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Vatican report on US women religious calls for further self-assessment

December 16, 2014

Expressing “profound gratitude” for the “dedicated and selfless service of women religious,” the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has issued its long-awaited Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America.

“This Congregation asks the members of each institute to evaluate their actual practice of liturgical and common prayer,” the report stated as it called upon religious institutes to engage in further dialogue and self-assessment. “We ask them to discern what measures need to be taken to further foster the sisters’ intimate relationship with Christ and a healthy communal spirituality based on the Church’s sacramental life and sacred Scripture.”

“This Dicastery calls upon all religious institutes to carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption,” the report continued.

Under the direction of Mother Mary Clare Millea, the visitation took place from 2009 to 2012 and involved 341 institutes.

78% of superiors general “voluntarily engaged in personal dialogue with the Visitator,” Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, the Congregation’s secretary, said at a press conference.

“We are aware that the Apostolic Visitation was met with apprehension by some women religious as well as the decision, on the part of some institutes, not to collaborate fully in the process,” said Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, the Congregation’s prefect. “While this was a painful disappointment for us, we use this present opportunity to express our willingness to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with those institutes which were not fully compliant with the Visitation process.”

The report acknowledged the declining number of women religious and suggested that the decision of some institutes not to adopt the wearing of a habit is a barrier to religious vocations:

Today, the median age of apostolic women religious in the United States is in the mid-to-late 70s. The current number of approximately 50,000 apostolic women religious is a decline of about 125,000 since the mid-1960s, when the numbers of religious in the United States had reached their peak.

It is important to note, however, that the very large numbers of religious in the 1960s was a relatively short-term phenomenon that was not typical of the experience of religious life through most of the nation’s history. The steady growth in the number of women religious peaked dramatically from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, after which it began to decline as many of the sisters who had entered during the peak years left religious life, the remaining sisters aged and considerably fewer women joined religious institutes …

Many sisters expressed great concern during the Apostolic Visitation for the continuation of their charism and mission, because of the numerical decline in their membership … Vocation and formation personnel interviewed noted that candidates often desire the experience of living in formative communities and many wish to be externally recognizable as consecrated women. This is a particular challenge in institutes whose current lifestyle does not emphasize these aspects of religious life.

At the press conference, the heads of both the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which was critical of the visitation, and the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, whose members emphasize fidelity to the Magisterium, spoke.

Describing the visitation’s purpose as “troubling,” Sister Sharon Holland, the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said that “today we are looking at an affirmative and realistic report which, we know, is based on the study of written responses and on countless hours of attentive listening.”

Sister Agnes Mary Donovan, the coordinator of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, said that “within the 125 communities of CMSWR members, nearly 20% (almost 1,000) of the sisters are currently in initial formation (in the years prior to final vows). The average age of sisters is 53 years -- well below the overall trend.”

“There is cause for wonder, here, and gratitude,” she added. “Our culture can be quite antagonistic towards the faith, and skeptical at best towards religious life, and yet from this milieu the Lord is surprising women with His love, His mercy, and the possibility of a new and beautiful life consecrated by public vows.”


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  • Posted by: bruno - Dec. 16, 2014 7:45 PM ET USA

    It is interesting to observe that the report notes the lack of cooperation of certain institutes. Mercifully presented with a second chance, I wonder will they take up the offer or keep the doors locked?

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Dec. 16, 2014 7:07 PM ET USA

    The obedient will do the assessment and those who are the problem will not. What really was accomplished here? Compare this approach to what is being done to the Immaculata Franciscans who were a flourishing religious order according to the mind of the Church now subject to a commissioner who is hostile to that religiosity. Why this different manner of treatment on the part of the Holy See?