Friday, January 30, 2009

First, the Seminaries... Now, the Convents: The Visitation Returns

Months after the Holy See's top official for religious life rapped some US communities for "accept[ing] the present situation of decline [as] the sign of the Spirit on the church," plans were revealed this morning for an Apostolic Visitation of the nation's orders of women.

Beginning immediately by decree of the Congregation for Religious Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the examination of the "quality of life" of the 400 or so Stateside institutes will focus exclusively on "apostolic" communities -- namely, "those actively engaged in service to church and society," as a release announcing the initiative put it.

To coordinate its work, the Congregation has named Connecticut-born Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior-general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as sole Apostolic Visitor. At the three-stage process' expected end in 2011, Millea will be required to submit a report detailing her observations to the dicastery overseeing religious life, along with recommendations on areas where action should be taken.

While most of the investigation will involve its overseer's interaction with the various superiors and the collection of information on the life of each institute, "selected on-site visits will be made" to community houses in the process' final leg.

In remarks at a Washington press conference announcing the Visitation, the venture's media liaison described its purpose as twofold.

"We hope to discover and share the vibrancy and purpose that continue to accomplish so much," Sr Eva-Maria Ackermann FSGM said, "as well as to understand the obstacles and challenges that inhibit these individuals and institutions, thus limiting their growth and/or re-directing their resources and outreach."

A member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Martyr St George, Ackermann is director of the archdiocese of St Louis' Office for Consecrated Life.

Currently in Argentina for the dedication of a new convent for her community, Millea added in a statement that "the simple reason" behind the move was "that these communities are integral to the entire life of the Catholic Church, in the United States and beyond."

Green-lighted by Pope Benedict in November, the placement of convents under Rome's microscope reflects concerns aired in recent months in Vatican circles over various aspects of religious life in the US, from the orthodoxy of priestly formation in seminaries run by mens' orders to the aging ranks of most communities, not to mention perceptions of dissent or a lack of obedience among houses of both sexes.

At a September conference on consecrated life in Massachusetts, the church's top official on religious life -- the prefect of Religious Vincentian Cardinal Franc Rodé -- took aim at what he termed a "pseudo-aggorniamento" religious life, its effects including "those who have simply acquiesced to the disappearance of religious life or at least of their community, and seek to do so in the most peaceful manner possible, thanking God for past benefits.

"[W]e must admit too," he added, "that there are those who have opted for ways that take them outside communion with Christ in the Catholic Church, although they themselves may have opted to 'stay' in the church physically. These may be individuals or groups in institutes that have a different view, or they may be entire communities."

Over the course of the same gathering, Missionary Sister of the Blessed Trinity Sara Butler critiqued the umbrella groups for the professed -- including the Leadership Council of Women Religious -- for "focus[ing] so resolutely on the world’s agenda and global issues and giv[ing] so little attention to the urgent needs of the church."

A professor of the Scriptures at New York's St Joseph's Seminary and veteran consultor to the Roman Curia, Butler called the trait "puzzling and even a cause for embarrassment."

At this morning's DC announce, Ackermann said that the Visitation was formally announced to officials of the two main groups of women religious -- the more progressive Leadership Council and the conservative-leaning Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious -- in letters received only hours before. The Visitation's work will get underway in short order with Millea's canvass for input from superiors and members of the communities.