Reflection on the apostolic visitation, 2008-2017

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

One of our novices asked me to share my experience of living the vowed life. Though this was via Skype (our international novitiate is in Rome), I looked forward to an honest conversation — I wanted her to know the gift religious life is for me. After 59 years, it is still the best decision I ever made!

Her first question, however, took me off guard. "What is a metaphor for your relationship with the hierarchical church?"

Yikes! I sighed … but heard myself say: "My metaphor is the rainbow. I met Christ and was invited to religious life through this church and will always be grateful: That's a bright red and yellow. But there's also the blue, indigo, and lavender of betrayal, especially with the scandals in our church. I am living into each emotional color of the rainbow in my relationship with the hierarchical church. …"

Reflecting on that conversation, I recognized the need to go deeper. Honestly sifting through my angst, it was my experience of the apostolic visitation, i.e. "investigation" that felt most troubling.

Even if you weren't in leadership, a clue that something was about to happen was the September 27, 2008, address at Stonehill College by Cardinal Rode, head of the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The visitation was officially announced on January 30, 2009. It concluded December 16, 2014.

Less than a month after the first announcement, another Vatican office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, announced that there would be a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Approximately 80 percent of active Catholic sisters in the United States are part of this organization. Even though these were two separate realities, both impacted many American sisters.

I was really caught off guard, and my initial emotional response to these announcements was fear and a sense of betrayal. As the investigation proceeded, I became even more anxious and wrestled with my "membership" in such a church.

Was the hierarchy using the investigation of American sisters as a distraction from the pedophile scandal?

I have studied the history of religious life and know the well-documented struggles between women religious and the hierarchy. Do educated women religious speaking out of corporate and personal integrity threaten the hierarchy simply by who they are — praying the Scriptures as women, following their best intuitions, and educating themselves in processes of collaboration and contemplative discernment?

Shortly after the announcement I met a dear friend who had served as a missionary in Japan for 35 years. She asked me about the investigation, with tears in her eyes: "Judy, have we done something wrong?" Speechless, my own eyes brimmed with tears as I simply hugged her. And I weep today as I write this reflection.

While our leadership was trying to be supportive of the church, we noted the absence of women in decision-making and the lack of transparency and collaboration. As we were balancing care for our elderly with downsizing and letting go of cherished ministries, we were speaking for women, youth and people who are poor, demanding health care for all, helping immigrants, prisoners, and welcoming the LBGTQ community — even as we were being "investigated."

Part of the difficult dialogue developed as sisters explored evolution as a bridge between science and religion. Many congregations were calling for a shift of consciousness that would include all of creation, in the context of an evolving universe. They established Earth literacy centers — long before Pope Francis affirmed the importance of integral ecology in "Laudato Si': On Care for Our Common Home."

Meanwhile, LCWR leaders responded to the investigation with courage and humility. Sr. Pat Farrell's 2012 keynote address to the LCWR assembly urged members to be "truthful and fearless" amid the doctrinal assessment. "They can crush a few flowers, but they cannot hold back the springtime," a saying derived from her service in Chile during its military dictatorship. In 2013, the LCWR awarded Farrell its highest honor for leadership "through an exceptionally challenging time."

All of these moments reminded me of the "rainbow of promise" with which I began this reflection. Through the discouraging hues of purple/lavender/indigo, I'm aware of a yellow/orange/golden hope I have gained. Cautiously optimistic, I claim my Catholicity with energy and gratitude. I am the church.

We prayed for each other across congregational lines as communities were "visited" by the Vatican teams, forging a strong bond of sisterhood. Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Nancy Sylvester and LCWR encouraged a new form of contemplative prayer that was foundational for both discernment and responding to difficult dialogues on all levels.

We can cite the hours of collaboration, the coordinated responses to the visiting teams, the refusal to share certain financial records with the Vatican. But our primary strategy was to continue the mission of Jesus, just as women religious have done for 1,500 years.

Another experience of the Investigation was a sense of loneliness: Rarely did any of the clergy say publicly that they stood by us or appreciated the years of service we had given in a particular parish or school. I realized I hoped for a simple expression of gratitude from the hierarchy for years of service to a church I love. When Pope Francis was elected, a new wave of understanding seemed to wash over the church. During his visit to the U.S. in September 2015*, he publicly thanked American sisters.

A special gift of this time was the support from the laity, which gave me a sense of church that was truly collaborative, hopeful and joyous. At the 2012 LCWR meeting in St. Louis, hundreds of people, carrying signs in support of sisters, met across the street from the hotel. Having done this for others, it was humbling to be the recipient of such kindness.

Another outstanding "voice" that supported us throughout the ordeal was The National Catholic Reporter. I will always be grateful to NCR for their priority in dedicating staff and limited financial assets to cover a story that seemed unending.

American women religious had also been celebrated in the Smithsonian traveling exhibit, "Women and Spirit" (opened on January 15, 2010). This timely evidence of living the Beatitudes was viewed by thousands and gave many the opportunity to reflect on the contribution Catholic sisters have made in the United States. Thank God for all who created this witness to the work of sisters. Its appearance offered another context for the "investigation."

Yes, the various colors of the rainbow give nuanced meaning to my relationship with the hierarchical church. The remarkable changes within the Vatican's relationship with American sisters during 2008-2017, are well documented; there is much to be learned by contemplation, dialog, and scholarly analysis. Margaret Susan Thompson wrote a scholarly summary of the Vatican investigation of LCWR religious communities in "Circles of Sisterhood: Formal and Informal Collaboration among American Nuns in Response to Conflict with Vatican Kyriarchy."

But for me it is a reminder of Jesus' words to Mary after the death of Lazarus: "The Master is here and wants to see you" (John 11:29). When all that we loved seems dead, Christ-consciousness "sees" us as we are and invites us to new life. This is the rainbow of promise I have found in the "investigation." 

*An earlier version of this column gave the incorrect year.

[Judith Best is a School Sister of Notre Dame and coordinator of She gives presentations on the heritage of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and is also exploring evolution as the bridge between science and religion.]