Head of visitation sees opportunities for dialogue

The ongoing apostolic visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States has been subject to a great deal of hostile commentary from some quarters, much of it disguised as news coverage. But Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, speaks with joy about her role as its Vatican-appointed overseer.  

“[It] has already been a source of renewed spiritual energy for me. It’s truly a privilege to share with so many women religious our common love for Christ and our common longing for a Church more deeply united in joyful communion,” she recently told Our Sunday Visitor from Rome. “Our God is truly a God of endless surprises. When I said yes to this mission, I didn’t realize how much deeper my own commitment to my vocation would become.” 

The process began with a solicitation of input from leaders of congregations, and dialogues, oral and written, with many of them, followed by a questionnaire asking for more detailed information about the congregations.  

This spring, 35 congregations received an on-site visit; 56 more congregations will be visited before December. 

Our Sunday Visitor: This apostolic visitation of women religious seems like it has been going on for a while. Who is it of? When is it over? When are we going to see something? And will convents be shut down? Is there a science do these different phases? 

Mother Mary Clare Millea: The apostolic visitation was announced in January 2009. In order to obtain a comprehensive overview of the more than 400 religious congregations included in the visitation, we devised a four-phase process that provides various types of input. 

In Phase 1, I invited the leaders of all the congregations involved to share their joys, hope and concerns with me. Over a period of four months, I personally conversed with 133 sisters and received written responses from the leaders of 50 other congregations. Our dialogue was cordial and open, and offered me an overview of the rich variety of religious life in our country.  

In the second phase, the major superiors were asked to complete a questionnaire and return it to me along with a copy of their fundamental congregational documents, which would afford me basic data on the history and organizational structure of each congregation as well as a sense of the challenges each one currently faces. Although a two-month period was allotted for this step, some congregations asked for and were granted a time extension. I encouraged the superiors to invite their sisters to offer their input on the questionnaire topics. 

The third phase is a priceless opportunity for each sister in a congregation chosen for an on-site visit to share her story, her personal embodiment of her congregation’s charism, as well as the joys and challenges she faces in seeking to remain faithful to the Church and the foundress’ or founder’s vision of religious life. A group of persons, chosen by the congregational leaders themselves, are also invited to dialogue with the visitors concerning their association with and impressions of the sisters.  

The final phase will be the preparation of a summary report to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which will, in turn, give appropriate feedback to the congregations.

OSV: Why are you helping coordinating the Vatican’s inquisition on women religious?  

How did you wind up in this position? Why are the other religious women who are part of your team helping? Who are the visitors? How did the team come together? Do they act like one? 

Mother Mary Clare: I entered religious life, in response to a personal call from Christ, with a compelling desire to dedicate my life to him and his Church. The profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience are an outward and public expression of the total self gift that I and every vowed religious offer to the Lord in response to our vocation. Normally, we live our vow of obedience in the day-to-day fulfillment of our community and apostolic duties. In the exceptional — and totally unexpected — circumstance of being asked by the Apostolic See to serve as apostolic visitator, I experienced deeply that the obedience I vowed 43 years ago is ultimately to the Church, in the person of the Holy Father and his representatives. My assent to this service was not only an act of obedience, but an act of faith that the Lord who asked this of me would provide the strength and wisdom to carry it out. 

Many fine women and men religious have been generously offering their service to the apostolic visitation. Some are members of my core planning team and others are serving as my representatives in on-site visits to the communities of the sisters. I invited them to serve the apostolic visitation after reviewing recommendations I received from congregational leaders and others. They are all donating their time and talents without recompense, happy to help serve this initiative aimed at promoting and strengthening the religious life we deeply believe in and love. 

OSV: Why do [the visitors] have to take an oath of fidelity? Doesn’t that guarantee a certain lack of independence and objectivity in the investigation? 

Mother Mary Clare: The pronouncement of the profession of faith and the oath of fidelity to the Apostolic See took place at the end of the training sessions we held for the religious who are committed to working with the apostolic visitation. It was a moving experience for them and for me who, as representative of the Church, witnessed to their profession. Through this public profession, the visitors are united to the Apostolic See and openly committed to faithfully serve the visitation in their specific capacity.  

Each visitor seeks to interact respectfully and honestly with the sisters, avoiding judgments based on personal bias or preconceived ideas about religious life. The oath each visitor made helps assure that objectivity. Each one brings the vast experience and interpersonal skills she/he possesses, and strives to be an empathetic and sensitive listener, a conduit for transmitting to me, and ultimately to the Apostolic See, each sister’s precious contribution to her congregation’s life.  

OSV: How many women religious will the visitors ultimately meet? 

Mother Mary Clare: When a congregation is chosen for an on-site visit, we send a letter to each of its members, inviting them to meet with one of the visitors, either individually or in a group. We also ask to meet with certain individual sisters, such as members of the leadership and formation teams and the sisters in the initial phases of formation. That number may change during the time the visit is taking place so we will have better statistics once the on-site visits are completed at the end of the year. 

OSV: Why bother to do the investigation? If you wanted a picture of women religious in America, wouldn’t it be best to have an objective, independent observer do it? 

Mother Mary Clare: I see wisdom in the appointment of a woman religious who has the authority to choose her collaborators to carry out this delicate dialogue with other women religious. To my knowledge, this is the first such appointment of a woman to such a large-scale Church initiative and can be seen as a sign of the Church’s respect for the contribution and competence of its religious. 

While many people know, love and revere religious — and this has clearly been seen in the outpouring of support for us since the apostolic visitation was announced — many aspects of our lives can be more deeply understood and communicated to others in a climate of open sharing among persons who have given their lives to the same ideals. That’s basically what this visitation is about. It’s not an “investigation,” as you called it, but an invitation to self-reflection within our own hearts, with our sisters, among religious of other congregations and with our pastors and the laity as well. 

Any group in the Church, and also in society, which believes in itself and wants a healthy future, welcomes the input of those who have the authority to evaluate their reality and discern with them paths to greater growth and effectiveness. Self-studies and external evaluation procedures are common to our American culture, and the apostolic visitation has developed a model that mirrors the major components of those most commonly used. As do other processes, the visitation leads its participants to a deeper level of introspection than normally takes place within the organization. Honest self-assessment based on a comparison of lived reality to established norms usually reveals areas that need improvement. If the sisters are sufficiently involved in the process, they will formulate strategies to bring about a more authentic witness and effective presence of their congregation in the Church and in the world today and into the future. 

OSV: You’ve referred to the visitation as a dialogue with the Church. Isn’t it inevitable that some women religious won’t see it that way and will let the world know that? You do know that media that is aware of the visitation sees it so? Do you have any strategies for combating that? Will anyone be helping with the public relations efforts? 

Mother Mary Clare: It’s certainly understandable that the first reaction of many, religious and non-religious alike, was one of fear and even suspicion about the underlying motives of the initiative. I think that the voices of the sisters who have experienced an on-site visit can attest to the reverent atmosphere and respectful dialogue that has marked them. Several congregational leaders have told me that although they initially resisted the visitation, they have already noticed a renewed interest in communal reflection on the core values of religious life, coupled with a search for greater authenticity in the areas that are less fully lived.  

The apostolic visitation website is available for anyone who wishes to know more about the process. 

OSV: Is this about the Vatican cracking down on bad congregations? How cooperative is everyone being? What happens if you find infidelity among women religious? Have you already?  

Mother Mary Clare: During the apostolic visitation we are gathering data on all congregations of women religious who have an external apostolate (as opposed to enclosed contemplative communities) and who have a provincialate or active community for the formation of new members in the United States. In this lifestyle as elsewhere, no one lives their ideal perfectly. In addition, the way each congregation expresses the values of religious life varies widely, and each congregation has areas in which it needs to improve collectively.  

My task as visitator is to note the global picture of the individual congregations and suggest recommendations I consider appropriate for them. The competent office of the Apostolic See will determine what will be communicated to the congregations to help promote their vitality. 

The persons and congregations who have cooperated with the apostolic visitation are protected by strict confidentiality. 

OSV: What have you found since you began your work on the visitation? Is there anything in particular you wish you could share with the world already?  

Mother Mary Clare: In the past two years I have discovered how deeply women religious have influenced the faith life of American Catholics and how their presence has been a catalyst in the social well-being of all Americans, regardless of religious belief. The early influence of women religious in establishing quality educational, health-care and social service systems has had lasting effects on our nation. Today, despite diminishing numbers, women religious still champion the basic human rights of our people, especially the most fragile and those who do not have the possibility of doing so on their own.  

I have also experienced the deep respect in which our women religious are held, not only because of the valuable service they render, but because they are an integral part of the Church. Clergy and laity esteem and desire our collaboration in announcing the Kingdom of God. Indeed, our Church would be greatly impoverished without the witness of total dedication of women religious. 

OSV: Why are you a religious sister anyway? And in habit, for that matter? Who are the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and how did you come to be among them? 

Mother Mary Clare: I clearly remember sitting in my first-grade classroom watching the energetic sister in front of the class and experiencing the conviction that I would be a sister, too, when I grew up. That conviction never left me. I always was sure I would end up as a missionary in Africa. While attending a high school run by the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I couldn’t resist the spirit of joy the sisters so lovingly shared with one another and with us. And so, my African dream faded and I entered the apostles at the age of 18. 

My next love was special education, and I was privileged to spend 15 years at Clelian Heights School in Greensburg, Pa., as teacher, school psychologist and director of the school and adult education programs. In 1986 I was elected to congregational leadership, in which I have served in various capacities until now. 

OSV: What does your average day look like? How does that compare to the average sister in your congregation? 

Mother Mary Clare: My day, like that of the 1,200 Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus worldwide, begins with early rising, community prayer and daily Mass. In all our communities, mealtime is a special moment for sharing our joys and challenges. In each community we spend an hour in common prayer each evening and close the day with the Night Prayer of the Church. 

As superior general, my address is Rome, Italy, but I spend most of my time with my suitcase at my side, visiting the Apostle communities in 14 countries throughout the world. In my first six-year term, I met individually with all the sisters, visited their ministries and took part in many congregational events of celebration and sorrow. 

This past July we celebrated our 16th General Chapter, during which I was elected for a second six-year term as superior general, so my congregational duties will be basically the same. 

OSV: Is it true that vocations to more orthodox communities of women religious who are frequently in habits are up? What do you think that means for women religious? For the Church? Is this whole consecrated life/women religious thing a dying vocation in this culture we live in? 

Mother Mary Clare: In August 2009, the National Religious Vocation Conference published a study on recent vocations to religious life conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Using statistics gathered from religious institutes as well as from meetings with focus groups of young religious in selected institutes, the study revealed some dramatic trends. While there are more women religious in the United States over the age of 90 than under the age of 60, some congregations are definitely experiencing an upsurge in new vocations. 

The NRVC study offers some “best practices” for vocation promotion and indicates that the example of members and the characteristics of the institute seem to have the most influence on the decision to enter a particular institute. The research further suggests those congregations that follow a more traditional style of religious life seem to have the greatest success in attracting and retaining new members, especially younger candidates. While the NRVC study is distinct from the apostolic visitation, its complete findings might be of interest to those concerned about the future of religious life.  

OSV: What do you hope comes out of all of this? How can the average Catholic in the pews help with or otherwise be a part of the visitation? 

Mother Mary Clare: In many places throughout the country, there have been new advances in respectful and healthy dialogue regarding the role of women religious. These have taken place among the sisters themselves and together with their bishops and priests. I foresee that there will be more of this in the months and years to come and have great hope that such dialogue will lead to greater understanding and collaboration among us all. 

I encourage our dear lay friends to continue to prayerfully support the sisters and suggest that families begin to talk about a life of total dedication to the Lord and the Church as a life-giving option. 

OSV: Will we be seeing a lot of you once your report is written? What do you most look forward to when this visitation is over? 

Mother Mary Clare: I would like to say I look forward to a sabbatical ... but that doesn’t seem to be in the picture right now. As my own congregational commitments permit, I would be happy to sit at the table with women religious and anyone else who desires to continue to promote the vitality of our congregations, in order to concretize our dreams of greater ecclesial communion and collaboration in the announcement of the civilization of love that Jesus came to bring upon the earth. 

I’d like to add that this opportunity to serve the Church and religious life through the apostolic visitation has already been a source of renewed spiritual energy for me. It’s truly a privilege to share with so many women religious our common love for Christ and our common longing for a Church more deeply united in joyful communion. 

Our God is truly a God of endless surprises! When I said yes to this mission, I didn’t realize how much deeper my own commitment to my vocation would become. I truly believe that my rediscovery of the beauty of religious life is an experience that I share with other women religious as well. Religious life will continue to be a coherent and credible presence in our Church as together we carry out the Church’s mission of transforming the world through the power of love. 

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.  

For more information on the apostolic visitation, see www.apostolicvisitation.org