States, so he asked the U.S. bishops to conduct a study to try to determine the reason for the decline. The pope appointed Archbishop John Quinn, then of San Francisco, to head up a commission to oversee the study, which became known as the Quinn Commission.
At the same time as his request for the study, the pope approved a document to be used as a guide to help the U.S. bishops assess the state of religious life, "Essential Elements in Church Teaching on Religious Life," and asked bishops to remind people about this teaching. But the document got little traction. It was rejected by many Religious as allegedly hearkening to a spirit prior to the Second Vatican Council, and many bishops were wary about intruding into the internal affairs of religious orders.
In the end, the Quinn Commission succeeded more in highlighting the differences among Religious orders than in solving any of the problems.
Even though its final report declared, "Religious life in the United States is in good condition," some critics labeled that an overly optimistic assessment.
Ann Carey writes from Indiana. For more information see www.apostolicvisitation.org.