Friday, September 11, 2009

At DC Congress, A Flock of Sisters

Given Rome's recent drive to examine the life and fidelity of religious communities of women on these shores, a Washington gathering that begins later today might be of some interest.

Over the next two days, a goodly number of the US church's top brass will converge on the capital for the five-yearly Eucharistic Congress sponsored by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), one of the twin umbrella groups for American sisters.

While most of the attention over recent months has focused on the more progressive Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) -- which represents 95% of the communities and is currently under assessment by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the weekend congress at DC's Basilica of the Immaculate Conception will highlight its more traditional counterpart, which has received significant support both from the hierarchy and other leading elements of the Stateside church. Along these lines, the score of speakers and celebrants on-deck include the group's lead patron, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, Cardinals Sean O'Malley of Boston and Marc Ouellet of Quebec, DC's Archbishop Donald Wuerl, Supreme Knight of Columbus Carl Anderson and the nuncio to Washington, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who recently told the gathered heads of mens' communities that the US church "should not remain a prisoner of the crisis of religious life."

"Some communities have abandoned their founding charism, and they are going straight into extinction," Sambi observed at last month's plenary of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM) in St Louis. "Some of them say that perhaps that the Holy Spirit has decided that they disappear.

"This is not a profession of Catholic faith," he concluded. "We say 'We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life,' not the giver of death."

The CMSWR Congress comes amid two Roman inquests into the womens' communities, whose current complement of 60,000 sisters is a two-thirds decrease from their peak in 1965. While the broader of the studies is the Apostolic Visitation announced in January to assess the "quality of life" of apostolic orders (i.e. those engaged in ministry, as opposed to contemplatives), the look into LCWR was explicitly motivated by Vatican concerns over its response to church teaching on women's ordination, homosexuality and the church's role in revelation.

In response to both moves, LCWR released a statement during its August assembly in New Orleans requesting "that those conducting the inquiries alter some of the methods being employed" and critiquing "a lack of full disclosure about the motivation and funding sources for the studies."

The body added that its membership "reclaimed their commitment to what they believe is the unique and needed role of religious life which includes serving at and speaking from the margins of the Catholic church."

By contrast, CMSWR's chair offered a more welcoming view to Rome's intervention; in a July radio interview, Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan said that while critics maintained "a presumption that our freedom has somehow been usurped, I cannot agree with that."

"Perhaps it is infrequent, but with every organization evaluation is essential," the superior of the Alma Mercy sisters said.

Now encompassing over 100 orders -- including Bl Teresa of Calcutta's Missionaries of Charity and the ever-"flourishing" Nashville Dominicans -- CMSWR received Vatican approval in 1992, making the US the lone country to have rival groupings of leadership for womens' communities. While membership in LCWR is open to every approved institute, CMSWR's by-laws stipulate that its member-communities maintain the use of a habit.

Beginning just before 6pm Eastern (2200GMT), both CatholicTV and EWTN will stream the Congress' Masses and talks live and in full.

In the meantime, just know there will be fireworks. Literally -- a pyrotechnic display will close out tonight's program.

SVILUPPO: With the Congress now closed, full on-demand video of the entire event is up and streaming.