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Sister to sister

· ​Results of the Apostolic Visitation to US women religious ·

Approximately 50,000 sisters in 341 diocesan and pontifical right institutes were involved in the Apostolic Visitation to the women religious of the United States of America, which took place from 2009-2o12. The results of the Visitation were presented in the Holy See Press Office on Tuesday morning, 16 December. Presenting at the conference were Cardinal João Braz de Aviz and Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, respectively Prefect and Secretary of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; Sr Mary Clare Millea, Visitator; Sr Sharon Holland, President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR); Sr Agnes Mary Donovan, coordinator of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR); and Fr Thomas Rosica, Assistant to the Visitation Committee.

Cardinal Braz de Aviz explained that the 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”. “May the self-assessment and dialogue sparked by the Apostolic Visitation,” he said, “continue to bear abundant fruit for the revitalization and strengthening of religious institutes in fidelity to Christ, to the Church and to their founding charisms”.

The Cardinal Prefect didn’t hide the fact that the Apostolic Visitation was met with “apprehension by some women religious”, in fact some decided “not to collaborate fully in the process”. Despite this bitterness, the Cardinal expressed his willingness “to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with those institutes which were not fully compliant”. The dicastery, he said, is committed to collaborating “in the realization of Pope Francis’ resolve that ‘the feminine genius’ find expression in the various settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures”, as is made clear in Evangelii Gaudium (n. 103). Thus in this sense the celebration of the Year of Consecrated Life is a propitious occasion in which they “can work toward that full reconciliation which will offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion to all”.

Then Archbishop Rodríguez Carballo took the floor, offering various details about the visit. He explained that the Visitation involved religious institutes of women which engage in apostolic ministry and which have a generalate, provincialate and/or initial formation program in the United States. Each province of institutes which had more than one province in the United States was considered a separate unit. Therefore 405 entities were considered in the Visitation. The dicastery, the prelate recalled, appointed a woman religious from the United States, Mother Mary Clare Millea, ascj, as Apostolic Visitator, “granting her the faculties to design and carry out the Visitation”. She, in turn, chose a core team of American religious who assisted her throughout the process. “Not only was the Apostolic Visitation vast in its proportions”, Archbishop Carballo said, it also examined “diversified expressions of apostolic religious life throughout the country”. He then explained that from the beginning “it sought to convey the caring support of the Church in respectful, ‘sister-to-sister’ dialogue, as modeled in the Gospel account of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth”. Emphasis was placed on listening on “the lived reality of the religious, understand their rich heritage, current challenges and future hopes, within the context of the ecclesial community”.

The visit was divided into four phases. “In the first phase”, he said, “266 superiors general (78% of their total number) voluntarily engaged in personal dialogue with the Visitator”. Subsequently, all major superiors were asked “to complete a questionnaire requesting empirical data and qualitative information regarding the spiritual, community and ministerial life of the individual institutes”.

In it’s final phase, Sr Millea submitted a final report to dicastery on the major issues and trends in women’s religious life in the United States.

At the press conference Sr Millea herself explained that the Apostolic Visitation offered many opportunities for reflection, dialogue, communion among women religious and their relationship with pastors and laypeople. Religious superiors, including those which had initially resisted, “shared that the process has yielded surprising positive results”, especially producing “honest confrontation with the transformative power of the Word of God”. Other results include the “deep spiritual conversations” among sisters about the life, witness and message” of the foundresses and founders, and the “increased solidarity among women religious and renewed desire to move beyond attitudes which prevent us from being in communion with one another”. Bishops, clergy and lay persons expressed an “outpouring of loving gratitude” for the women religious, which has sparked “new energy and resourcefulness among us and has awakened a renewed interest in the promotion of vocations to the religious life.” The Apostolic Visitation — she added — offered “priceless opportunity to renew our commitment to the consecrated life and to place our unique gifts at the service of the Church”, especially emerging threats to human dignity, religious freedom and conscience protection.

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