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a missed opportunity

By Jeff (articles ) | Apr 03, 2003

Twenty years ago today, the Holy Father issued a remarkable letter, now largely forgotten, to the bishops of the United States on the state of religious life in our country. After recalling the praiseworthy deeds of religious from colonial times (and noting that the Church in the U.S. was historically marked "by a conspicuous fidelity to the See of Peter"), he says something quite remarkable: he urged the American bishops to proclaim the Gospel to American religious, almost as if they were unevangelized.

He then urged the bishops to call to conversion those individuals and groups that had "departed from the indispensable norms of religious life, or have even, to the scandal of the faithful, adopted positions at variance with the Church's teaching." This task of assuring that religious are faithful to their vocation "is a truly important part of your episcopal ministry." To assist the bishops in this task, the Holy Father appointed a special commission of three bishops, headed by Archbishop Quinn of San Francisco -- a somewhat curious choice, as he had called for a reexamination of Catholic teaching on contraception three years earlier at the Synod of Bishops.

History, so far as I know, does not record the widespread call to conversion for which the Holy Father asked. Twenty years later, the faithful still observe that many (gray-haired, but influential) religious have departed from the norms of religious life and have adopted positions contrary to the Church's teaching. The scandal remains, despite signs of hope far more evident now than then (see, for example, the websites of the Institute on Religious Life and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious).

Still, imagine how different these past two decades might have been if the Holy Father's letter had been widely heeded.

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