By Cindy Wooden
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – A massive, detailed Vatican-ordered investigation of U.S. communities of women religious ended with a call to the women themselves to continue discerning how best to live the Gospel in fidelity to their orders’ founding ideals while facing steeply declining numbers and a rapidly aging membership.
Although initially seen by many religious and lay Catholics as a punitive measure, the apostolic visitation concluded with the publication Dec. 16 of a 5,000-word final report summarizing the problems and challenges the women themselves see in their communities and thanking them for their service to the Church and to society, especially the poor.
The visitation process, carried out between 2009 and 2012 with detailed questionnaires and on-site visits, mainly by other women religious, “sought to convey the caring support of the church in respectful, sister-to-sister dialogue,” says the final report by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
The process attempted to help the Vatican “and the sisters themselves to be more cognizant of their current situation and challenges in order to formulate realistic, effective plans for the future,” said the report, signed by Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, prefect of the congregation for religious, and Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, secretary.
In summarizing the results, the congregation called for special attention in several areas, including: formation programs for new members; the personal, liturgical and common prayer life of members; ensuring their spiritual practices and ministries are fully in harmony with Church teaching “about God, creation, the Incarnation and redemption” in Christ; strengthening community life, especially for members living on their own or with just one other sister; living their vow of poverty while wisely administering financial resources; and strengthening communion within the Church, especially with the bishops and Vatican officials.
The Vatican, the report says, “is well aware that the apostolic visitation was met with apprehension and suspicion by some women religious. This resulted in a refusal, on the part of some institutes, to collaborate fully in the process.”
“While the lack of full cooperation was a painful disappointment for us,” the congregation writes, “we use this present opportunity to invite all religious institutes to accept our willingness to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with them.”
“A number of sisters conveyed to the apostolic visitator a desire for greater recognition and support of the contribution of women religious to the church on the part of its pastors,” the report says. “They noted the ongoing need for honest dialogue with bishops and clergy as a means of clarifying their role in the church and strengthening their witness and effectiveness as women faithful to the church’s teaching and mission.”
In addition, it says, “some spoke of their perception of not having enough input into pastoral decisions which affect them or about which they have considerable experience and expertise.”
The current Year of Consecrated Life, the congregation says, should be “a graced opportunity for all of us within the church – religious, clergy and laity – to take those steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation, which will offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion to all.”
The former prefect of the congregation, Cardinal Franc Rode, ordered the visitation in 2008, saying its aim would be to study the community, prayer and apostolic life of the orders to learn why the number of religious women in the U.S. had declined so sharply since the 1960s.
Almost a year into the study, Cardinal Rode told Vatican Radio that the investigation was a response to concerns – including some expressed by an unnamed “important representative of the U.S. church” – regarding “some irregularities or omissions in American religious life. Most of all, you could say, it involves a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families and, perhaps, also a certain ‘feminist’ spirit.”
As the process began, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of U.S. women religious, questioned what its officials considered a lack of full disclosure about what motivated the visitation.