ROME — Three American nuns and the Vatican’s top officials for religious life presented a long-awaited report on Tuesday ending a controversial investigation of women’s orders in the United States, with both parties stressing the document’s invitation to “dialogue and communion.”
Sister Sharon Holland, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest umbrella group for leaders of women’s orders in the United States, said she found the report encouraging and realistic.
“Challenges are understood,” she said, “but it is not a document of blame, or of simplistic solutions. One can read the text and feel appreciated and trusted to carry on.”
Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, coordinator of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), the other main group of nuns in the United States, defined the experience leading to the report as “an overwhelming moment of self-evaluation.”
“Concretely, our experience was a wonderful one,” she said.
For many sisters of her congregation, Donovan said, it was their first experience of the universal Church asking to express themselves honestly, “with the knowledge that what they had to say would eventually reach the Holy Father.”
Despite the positive tone on Tuesday, Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, acknowledged that when the probe was launched in late 2008, many American nuns regarded it as a vote of no-confidence.
This apprehension, Braz said, “caused bitterness,” but vowed that his department will continue down a path of “dialogue and communion” with the nuns that was opened through the visitation.
Braz signed the document along with Spanish Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, the No. 2 official at the congregation.
The new report thanks American nuns for being in the forefront of the Church’s evangelizing mission, “selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical, and social needs of countless individuals, especially the poor and marginalized.”
Braz also said his Congregation “joyfully” welcomes the many recent statements by Pope Francis about the indispensable and unique contribution of women to society and the Church.
“I assure you that this Congregation is committed to collaborate in the realization of Pope Francis’ resolve that the ‘feminine genius’ find expression in the various settings where important decisions are made,” he said.
Mother Clare Millea, a Connecticut native and Rome-based superior general of the international congregation of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was tapped by the Vatican to run the Apostolic Visitation, and she was also on hand to present the document.
On Tuesday, Millea said it “isn’t a controversial report, it’s a [sign of] hope for all of us.”
Clearly emotional, Millea said that the report was a “concise and accurate” reflection of her findings and thanked Braz and Carballo for the “wonderful message of hope” in the document.
Quoting the leaders of diverse female congregations, Millea said that the Visitation “yielded surprising positive results” for the American sisters, including from those who had an initial apprehension toward the whole process.
Some of these results, according to Millea, were a discovery of Church documents about consecrated life, an increased solidarity among religious women, and a wonderful outpouring of loving gratitude expressed by bishops, clergy, and laypeople.
The latter, said Millea, “awakened a renewed interest in the promotion of vocations to the religious life.”
Holland’s perspective is especially interesting, given that the LCWR is still facing a separate probe initiated in 2009 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith focused on the group’s adherence to Catholic doctrine. A commission of three American bishops was named by the Vatican to oversee reform of the organization, and its mandate doesn’t expire until 2017.
Tuesday’s report has no bearing on that process, but Holland said she was particularly touched by the document’s realism.
In a section on vocation promotion and formation, for instance, there is the concern for the dramatic decline in membership in women’s orders. According to the report, there are 50,000 nuns in America today, a decline of 125,000 from the mid-1960s.
Holland expressed relief the document doesn’t see that drop-off as a cause for blame.
“The report goes on to recognize that the vocational peak of the 1960s was unusual, and not a norm to which we can return,” she said. “Rather, the focus is on providing the formation needed for today’s candidates who often are highly qualified professionally, but lacking in theological formation.”
Donovan pointed out during the press conference that nearly 20 percent of the members of CMSWR, which unites about 125 communities and is usually seen as representing the more conservative religious sisters, are currently in initial formation, meaning they’re just starting their lives as nuns.
“The average age of the CMSWR Sisters is 53 years,” said Donovan, “well below the overall trend” described by the report, which puts the median age of nuns in the country in the mid-to-late 70s.
“There is cause for wonder, here, and gratitude,” she said.
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Basilian priest who took part in the review as an on-site visitor, moderated the press conference. He situated the report within a “Year of Consecrated Life” decreed by Pope Francis and which began on Nov. 30, the First Sunday of Advent.
“The Year of Consecrated Life and the final report invite us to look to the past with gratitude, to live the present with passion, and to examine our fidelity to the mission entrusted to us,” Rosica said.
Before Tuesday’s press conference, the three religious women, together with Rosica, attended a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis, after which they met with the pontiff at the Domus Santa Marta, the residence on Vatican grounds where he lives.
Holland said the Mass was a “wonderful, peaceful, quiet” experience. She also praised the fact that “the pope was there as a priest, with the normal vestments, without the hoopla of St. Peter’s.”
Millea said the Mass was “an awesome experience,” and that she felt encouraged by the pope.
“When I asked him if he had something to say to us, [Francis] said ‘give them all my blessing,’ ” she said.