Apostolic visitation brought dialogue with Rome, new unity of women religious with laity

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

Leaders of some of the congregations of women religious invited to Rome last year for further discussion of the apostolic visitation in the United States told Global Sisters Report they considered their trips constructive and a sign of better relations with Rome.

"The conversation really did feel respectful and gracious," said Sr. Mary McKay, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet who is on the community's leadership team and made the trip to Rome in October. "They didn't just talk at us. They really listened and asked us if there were other things wanted to talk about. We were all pleased by the experience and felt it was an experience of grace."

The apostolic visitation involved inquiry into approximately 340 female religious institutes in the United States that included some 50,000 women. The Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) launched the investigation in 2008 with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI.

In December 2014, CICLSAL issued its final report, though officials at the time said individual reports would be sent to congregations that hosted an on-site visitation and to those whose individual reports indicated areas of concern.

The tone of the report was laudatory — it used some form of the word "gratitude" eight times over its 12 pages, and the few criticisms it contained were carefully couched — and there was effusive praise from the head of CICLSAL, Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz. But when the letters arrived last summer inviting about 15 congregations to Rome to discuss issues raised during the investigation, there was concern the newly warmed relations had changed.

In GSR's reporting on the summons to the Vatican, sisters noted that they had repeatedly 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 — a contention the report acknowledged. Now, communities who spoke to GSR about their trips to Rome said that dialogue has begun.

"There was a lot of mutual respect and a real interest in what we had to say," McKay said. "They really let us talk. Right near the end, the cardinal asked if we wanted to talk about anything else, and we raised the issue of women's role in the church. He talked about that and said there is a need for better collaboration between bishops and women religious."

McKay said leaders of two other communities she talked with that also made the trip to Rome said they had similar experiences.

Sr. Teri Hadro, president of the Sisters of the Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, said that has been her experience, as well. Her community was not invited to Rome but was asked to respond by letter to issues the apostolic visitation raised.

"I think we're all very happy that the case is closed and that the cardinal and secretary were much more in favor of dialogue" than investigations, Hadro said. "I can't say enough good things about the dialogue approach from the people at CICLSAL."

Hadro said while the investigation brought sisters together and strengthened the bond between sisters and the laity, it was a distraction from the work that needs to be done.

"I think Pope Francis' approach to our church, which is much more pastoral than legal, is a sign of hope and excitement about returning to our mission," she said. "I hope we can do that without having to pause and be evaluated."

One sister, who responded anonymously to questions from GSR, said "the tone of the visit was positive, encouraging and affirming. It was a dialogue with all participants sharing equally."

Other communities declined to comment.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]