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