Letters to sisters and invitations to Rome continue a conversation

This story appears in the Apostolic Visitation feature series. View the full series.


"I will bring the one third through the fire; I will refine them as one refines silver, and I will test them as one tests gold. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, 'The Lord is my God.'"

- Zechariah 13:9

Being refined and tested by fire is never a comfortable process. So most women religious in the United States were relieved when the apostolic visitation came to an end on Dec. 16, 2014.

But they had also been refined, purified and tested. Again and again they told Global Sisters Report they had been changed by the process and changed for the better. Now, as 15 communities are being invited to the Vatican for further discussions on issues discovered during the visitation, some of the same questions are being raised again.

Launched in 2008 by the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), Vatican officials initially said the apostolic visitation's aim was to study the community, prayer and apostolic life of women's orders in the United States, but later said the investigation was in response to concerns regarding irregularities or omissions in American religious life.

Over the course of six years, however, the leadership of the Vatican congregation conducting the study was replaced by leaders seen as much more friendly toward women religious. When the congregation released its report in December, 2014, it lauded the work and spirituality of women religious, and the few criticisms were carefully couched.

And more importantly, sisters said, they had changed.

"The apostolic visitation broke open the heart of who we are,” said Mary Ann Zollman at the time. Zollman is a Sister of the Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and one of the authors of a book on the visitation, The Power of Sisterhood. "In speaking what we believe, we discovered our true selves."

But almost two years later, congregations of women religious are being invited to the Vatican to discuss issues raised during the visitation — issues many assumed were put to rest with the release of the report.

Is this part two of the investigation? Was all of the praise for women religious merely words?

Or are we too quick to be defensive and too slow to remember what sisters asked for again and again during the process?

When GSR began reporting on the letters, one sister, who asked not to be identified so she could speak freely, pointed out that at the press conference in Rome announcing the report, officials promised each of the 341 institutes would receive a follow-up letter with the details of what was found in their community specifically. And sisters, who had spent countless hours dealing with the investigation, wanted that.

"I personally felt that if we didn't hear something, the loop hadn't been closed. We deserved those letters," she said. "I was glad we were getting something — we had invested too much not to hear anything."

Many sisters at the time also talked about the need — however painful it can be — for self-examination. While they may have disagreed with the reasons for the visitation, the result of the self-examination it required was a stronger, more unified, more self-aware and more in-touch body of women religious across the nation.

For in fire gold is tested, and the chosen, in the crucible of humiliation.
- Sirach 2:5

Something else has changed in many sisters since 2008, as well: They believe a real conversation with Vatican officials is beginning.

"I do believe [Prefect of the Congregation] Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz when says he wants to have a good conversation and wants to understand this more," another sister said. "We don't have a lot of concern or fear about what's going to happen."

Again and again the sisters — both in the visitation and a similar but unrelated investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — said they wanted a dialogue with the church hierarchy, that both sides had been speaking past each other and that they suffered from a culture gap. When the visitation was complete, and the LCWR investigation closed just a few months later, sisters said it was the beginning of that dialogue.

These letters, many sisters have told Global Sisters Report, are simply part of the dialogue they asked for and that CICLSAL promised would occur.

"[Sisters] noted the ongoing need for honest dialogue with bishops and clergy as a means of clarifying their role in the Church and strengthening their witness and effectiveness as women faithful to the Church's teaching and mission," the report says. "Some spoke of their perception of not having enough input into pastoral decisions which affect them or about which they have considerable experience and expertise."

The report even went so far as to use the defensiveness of some institutes as an invitation.

"This Dicastery is well aware that the Apostolic Visitation was met with apprehension and suspicion by some women religious," the report said. "This resulted in a refusal, on the part of some institutes, to collaborate fully in the process. While the lack of full cooperation was a painful disappointment for us, we use this present opportunity to invite all religious institutes to accept our willingness to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with them."

The letters, which have gone or will go to every congregation, are not being talked about publicly; so far only four communities receiving them have been named, which for some laity on the outside adds to the intrigue. But the more than a dozen sisters GSR has talked with, who asked to remain unidentified, see the letters as the next logical step in the conversation.

Some point to LCWR's commitment to keeping their conversation with the Vatican out of the press and believe that worked well for them.

One has to wonder, though, whether the Vatican’s views would have changed if not for the outcry of the laity — a response that only occurred because the investigation was public. And if things are so positive this time around, then why not talk about them?

Betty Thompson, a member of the advocacy group Solidarity With Sisters, said no one should be surprised sisters aren’t talking publicly this time.

"When the Vatican raises 'internal church' issues, women religious seem to take that fact into their accustomed individual and communal contemplation and discernment, and they figure out how their response itself can be an aspect of their Gospel ministry," Thompson said. "So far, they keep choosing quiet dialogue, which has the potential to transform. They keep refusing confrontation. They've found that an atmosphere of trust is important in letting everyone be honest and be open to grace. . . . They’d rather use their public presence for issues like care for creation, human trafficking, immigration reform, and a call for civil public discourse."

Sisters also know that they've been through the fire and have come out stronger, tested and refined.

"Very few [of the sisters] even asked me about [the letter]," said one sister who was instrumental in her congregation’s response. "We're just in a different place now."

So while interest from some of the laity may be intense, the reaction from women religious has been much more along the lines of the contemplative dialogue so many put into use, where true listening — without judgment — takes place, transforming individualism into communion.

"There's no reason to be defensive," one sister explained. "I don’t think anybody’s being called on the carpet."

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]