Cardinal welcomes visitation of institutes for women religious

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley welcomed the upcoming Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religions, which was announced Dec. 22 to examine the state of female religious life, with specific emphasis on the reasons why women’s vocations have declined dramatically.

“Religious life has been in a crisis mode in the United States for the last couple of decades,” said Cardinal O’Malley. “I think there are signs of recovering, however the Holy See is very concerned about the diminishing numbers and the problems that the religious communities are facing in today’s world.”

Cardinal O’Malley is the chairman of the Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations for the U.S. Conference of Bishops and also a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

“The Holy See has conducted visitations of our seminaries recently and it was a process that was very helpful for the seminaries of the United States. I am sure that, by the same token, this visitation will prove to be a valuable experience for our religious communities,” said the cardinal, who was himself an apostolic visitor for seminaries in Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1990s.

Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, will be the Apostolic Visitor. Mother Clare will work out of an office in Rome and an American site that has not yet been determined. She will be assisted by Sister Eva-Maria Ackerman of St. Louis. Sister Eva-Maria is a member of the American province of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George.

Sister Marian Batho, CSJ, the archdiocese’s Delegate for Religious, said the visitation is a wonderful opportunity to survey religious life in the country, but it is too early to say how it will play out. “We are still waiting for the details.”

The cardinal was one of the leading participants and the homilist at the Sept. 27 symposium on the religious life hosted by Stonehill College entitled: “Apostolic Religious Life since Vatican II...Reclaiming the Treasure: Bishops, Theologians, and Religious in Conversation,” which was also attended by Cardinal Franc Rode, CM, prefect of the Congregation for Consecrated Life.

In his keynote address for the afternoon session, Cardinal Rode pointed out that religious orders that stressed the continuity of Vatican II did not suffer the same crisis in vocations as orders that interpreted the council’s changes as a rupture from the Church’s traditions.

In his view, the prefect said he saw four distinct approaches to religious life today. There are new communities bringing new energy to old traditions, older communities reviving their traditions and older communities that have simply accepted their decline and have acquiesced.

“Then, we must admit too, that there are those who have opted for ways that take them outside communion with Christ in the Catholic Church, although they themselves may have opted to ‘stay’ in the Church physically,” he said.

After Cardinal Rode’s keynote address for the afternoon section, he took questions from the audience, including one from Sister Sara Butler, MSBT, a professor of dogmatic theology, at St. Joseph’s Seminary, in Dunwoodie, N.Y., who asked the prefect if he would consider a visitation of religious life in the United States.

Cardinal Rode replied to Sister Sara that he doubted such a visitation would be possible given America’s size and the variety of its communities.

Another participant at the symposium, Father Albert R. DiIanni, SM, a director of vocations for the Marist Fathers stationed at Boston’s Our Lady of Lourdes Center, said he remembers Sister Sara’s question and he was struck by the spontaneous applause that accompanied it. “Then, three or four months later, they announced the visitation.”

Father DiIanni said, “I am very happy they are finally going to evaluate what has happened to religious life after Vatican II. It is long awaited and long necessary,” he said.

In his 1994 book, “Religious Life as an Adventure,” Father DiIanni said he did not call for a visitation, but he did argue that some effort should be made to study the decline in religious life.

“I know Mother Clare Millea very well. I have met her on many occasions and she is a woman of great balance and wisdom. They made a good choice,” said the Marist, who has for many years led retreats in different parts of the country for religious women.

Sister Getrude M. Maiorino, LSP, the local superior for the Little Sisters of the Poor at Somerville’s Jeanne Jugan Residence, said she expects the visitation to be a blessing for all orders. “I am looking forward to it personally.”

Unlike some other orders that have had challenges managing rapid changes, especially in the United States, the Little Sisters have had to move moderately because they are an international order and thus must consider the concerns of sisters in other cultures, she said.

Although she does not know Mother Clare Millea, Sister Gertrude said she knows Sister Eva-Maria very well from their time together working in the St. Louis Diocese.

Sister Joanne Gallagher, CSJ, the spokeswomen for the Boston’s Sisters of St. Joseph, said “We welcome the comments of Sister Eva-Maria Ackerman, when she spoke of the contributions and dedication of thousands of religious women in the United States.”

There are no specific plans drawn up for how the local Sisters of St. Joseph will participate in the visitation, but the local president, Sister Mary L. Murphy, CSJ, and her leadership team will be discussing their response at meetings this month, she said.

“We also welcome the visitation in the sense that it is an opportunity to continuously seek to deepen and intensify our commitment to God and the faithful living of our vows and our vigilance in addressing the needs of the Catholic Church and the world,” she said.

“We welcome any information or analysis that will help us continue our commitment to a life of prayer, community and service, which is basically what Apostolic life is,” she said.

Not everyone is happy about the visitation. One local sister, who asked not to be identified, said she attended the symposium at Stonehill and that she and other members of her order were taken aback when the subject of a visitation was raised.

“It had a negative connotation,” she said. “So, when we received word of this it seemed more like an investigation.”

Those concerns were echoed by Sister Sandra Marie Schneiders, IHM, a professor at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., “Visitations do not drop out of heaven newborn. They come about because somebody wants to investigate somebody.”

Sister Sandra said the using the decline in vocations as the reason for the visitation is a red herring.

The decline in the number of women religious follows the demographic trends for the greater female population, she said. Up until recently, the majority of women have been under 25, and this was the pool that the Church drew vocations from.

Demographics, coupled with the increased career opportunities for women, provide an easy explanation for the fall in vocations, she said. Instead, the purpose of the visitation is to undo progress since Vatican II meant to update and improve religious life for women.