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Let's Stand Up for Sisters


What Got the Ball Rolling?
Why Women Religious?
Some Other Questions

Last January, the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, headed by Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation, announced that it was undertaking an apostolic visitation of the more than 400 women's religious congregations in the United States, made up of approximately 59,000 women religious.

Immediately, questions arose concerning the reason for the visitation. Cardinal Rodé said it was to "look into the quality of life of apostolic women religious in the United States.”

While some religious sisters have embraced the opportunity to reevaluate their communities' mission, other sisters and many other Catholics are troubled by the unknowns of the process. Information about the visitation is available at


What Got the Ball Rolling?

Some suspect the September 2008 symposium "Apostolic Religious Life Since Vatican II...Reclaiming the Treasure: Bishops, Theologians, and Religious in Conversation” at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, got things started.

At that symposium, Cardinal Rodé noted 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.”

But the Stonehill symposium was addressed to both men and women religious. That then raises the question, why the focus on women religious? In an article in the October 9, 2009, issue of Commonweal magazine, one religious sister anonymously asked the same question, writing:

"Forty years ago, there were 180,000 vowed sisters across the country; today there are fewer than 60,000. Yet the number of priests has also dropped precipitously during the same period, leaving more than 10 percent of parishes without resident pastors. Why isn't the priest shortage the subject of a visitation? And during the same period, U.S. bishops have presided over a sexual-abuse scandal that has cost the Catholic community more than $2.5 billion and the episcopacy much of its moral credibility. So why no visitation for the bishops?”

Hers is a valid point, shared by many of the faithful, whether in pews or pulpits.

There are also other questions raised by this investigation, such as, "Why now?” Seven dioceses have filed for bankruptcy due to the fallout of the clergy sex-abuse crisis. Three of them have since emerged from bankruptcy. Parishes are closing. The visitation is expected to cost $1.1 million dollars for "the three years which the total work of the apostolic visitation will require,” said Cardinal Rodé.

And in August, he sent a letter to the U.S. bishops asking them "for your help in offsetting the expenses which will be incurred by this work for the future of apostolic religious life in the United States.” Is this really the best use of our Church's energy and funds—essentially our funds—at this time?

What is the purpose of this investigation? Why only congregations in the United States? Once the investigation is completed, what will be the next step?

For years, religious sisters have been the workhorses of our faith—often with little recognition or fanfare. Time and again they have seen a need and worked to fill it somehow. They have worked tirelessly in the fields of education, health care and social ministries—often into uncharted territory, but always with a true spirit of service.

Religious sisters are a vital part of the Church, and concern for their declining numbers is valid. But the actions taken by the Vatican seem to come more from a place of fear and entrenchment than genuine concern. And the questions surrounding this visitation have left some religious and faithful scratching their heads—including me.

I'll be honest: When I read the documentation and some of the questions for this visitation, I was floored.

I wonder about the point of questions such as "Do your sisters participate in the Eucharistic Liturgy according to approved liturgical norms?”

Nor does the underlying message of this visitation speak to the religious sisters who taught me in grade school, high school and college. They were not troublemakers or rabble-rousers. They were faithful women who encouraged me to pray, to think of others, to live my faith every day, in all situations. They served as a shining model of our faith.

And for those few who feel this investigation is necessary to bring women religious back into line, I wonder if casting such a wide net over all women religious is such a good idea. At the height of the clergy sex-abuse crisis, were the faithful not encouraged to support our priests who had not been accused, but were certainly sharing the weight of the crisis?

Right now, what our religious sisters need is our spiritual and financial support as they move forward. After all they've done for our Church, it's the least we can do for them.--S.H.B.

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