The apostolic visitation of U.S. women religious that was initiated by the Vatican on Dec. 22, 2008, to study the quality of life of U.S. sisters has entered a new phase. A January 9, 2012, press release (available as a PDF file) from the visitation office announced that Mother Mary Clare Millea, ASCJ, has given the Vatican an overall summary of her findings as well as most of the reports on individual orders.
Mother Clare, who is superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, had been appointed apostolic visitator by Cardinal Franc Rode, then-prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), who initiated the visitation. Mother Clare invited superiors of all U.S. women’s apostolic orders to contact her, and she requested each order to return a comprehensive questionnaire about the order.
Mother Clare also appointed visitors to call on about 100 religious orders, nearly one-third of all the orders of women religious in the U.S. The 74 visitors were all Americans who are members of religious orders themselves, and mostly sisters. To insure confidentiality, the identity of the visitors was revealed only to the congregation receiving the visit.
U.S. religious now await consideration of the reports by CICLSAL, which has a new prefect—Archbishop João Braz de Aviz—and a new secretary—Archbishop Joseph Tobin, CSSR, an American. The Vatican has declined to offer a timeline for those deliberations or to give any hint about what decisions might emerge from the apostolic visitation.
Catholic World Report was able to reach Mother Clare by e-mail even though she is traveling out of the country on business for her order. She could not discuss any of the contents of her reports, but did respond to questions about some other aspects of the visitation.
Catholic World Report: The visitation was initiated by Cardinal Franc Rodé. He has since retired, and CICLSAL now has a new prefect and secretary. Is it your sense that they will give the visitation reports their close attention?
Mother Clare: Both Archbishop João Braz de Aviz, prefect of CICLSAL, and Archbishop Joseph Tobin, secretary, have consistently shown great interest in the apostolic visitation. My impression is that they and their staff are carefully studying the submitted reports.
Catholic World Report: Some critics of the visitation have charged that women religious will get no feedback from the visitation, but you had said at the beginning of the visitation that every order would receive a report back from the Vatican. Is that still correct?
Mother Clare: At the beginning of the apostolic visitation, Cardinal Rodé assured me that the religious institutes would receive feedback from the dicastery. The current officials have expressed their intentions to do so as well.
Catholic World Report: Americans joke that the Vatican thinks of time in terms of decades or centuries, while we Americans think in terms of days and months. Naturally, people are anxious to receive some feedback on the visitation. Is it your sense that an effort will be made to give that feedback within the next couple of years?
Mother Clare: I am not in a position to speak in the name of the dicastery which has responsibility for institutes of consecrated life throughout the universal Church.
Catholic World Report: Many sisters have enjoyed having all the visitation instruments and references available on the visitation website. Will the website remain active so sisters can view those materials? Will the visitation office remain open or will it close?
Mother Clare: The Apostolic Visitation Office will be open until materials have been archived or returned to the institutes which submitted them. No decision has yet been made on the duration of the visitation website.
Catholic World Report: I have seen nothing but praise about the way the visitors conducted their visits to the various orders. How did you use your own experience with visitations to help you set up the mechanics of the visitation and train the visitors so that the experience would be so positive?
Mother Clare: The entire visitation was conducted in a spirit of respectful listening and esteem for the religious institutes and their individual members. Throughout the process we strove to follow the Gospel icon of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, who recognized and revered the presence of the Savior in their midst.
While my own experience in conducting canonical visitations with my sisters was helpful, the visitation process was developed with the collaboration of a dedicated core team of religious. Together we developed the procedures, open-ended questions for the sisters who were interviewed and precise guidelines for the on-site visitors. The visitors who took part in training sessions clearly understood and wholeheartedly accepted the approach that was proposed.
Catholic World Report: Some sisters who were visited even expressed an interest in staying in touch with the sisters who visited them. Are you hearing about new friendships between sisters of various orders who met through the visitation?
Mother Clare: We held a follow-up session with most of the on-site visitors several months ago, during which many of the participants spoke of new bonds of friendship with the religious with whom they had worked as members of the visitation teams. I am very pleased to hear from you that this type of connection is spreading among other religious as well.
Catholic World Report: What about relationships between orders? I have heard that after meeting one another, the sisters of various orders gained new and appreciated insights into the other orders.
Mother Clare: Many sisters appreciated the fact that the members of visiting teams were from congregations which live out their religious life in various ways. This already seemed to create a greater desire to know more about other religious and to share the richness of our common values with one another. I don’t have any first-hand information on further developments, however.
Catholic World Report: Is it your sense that the visitation has impacted the relationship between the women’s orders and the nation’s bishops?
Mother Clare: My direct contacts with the United States bishops during the visitation were always very open and positive. I have heard both from religious and bishops that the visitation has given them opportunities for greater dialogue and collaboration.
Catholic World Report: What about the laity? Do you think the laity have learned more about religious life from the visitation? Is it your sense that the religious orders are concerned about how they are viewed by ordinary Catholics?
Mother Clare: The outpouring of support for women religious by the laity has been great and has helped us to remember how valuable our witness and service are to the entire Church.
Catholic World Report: In what way do you think both visitors and those visited were changed by the process? Any other unexpected positive results of the visitation so far?
Mother Clare: The dialogue promoted by the apostolic visitation is just a beginning of new vitality in religious life. I am confident that much more will unfold with the passing of time and that the Holy Spirit will continue to work in and through women religious to strengthen unity within the Church and further the saving mission of Christ.
In presenting the upcoming Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI stated that the world today particularly needs the credible witness of people enlightened in mind and heart by the word of the Lord, and capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life, life without end (cf. Porta fidei, 15). I invite your readers to continue to pray for the religious of our country, that we may be among those credible witnesses, in an ever-growing spirit of mutual esteem and collaboration with all of the other components of the Church.
I ask them to pray also that those who are discerning a call to a life of total consecration in the religious life will have the courage to respond to Christ with wholehearted generosity.