The Vatican has published the results of its apostolic visitation examining the quality of religious communities across the U.S. in a report described as realistic yet encouraging. Voicing thanks to women religious for their service to the Church, the Vatican congregation in charge of religious life also encouraged them to remember to keep Christ at the center of their communities. The congregation asked the women religious to “carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry” to ensure that they are “in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption.” Launched in 2009 to examine the quality of religious communities across the U.S., the visitation included meetings, questionnaires, and visits to about one-quarter of the country’s religious communities. It involved 341 religious congregations, to which approximately 50,000 women in the U.S. belong. The survey presented religious communities several questions concerning religious orders’ vocation promotion, admission and formation policies, and fidelity to and expression of their vows. The reflections also asked respondents about their concerns for the future of their religious order. It is distinct from the inquiry into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a canonically-approved body which has over 1,500 leaders of women religious communities as members. The LCWR has been assessed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who raised concerns of dissent from Church doctrine on theological topics including homosexuality, the sacramental priesthood and the divinity of Christ. Mother Mary Clare Millea, the Connecticut-born Superior General of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was the apostolic visitor who led the survey of U.S. religious communities along with a team that she hand-picked. Mother Millea was one of a panel of seven speakers on Dec. 16, which also included the Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz. She told journalists that although she was initially “overwhelmed” with the task, she maintained a complete and “deep trust” in the congregation’s decision to enact the visitation. The report, signed by Cardinal Braz de Aviz as well as Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, secretary for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, recognized that although this visitation was in some ways “unprecedented,” they are a normal phenomenon in the life of the Church. “We initiated the visitation because of our awareness that the apostolic religious life in the United States is experiencing challenging times,” the cardinal told journalists. He affirmed the need for new vocations, as well as an exploration of themes such as a congregation’s community and spiritual life, their work and apostolate, in light of the modern call for “credible and attractive witnesses of consecrated religious who demonstrate the redemptive and transformative power of the Gospel.” Report topics range from finances to vocations, prayer, evangelization, and the role of women in the Church. It provides a presentation of the visitation’s findings as well as points of guidance from the congregation at the end of each section. As to the declining number of women religious in the U.S., the report revealed that the peak number of vocations seen between the 1940s-1960s was “relatively short-term” and “not typical” in terms of the history of vocations in the country. Rather, the report explained that such a peak would probably not be seen again. The report’s findings revealed that the numbers dropped due to the fact that many sisters left their congregations after the 1960s, couple with the fact that fewer women have joined communities since. With the drop in new arrivals, institutes are spending vast spiritual and material means in order to promote vocations. Interviews with various communities revealed that often entrance candidates seek to live in a “formative community” and be “externally recognizable” as consecrated women, which is a challenge for institutions that don’t observe these practices. As for the sisters’ spiritual life, the visitation found that institutes generally have written guidelines for receiving the sacraments and strict spiritual practices. However, the congregation cautioned each community to “evaluate their actual practice of liturgical and common prayer,” and to do whatever is needed to foster each member’s personal relationship with Christ. Finances were also touched on in the report, which revealed that ongoing losses exist due to a variety of reasons, including the under-compensation of religious women for their ministry over an extended period of time. Other reasons include a lack of sisters working due to low membership, the subsidizing of sisters who work for the poor by their institutes, the low salaries of sisters who work in ecclesial structures as well as changes to the United States healthcare system. “Changes in the healthcare system in the United States, resulting in uncertainty regarding the availability of government funding for the future needs of the elderly is a particular concern,” the report observed. In terms of ecclesial communion, the report revealed that although many religious described themselves as integral members of the universal Church, they expressed a desire for there to be “greater recognition” on the part of pastors for the contribution of women religious. Some spoke in the survey of feeling like they did not have enough input into pastoral decisions that affect them despite having “considerable knowledge and experience.” The report also recognized the refusal of some communities to participate in the visitation’s mandate, which Cardinal Braz de Aviz called a “painful disappointment” for everyone involved. However, he used the occasion as an opportunity to assure the congregation’s willingness to engage in a “respectful and fruitful dialogue” with the institutes that were not fully compliant. The report commissioned those institutes that felt apprehensive or betrayed by the visitation to use the current Year of Consecrated Life as an opportunity to make steps toward “forgiveness and reconciliation” so that “an attractive witness of fraternal communion” be given to all. Sr. Sharon Holland, I.H.M., president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, told journalists that she is “concerned about those who may still be angry…It’s a concern for me because it’s not healthy to remain angry.” Although she said she doesn’t know all of the reasons why some women religious feel that way, “sometimes when we’re fearful and feel powerless then we externalize that in anger, but underneath that there’s a fear or hurt or anxiety over what will happen.” Despite the fact that there are still those who remain angry with the visitation, Sr. Holland said that “I think a lot of us have come beyond that.” “There is an encouraging and realistic tone in this report,” she said. “Challenges are understood, but it is not a document of blame or of simplistic solutions. One can read the rest and feel appreciated and trusted to carry on.” In the report, the congregation affirmed Pope Francis’ call for a greater participation of women in the life of society and the Church, as well as his resolve that “the ‘feminine genius’ find expression in the various settings where important decisions are made.” With a reference to the pontiff’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the report explained that “we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.” The report closed by using the biblical encounter between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth shortly after the Annunciation as an analogy of overcoming fear and uncertainty in order “to joyfully embrace their role in God’s plan of salvation.” “So too the apostolic visitation offered new opportunities for women religious to discover God’s presence and salvific action in fruitful communication with other religious, with the Church’s pastors and lay faithful.”
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