By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
According to the office of Mother Mary Clare Millea, the Superior General in charge of directing a three-year study of U.S. women religious orders, some communities are refusing to cooperate with the unprecedented visitation.
The National Catholic Reporter is reporting that many of the questionnaires sent to communities as part of the visitation process have either not been returned or were only partially completed. The deadline for return of the questionnaires was Nov. 20.
“The decisions by congregation leaders not to comply followed nearly two months last fall of intensive discussions both inside and across religious congregations,” the Reporter states. “They followed consultations with civil and canon lawyers, and come in the wake of what some women religious see as widespread support by laity for their church missions.
“Effectively, the acts of noncompliance [with the return of the questionnaires] were mechanisms by U.S. women religious to signal their collective displeasure at what they view as an unnecessary and ill-formed investigation of their religious communities.”
As a result, Mother Millea sent another request dated Jan. 12 in which she recounted the details of a recent meeting she had in Rome with Cardinal Franc Rode, prefect for the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and the cleric who first initiated the study.
“When I recently met with Cardinal Rodé, he assured me that the Holy Father continues to show his interest in and support of the apostolic visitation,” Millea said in the letter. “The cardinal was pleased to hear about the wholehearted and genuine responses of many congregations to the questionnaire. However, I also shared with him my sadness and disappointment that not all congregations have responded to this phase of dialogue with the church in a manner fully supportive of the purpose and goals of the apostolic visitation. . . . He encouraged me to ask those who have not yet fully complied to prayerfully reconsider their response. . . .”
She also said that she is aware of the “questions and concerns” women religious have about the questionnaire and said her staff is eager to resolve these issues.
In an interview with Vatican Radio in November, 2009, Cardinal Rode acknowledged that the visitation was taking place because he had been alerted “to some irregularities or deficiencies” in the way the religious sisters were living. “Above all, you could speak of a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain ‘feminist’ spirit,” the cardinal said.
The final decision to conduct the visitation was made in September 2008 during a symposium on religious life that was held at Stonehill College in Massachusetts where nearly 600 bishops, priests, lay people and religious were in attendance. During this symposium, many speakers were critical about developments in womens religious orders since the Second Vatican Council.
“There a desire was expressed to look for a remedy to this situation [of women’s religious life], which many say is not as good as that of past decades,” the cardinal said during the interview.
The Visitation process is expected to continue as planned with the next phase involving on-site visitation of communities beginning in April. These visits will involve meetings between a representative group of sisters and members of the visitation team. Reports about the accomplishments, strengths and challenges of each community, along with appropriate recommendations, will then be compiled and submitted to Mother Millea.
The final phase of the process will involve drawing up a summary of each institute from the data collected and submitting it to Cardinal Rode’s congregation. Each institute will receive feedback from the Vatican irregardless of whether or not they actively cooperated with the process.
The final report “will be made public and should provide important information regarding likely future trends of religious life in the United States,” Cardinal Rodé said.
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