July 2009 sidebar: What exactly is an apostolic vistation?

July 10, 2009 by

(Published in the July 2009 edition of The Messenger of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia)

In January the Vatican announced it had begun an “apostolic visitation,” or comprehensive study, of women’s religious orders in the United States.

The action was initiated by Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The announcement said the visitation would examine “the quality of the life of women religious” in the U.S.

That phrase has attracted concern among many members of women’s religious orders because apostolic visitations have traditionally been launched in response to a perceived need for “corrections” within the church.

The last American apostolic visitation was completed in December, for example. In it, American seminaries were examined to consider root causes for the priest abuse scandals that erupted in 2002.

Then in March, the Vatican ordered an apostolic visitation of the institutions of the Legionaries of Christ after disclosures of sexual impropriety by the order’s late founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado.

As “apostolic visitator” for the study of women’s religious orders, Cardinal Rodé appointed Mother Clare Millea, a Connecticut native who is Superior General of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an international religious institute headquartered in Rome.

Since her appointment, Mother Millea has interviewed representatives of more than 125 American orders. Included among the 77 in-person interviews was one with Sister Marcia Allen, president of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, with whom Mother Millea met in June in Chicago.

The interviews are Phase I of the process.

Phase II, due to begin in August, will include sending questionnaires to heads of religious institutes.

There are nearly 400 apostolic religious congregations of women in the United States, with about 59,000 vowed sisters. (Communities of cloistered, contemplative nuns and monasteries are not part of the study.)

This summer Mother Millea is also recruiting members of religious orders to help with the on-site visits, which will be Phase III and will likely begin in early 2010.

In a letter dated May 19 and sent to orders’ leaders, she asked each to give her up to three names of sisters or members of other religious orders to serve on the team.

Mother Millea’s letter noted that those who take part in the work “will be acting in the name of the Apostolic See” and for this reason “they must be willing to make a public profession of faith and take an oath of fidelity to the Apostolic See.”

Although there is no deadline for completing the visitation and submitting a report to Cardinal Rodé, Mother Millea hopes to complete the task by 2011.

That final report has been described as “comprehensive and confidential,” with information included on each of the congregations assessed.
One unanswered question, however, is how the information in the report might be used or if there could be action by the Vatican based on it.

The entire apostolic visitation has caused considerable uncertainty and alarm among many American sisters who see it as unnecessary, potentially divisive and intrusive.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 95 percent of the American orders, was surprised when the apostolic visitation was announced. But, in a statement in February, its board said, “We hope that the results of the apostolic visitation will demonstrate the vitality and depth of the life and service of women religious in the United States.”

Then, in late May, the Catholic church’s top women religious organization issued a strong supportive statement for American women’s religious orders under investigation by the Vatican. The International Union of Superiors General’s executive board praised U.S. women religious for living out the mandates of the Second Vatican Council.

“We affirm unequivocally our support for our sisters in the United States,” the statement read.

— Compiled from Catholic media news reports

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