BACKGROUND: Six years since Apostolic Visitation began

December 16, 2014 by

Compiled from NCR and other news sources

The Vatican launched the Apostolic Visitation in December 2008, at the command of Cardinal Franc Rodé, head of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The American sisters learned of the visitation in a news release issued by the Vatican in January 2009.

Rodé initially said its aim would be to study the community, prayer and apostolic life of women’s orders.

But almost a year into the study, Rodé told Vatican Radio the investigation was in response to concerns, including “by an important representative of the U.S. church,” regarding “some irregularities or omissions in American religious life.”

“Most of all, you could say, it involves a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families and, perhaps, also a certain ‘feminist’ spirit,” Rodé said then.

News of the visitation was followed by reports that Rodé had asked the U.S. bishops’ conference to help cover the cost of the visitation, which was estimated at about $1.1 million.

To undertake the visitation, the Vatican appointed Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as an official “apostolic visitator” charged with visiting and surveying the multitude of separate orders of U.S. women religious.

The visitation process began with meetings between Millea and 127 heads of women’s orders in the United States. A questionnaire was sent to the leaders of the orders asking them about the orders’ identity, governance, vocation promotion, formation policies, spiritual life and finances.

Concerns about the extent and intent of the investigation led congregations into deep discussion about how to respond to the questionnaire. Communities prayed together and talked through the meaning and practical implications of that document. Their responses took many forms; however, the result was a deeper understanding of their charism, their transformation since the Second Vatican Council called for them to renew themselves, and the strength of their bond as women religious.

After collection of the questionnaires, teams of visitors coordinated by Millea traveled across the country in 2010 to meet with congregational leaders as well as individual members of religious orders. Dozens of volunteers visited about 90 congregations.

As the investigation continued, a marked change in tone seemed to occur as personnel at the Vatican’s congregation for religious changed. The secretary — the “number two” man at the congregation — Archbishop Gianfranco Gardin, retired in 2009, and Rodé left in 2011.

When Archbishop Joseph Tobin took over the secretary post at the congregation in 2010, the rhetoric of the visitation shifted. Tobin, an American, met with U.S. women religious to discuss the process. He told the Catholic News Service in August 2011 that the initial phase of the visitation “didn’t really favor” dialogue and said he hoped to heal rifts between sisters and the Vatican.

In early January 2012, Millea announced in a news release that she had presented an overall summary of her findings to Tobin. In addition to the comprehensive report, she said she submitted most of the individual reports for each of the nearly 400 religious institutes that were a part of the Apostolic Visitation, and expected to have the remaining reports completed by that spring.

In the epilogue to “Power of Sisterhood,” the newly published book about the visitation, Mary Ann Zollman wrote, “It is now more than two years since the release of that statement, and there has been no communications from (the Vatican), either in a general report or in the form of a report to individual institutes, about the visitation and its results.”

In October 2012, Tobin was reassigned, and is now the archbishop of Indianapolis. Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, a Spanish-native and Franciscan, succeeded Tobin as the congregation’s secretary.

Brazilian Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz replaced Rodé as head of the congregation in early 2011.

Speaking at a gathering of the leaders of global women religious orders in 2013, Bráz de Aviz said he was seeking a “new attitude” of cooperation between women religious and bishops.

“We have to reflect on the fact that both charism and hierarchy are two dimensions essential in the church,” the cardinal said then, at a meeting of the International Union of Superiors General.

“Neither is greater than the other. Both the prophetic and the governing dimensions form the church,” he continued. “But a new attitude must govern us – not competition but an attitude of welcoming.”

Pope Benedict retired in March 2013, and Pope Francis was elected to head the worldwide Church in April 2013.

There was also a second Vatican review of American Catholic sisters, started about a year after the Apostolic Visitation.

That “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main umbrella group for the leadership of women’s congregations, focused largely on the organization’s adherence to Catholic doctrine.

In April 2012, the Vatican appointed a commission of three US bishops, headed up by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, to promote a reform of the organization. That “oversight” is expected to continue for up to five years.

 

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