Vatican visits of women religious welcomed by most but not by all

ppmonja060309 Sr. Eva-Maria Ackerman FMSG. Sister is helping coordinate the Apostolic Visitations

With a review of American seminaries recently completed, the Vatican is undertaking a series of visits to “look into the quality of life” of the women’s religious communities in the U.S. However, one sister sees the Visitations as “investigations” and is encouraging her fellow religious to engage in “non-violent” resistance.

Initially Sr. Sandra M. Schneiders’ reaction to the January 30, 2009 announcement was limited to those she emailed, but soon her words found their way onto the internet and were published with her permission by the National Catholic Reporter.

“We just went through a similar investigation of seminaries, equally aggressive and dishonest,” began Sr. Sandra’s email to a few of her colleagues.

“I do not put any credence at all in the claim that this is friendly, transparent, aimed to be helpful, etc. It is a hostile move and the conclusions are already in. It is meant to be intimidating. But I think if we believe in what we are doing (and I definitely do) we just have to be peacefully about our business, which is announcing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, fostering the Reign of God in this world,” Sr. Sandra wrote.

Sr. Eva-Maria Ackerman, a Franciscan Martyr of St. George religious who is helping conduct the Apostolic Visitations, told CNA that Mother Clare Millea is receiving quite a different reception. Mother Clare has been entrusted by the Vatican with carrying out the approximately 400 visits.

“Mother Clare has been impressed with the number of requests that have been made already and she has received a great deal of good feedback about the approach she is taking in this first phase of soliciting voluntary input.”

Sr. Eva-Maria also countered Sr. Sandra’s assertion that the Visitations are operating with foregone conclusions.

“Mother Clare is open to the Spirit’s guidance through this whole process and is focusing on each phase of the Visitation as it is scheduled. She has not drawn any conclusions but rather is desirous of hearing about the reality of each Congregation as it will be expressed by the Superiors General in the first phase,” she said. 

Speaking at a press conference to announce the launch of the Visitations this past January, Sr. Eva-Maria explained the three step process.

“First, Mother Clare will solicit voluntary input from the superiors general through inviting them to make personal contacts with her in Rome or in the United States. During the second stage, the major superiors in the United States will be asked for information such as statistics, activities and community practices.”

She continued, “selected on-site visits will be made during the third stage. During this time, the sisters will have an opportunity to share with the visitation teams their joys and hopes, challenges and concerns about their lives as women religious in the Church today. The final stage will be the compilation and delivery of a comprehensive and confidential review by Mother Clare to Cardinal Rodé.”

When the Vatican undertook its 2005-2006 apostolic visits to U.S. seminaries, the visitors—groups led by a bishop but also including laity—used a working document or Instrumentum Laboris to evaluate the places they visited. 

Sr. Eva-Maria explained the current status of the visitations to CNA, saying, “the writing of the Instrumentum Laboris is in process and we are currently involved in phase one of the Visitation which is the individual meetings of Superiors General with Mother Clare.”

“The visitation team is focusing on the quality of life of the religious institute itself,” she added.

When CNA asked Sr. Eva-Maria if the team would be looking at the number of vocations to each community, she replied, “While religious vocations are a concern for Mother Clare and all religious congregations, it will not be a primary focus of the visits. Of course, all are encouraged to continue to pray for an increase in vocations to religious life!”

Although Mother Clare reports that she has received “a great deal of good feedback about the approach she is taking in this first phase,” Sr. Sandra is encouraging resistance to the visits.

“We cannot, of course, keep them from investigating,” Sr. Sandra wrote in her email. “But we can receive them, politely and kindly, for what they are, uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house. When people ask questions they shouldn't ask, the questions should be answered accordingly.”

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“…This is not mutual and it is not a dialogue,” she continued.

“The investigators are not coming to understand -- believe me, we found that out in the seminary investigation. So let's be honest but reserved, supply no ammunition that can be aimed at us, be non-violent even in the face of violence, but not be naive. Non-violent resistance is what finally works as we've found out in so many arenas,” Sr. Sandra said.

Mother Clare sees things differently though. As Sr. Eva-Maria explained to CNA, “With the mandate given to her by the Holy See as Apostolic Visitator, she has much confidence that she will be met with respect and openness.”

Sr. Eva-Maria also underscored the support that the Visitations are receiving from other members of the Church via its Apostolic Visitations Prayer Support page on Facebook. The group has grown to almost 350 members, since being launched in February.

One sister commented on the Facebook page that Mother Clare should be “assured of the enthusiasm, prayers and support of all the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. You will find no unhappy Sisters here. God's strength and Holy Wisdom be your constant blessing.”

Sister Anne Lythgoe, also writes of her own experience as a religious. “As a Dominican for 34 years I have been deeply blessed by my vocation and have had a happy and productive life. You will find many Christ-centered, prayerful, generous and holy women all over the US. There is much to esteem among the religious of the US who have truly embraced the call of Vatican II to renew and refresh religious life. So much wonderful service as been done in the name of Our Lord and for the Church.”

Mother Clare is currently hoping to finish scheduling meetings with the various Superiors General by March 15, and will begin her on-site visits in Los Angeles on June 2.

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