LCWR leader talks pain of visitation, state of Vatican doctrinal investigation

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

by Joshua J. McElwee

News Editor

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

National Catholic Reporter's website is hosting a comments page for your discussion about the apostolic visitation report and what it means for the church and future of women religious.

Keep up with all of GSR's coverage of this issue on this series page, which lists all the related stories together.

The woman who represents tens of thousands of U.S. Catholic sisters has said she hopes release of a report on the controversial six-year Vatican investigation of their life and work can lead to "greater forgiveness and reconciliation" between sisters and church leaders.

Asked about sisters who remain angry about the process of the investigation, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sharon Holland said she is concerned about those sisters and wants to listen to them.

"Sometimes when we're fearful and we feel powerless we externalize that in anger," said Holland, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

"I think we'll have to look at the document itself . . . to move to greater forgiveness and reconciliation wherever it's needed," she said. "We have to listen to each other and try to understand where people are coming from."

Holland, whose LCWR represents 80 percent of some 57,000 U.S. sisters, was answering a question from NCR at a Vatican press conference Tuesday for the release of a report of a Vatican investigation of U.S. Catholic sisters known as an apostolic visitation.

Later Tuesday, in an exclusive 20-minute interview with NCR, Holland said she hoped sisters would focus more on the result of the report than how the investigation was begun.

"There's probably no real satisfying answer to why did this happen in the first place," she said. "I don't know how we can reconstruct that. The thing that I think we have to dwell on is the result and the result is not just the report but our experience of the process."

The Vatican investigation, known formally as an apostolic visitation, was launched by the Vatican's religious congregation in 2008 with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI. Tuesday's report of the investigation takes a roundly positive tone towards the sisters' life and work but also includes several couched but barbed criticisms of them.

Holland, a respected canon lawyer, served as a staff member of the Vatican religious congregation from 1988 to 2009, leaving shortly after the apostolic visitation was launched. She said in the NCR interview that the visitation process has resulted in a deepening understanding of the state of U.S. religious life.

"It's an end of the visitation, but it's a beginning of another opportunity to go deeper and see where it takes us," she said.

Holland also addressed a separate Vatican investigation of her group by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

As part of that doctrinal investigation, Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain as the LCWR overseer for five years, giving him wide power to reform its statutes, programs and affiliations.

"The doctrinal assessment and the mandate were given a five-year window," said Holland. "I think we're in year three. And I would say we're working very well in close collaboration with the delegates, especially Archbishop Sartain who is sort of the lead person in that."

"I'm very hopeful that we're going to move forward to a good resolution to that," she said. "I feel like we're working together well and that we'll be moving toward a conclusion on this. Obviously, I can't say when or exactly how."

Following is NCR's interview with Holland, edited only slightly for clarity.

NCR: Can you talk about what it feels like to be done with this after six years? At the end of your talk at the press conference, you mentioned that this might express the joy of the Gospel. What do you mean by that? What do you find joyful in this?

Holland: I find it joyful that is has come to what I think is a very positive resolution. I found the report really very objective and encouraging. It's challenging, but it's affirming. And for me that's a very positive thing.

I wasn't in leadership at the time it started. I had some involvement with it when the materials came to our congregation. I had gone home by then. I was still working here in Rome when it was announced. Then when I got home people were working on the questionnaire. I wasn't as actively involved until more recent times.

You weren't in leadership at LCWR or at the order six years ago, but obviously you and many sisters have been waiting for this. How has the mood of the visitation change in that time? At the press conference today, many mentioned the initial apprehension, but has the mood surrounding it changed?

I think it has probably changed differently for different people. It's a little difficult to say what 50,000 religious think. Probably, since it was announced that the report was coming there's heightened interest again. Some people thought maybe there was never going to be a report. And of that many people you can have a lot of different thoughts on things.

I would say the announcement that the report was coming made people real conscious of it again and heightened the interest of it again. I think it wasn't on everybody's mind constantly because there's been quite a lapse of time since we knew that Mother Clare [Millea]'s report had been turned in and then nothing for reasons that were explained this morning.

People get on with their lives and then when it comes up again, they say, 'Now we're going to get something.'

It's something in the background, almost?

I don't think it was at the front of people's minds.

I asked earlier what you might say to sisters who are still fearful or still have some anger about this. You talked about listening to each other, having an attitude of forgiveness.

Beyond that, what would you say to sisters who thought the process was unjust? That perhaps the reasons for the investigation weren't ever really clear, that some of the things were still secretive  Mother Millea's report to the congregation is not being made public. What would you say to sisters who feel that or think that?

I suppose you have to keep talking it through and asking questions. I think it's quite normal that the hundreds of pages of the report about all congregations would not be made public to everybody because there's the confidentiality and the privacy and the respect for the individual institutes. I don't think if we start thinking about it in the concrete it wouldn't make sense to send all of us hundreds of pages of report.

There's probably no real satisfying answer to why did this happen in the first place. I don't know how we can reconstruct that. The thing that I think we have to dwell on is the result and the result is not just the report but our experience of the process. And a couple of people commented on that this morning, I think, that the working together within an institute to reevaluate, to look at the constitutions, to look at the mission, to look at spirituality, to look at ourselves – was fruitful and deepening in our lives.

We do a lot of collaboration between institutes in the United States, but again that was strengthened as congregations talked to each other and talked about, 'How are you doing this and how are you managing that?' So there was a strengthening of that collaboration, a strengthening of our real belief in our religious life and its importance in the church and in furthering the church's mission.

And I would say a quite unexpected piece of all this was the outpouring of interest and concern and support from lay people who believe in what we're doing and what we're about and work with us in ministries. We didn't go soliciting that but it just came and was another fruit, which could be considered another piece of ecclesial communion.

I liked that in the report, when it's talking about ecclesial communion it's talking about everybody in the church – clergy, religious, laity together in communion.

Something that I've noticed attending LCWR assemblies and speaking with members and with lay people who support sisters is that lay people certainly look to LCWR as a model of collaborative leadership, of some sort of process that involves many voices. Is that something that you were able to see the sisters modeling for the Vatican in this process?

Well, it's certainly the process we use. And we use it in our institutes and we use it in LCWR. We often speak of a contemplative process of decision-making that takes time for quiet and prayer and reflection as well as dialogue and listening to one another. We feel that it's bearing fruit – that we're more attentive to the spirit that way and there's a greater communion in arriving at delicate decisions at times in that way.

I think maybe he [Cardinal João Braz de Aviz of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life] is not using quite the same language, but I think the cardinal prefect is also talking about dialogue and relationships and Francis' culture of encounter. I think all of those things are somewhat related.

One aspect in the report that surprised me was its fairly frank admission that the numbers of women religious in the U.S. in the 1960s were an aberration. That's the first time I'd seen that from the Vatican. Do you think that issue is settled now? If so, how are you as women religious reimagining religious life in this era when there are not 125,000 sisters?

I don't know if anything gets completely settled, but I thought that was an important observation because the peak of vocations in the ’60s is resulting in a peak of elderly now. And it's just a fact. I think the appearance of that fact in the report says that we don't expect to find some magic solution to having as many novices as we had in the ’60s.

The church has changed. We have much more collaborative work with laity in schools, in healthcare, in all sorts of things. The laity in the church have important roles now that weren't envisioned before Vatican II.

So, yes, we still want vocations if a person is called to the consecrated life. But not just to get work done. We can engage, many of us, in ministry. But there's something unique to the call to a consecrated life, completely given to God in service and ministry. It's not just wanting vocations to get the work done but a real call.

And that's where the report talks about the lay associations and the carrying on the charism in lay associations of religious.

Yes, that's another piece of it. It's an interesting thing that's been evolving because many of our close collaborators in ministry are not formally lay associates of the institute. So there's the relationship of associates, who somehow want that kind of link to us, but there's also a large body of associates in ministry, collaborators in ministry, who are continuing works in the spirit of the institute who aren't necessarily associates.

There's lots of different kinds of relationships.

We're talking about charism, we're talking about identity, we're talking about changes in the understanding of the religious vocation over 50 years. It seems to me that this report is spurring conversations that maybe it didn't intend to that are really talking about deep things about religious life. Is that a good reading?

Yes. That's why I thought it was important to say we have to read and study and pray and discuss the document. And how it's implemented, carried out, how it bears fruit, may be different in different institutes in terms of what really strikes them.

It's an end of the visitation, but it's a beginning of another opportunity to go deeper and see where it takes us.

Almost like a church-wide conversation?


I know the apostolic mandate and the doctrinal mandate to LCWR are different things but I know that many people think of them almost as two pillars -- things that come to your mind in the same time. Are you able to say anything at this point about where the conversations about the doctrinal mandate stand?

In a way the two pillars thing isn't fair because it's not the same people, it's not entirely the same people. But the doctrinal assessment and the mandate were given a five-year window. I think we're in year three. And I would say we're working very well in close collaboration with the delegates, especially Archbishop Sartain who is sort of the lead person in that.

I'm very hopeful that we're going to move forward to a good resolution to that. The statutes of the conference, I think that's known, will be revised and are being approved. I think they're still over in an office there somewhere waiting for the final approval but they've been busy with the visitation.

But I feel like we're working together well and that we'll be moving toward a conclusion on this. Obviously, I can't say when or exactly how.

So the LCWR constitutions are being looked at by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is that right?

They already went through a whole process with the subcommittee of the delegates, [they've been] approved by our assembly, they've been I think to CDF and over to CICLSAL is the final approval of statutes of a conference.

So that piece of the mandate is well on its way.

Have you spoken to Archbishop Sartain about the visitation report, about this happening today?

I don't think we've talked to him since the report was announced that it was coming out. It'll probably come up some time when we're talking to him. It's not precisely his mandate but he certainly will be interested. I'm sure he's paying attention to what's going on.

You're someone of a unique background. You are in leadership with LCWR and your order, but previously worked here at the Vatican. Are there any specific insights about the running of the Vatican here that you think might be helpful for sisters or laypeople to know in the context of today's report?

I don't know what I could say generally but every once in a while in conversations about the apostolic visitation something that I learned working here is a useful piece of information to interpret something or to say that's normal procedure, or that's just protocol, how things go.

Sometimes because people don't know a lot of how things happen here, things can be more alarming than they need to be or they can attribute other motivations to things that really don't have any particular meaning.

It's not something I can put a concrete example on exactly, but having been in the system for a long time you kind of get a feel for how things work or don't work.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

Share your comments on this special page for the apostolic visitation at National Catholic Reporter here.

Watch video interviews with Mother Mary Clare Millea, Sr. Sharon Holland and Mother Agnes Mary Donovan.