U.S. women religious look forward to annual assembly

  • Clip from trailer for "The Good Dinosaur." (Disney/Pixar film, via EPK.TV)

    Clip from trailer for "The Good Dinosaur." (Disney/Pixar film, via EPK.TV)

This story appears in the LCWR 2015 and LCWR feature series.

This year’s gathering of leaders of congregations of women religious in the United States marks the first public discussion of two controversial Vatican investigations.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is planning its annual assembly for Aug. 11-14. The organization is made up of Catholic women religious who are leaders of their orders in the United States. Communities in LCWR represent about 80 percent of the nearly 50,000 women religious in the United States. Nearly 800 of the group’s 1,400 members are expected to gather for their four-day annual conference in Houston, Texas.

Last year’s gathering was held under the cloud of both an apostolic visitation and a doctrinal assessment. Both investigations, however, ended in the past year with no findings of serious wrongdoing and with much praise for women religious and the work they do.

At last year’s assembly in Nashville, the two investigations went officially unmentioned, though they were addressed by several speakers and discussed at length in executive sessions closed to the public. This year’s gathering will again address the investigations in closed sessions, but LCWR officials will now speak openly about what will be discussed.

“We have a whole afternoon dedicated to talking about the experience, especially the doctrinal assessment,” said LCWR spokesperson, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Annmarie Sanders. “There will be 10 sisters talking about the experience, all of whom were either presidents or executive directors of LCWR from 2009 to now. They’re going to do a reflection on the experience of suffering and the graces of that experience.”

After the leaders speak, Sanders said, the members will discuss the same questions.

The next day, the gathering will address the issue publicly: The assembly’s keynote speakers will host a conversation on how LCWR and women religious in general can move forward. Aside from carefully worded written statements and interviews after the doctrinal assessment was over, LCWR officials have been largely silent on the issue. 

The doctrinal assessment was ordered by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which charged that certain LCWR presentations “risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world” and “even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture.”

The Vatican announced its response to the apostolic visitation on Dec. 16 in a report that stressed the church’s gratitude for the work of Catholic sisters. The end of the doctrinal assessment came April 16 when LCWR leaders and church officials announced the end of three years of Vatican oversight, saying the goal of the oversight “has been accomplished.”

Among the demands the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had made during the three years of oversight was that its appointed bishop approve the speakers at LCWR events; LCWR officials never said outright whether or not they would comply, but did say they would “protect the integrity of the organization.” The April 16 report says there is a “revised process” for choosing the recipient of the group’s annual Outstanding Leadership Award but does not say what that process is. Some recipients in the past have been controversial and were a point of contention for Vatican officials.

This year’s Outstanding Leadership Award recipient is LCWR’s former executive director, St. Joseph Sr. Janet Mock.

Mock and Divine Word Fr. Stephen Bevans will each give keynote addresses during the assembly and later will co-host the conversation on moving forward. Both their keynote addresses are variations on the assembly’s theme of “Springs of the Great Deep Burst Forth: Meeting the Thirsts of the World.” The theme comes from the Biblical creation account and the Israelites’ name for the great reservoir of water they believed was under the earth, “the great deep.” The theme uses this name as a metaphor of the great reservoir of wisdom women religious believe can be accessed through contemplation.

The assembly begins with an orientation to the contemplative process, which LCWR officials credit for the relatively painless end of the doctrinal assessment.

“It’s confirmation that this way of being and working through a difficult situation can be effective,” Sanders said. “Building relationships does really make a difference; treating others with respect does really make a difference. And I’m sure that’s the kind of thing that will come out during the executive session.”

In addition to the business that is conducted, the daily Masses and the spiritual reflection times, the assembly’s schedule also provides a space for Catholic sisters to spend time together.

“I think all of our members really look forward to this gathering — for many of them it’s the only time they’re together the whole year,” Sanders said. “It’s a chance to be with other women experiencing the same challenges and joys as you are and working for a common mission. It’s an irreplaceable experience you won’t find anywhere else.”

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