In late January, a surprise apostolic visitation was launched to investigate the nation's womens' communities working in the world, then in April came news that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had ordered a "doctrinal assessment" of the dominant umbrella-group of the orders, the Leadership Council for Women Religious. (Shown above is the designated chief of the former, Connecticut-born Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior-general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.)
While the first phase of the three-year visitation was recently completed, only now has a clearer picture of its intent emerged with last week's release of the Instrumentum Laboris -- the 12-page Vatican guidelines on the approach and execution of the process that'll see each of the 300-plus non-contemplative communities placed under the microscope and reported on to Rome, only some of its findings, however, to be culled from specially-selected site visits.
Issued by the Congregation for Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life -- the Roman dicastery overseeing the process -- at the heart of the instruction are a series of "reflection topics" intended not solely for the discernment of the respective superiors, but all members. What's more, the document invites each of the nation's 50,000-plus sisters to confidentially "express an opinion about some aspect" of her community to Millea, "in writing and with signature."
For a flavor of what the visitation's looking for, here are the topics for reflection, each drawn from a collection of Vatican instructions on consecrated life:
1. Identity of your religious instituteDiscussion of the Instrumentum has been added to the agenda at next week's LCWR annual assembly in New Orleans.A. What is the understanding of religious life in your institute in light of its charism within the Church?2. The governance of your religious institute
B. What understanding of religious life is taught to prospective and current members of your institute?
C. How are ecclesial documents integrated into your theological understanding of religious life?
D. What are your concerns about the future of your religious institute in living its charism in the Church?
E. How do sisters in your institute understand and express the vow and virtue of poverty? To whom are they accountable for the observance of the vow?
F. How do they understand and observe the vow and virtue of chastity? How is their consecration positively expressed?
G. How do they understand and express the vow and virtue of obedience? To whom are the sisters accountable for the observance of the vow?
H. Do the sisters take other/additional vows? If so, how do they live this/these out?
I. Has your institute been involved in, is it now involved in or are you now planning a reconfiguration, federation, merger or union with another congregation or other congregations? If so, how has this integration affected the quality of the life of the institute and of the sisters themselves?
J. Is your institute moving toward a new form of religious life? If so, how is this new form specifically related to the Church’s understanding of religious life?A. Is the form of Government in your institute in accord with requirements of the Church regarding superiors, chapters, elections, religious houses etc.?3. Vocation promotion, admission and formation policies
B. How is the form of government as stated in your Constitutions effectively operative in your institute?
C. To what extent is this form of governance evident in the daily, ongoing life of sisters in your institute?
D. In what way are non-members, including “associates,” involved in the governance of the institute?
E. What is the process of consultation employed for gathering input and opinions from sisters prior to decision making on significant matters?
F. Do superiors treat all sisters with fairness and genuine concern and deal compassionately with those who experience difficulties or hold divergent opinions?
G. What is the process for responding to sisters who dissent publicly or privately from the authoritative teaching of the Church?
H. What is the process for responding to sisters who disagree publicly or privately with
congregational decisions, especially regarding matters of Church authority?A. Are specific policies, procedures and criteria for admission to the institute clearly specified and followed by those responsible for guiding candidates and admitting new members?4. Spiritual life and common life
B. Does your formation program offer your members the foundations of Catholic faith and doctrine through the study of Vatican II documents, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and post-Conciliar documents?
C. How do your initial and on-going formation programs integrate the most recent documents of the Church concerning religious life?
D. Do you find your ongoing formation programs adequate and helpful for living your charism effectively in the Church today?
E. Are there reasons to be concerned about vocations or formation in your institute?A. How do you express the reality that the Eucharist is the source of the spiritual, communal and ministerial life of the individual sisters and your institute as a whole?5. Mission and ministry
B. How does your institute express its commitment to strengthening common life through the common celebration of the Eucharist, common prayer, and the sharing of gifts and resources in common?
C. Are daily Mass and frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance a priority for your sisters?
D. Do the sisters of your institute participate in the Eucharistic Liturgy according to approved liturgical norms?
E. Do the sisters pray the Liturgy of the Hours according to your Constitutions using books approved by the Church?
F. Do sisters of your institute study and put into practice the approved religious and spiritual exercises which are indicative of your specific charism in the Church?
G. How does the manner of dress of your sisters, as specified in the proper law of your religious institute, bear witness to the dignity and simplicity of your vocation?
H. What are the current provisions for care of aging and ill sisters and what is your institute’s future plan for their care?A. What is the specific apostolic purpose of your institute as stated in your Constitutions?6. Financial administration
B. Do you see the present apostolic endeavors of your religious institute as viable and effective expressions of your charism and mission?
C. Which current apostolic projects best represent the focus and purpose of your charism?
D. What means are being taken to ensure that the charism of the congregation will continue in the case of diminishing presence of your sisters in congregation owned or sponsored institutions?
E. What are your institute’s expectations for ministry in the future?A. What is your institute’s approach to stewardship of resources and financial administration?
B. How are individual sisters, including those in positions of authority, accountable for good stewardship of resources?
C. What are your financial concerns for your institute?
D. Has the institute transferred ownership or control of any property in the past ten years? Does it anticipate any further transfer of ownership or control of ecclesiastical goods? If so, has it been done according to Church norms? Have the members in the institute been a part of the process?
On a related note, the plenary of the main confederation of mens' communities -- the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM) -- begins today in St Louis; the papal nuncio to Washington, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, will deliver the keynote to the five-day gathering.
PHOTO: James Estrin/The New York Times