Vatican Officials Say US Sisters 'Experiencing Challenging Times' Prompted Visit

Prelates Discuss Results of Visitation, Final Report

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The prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has said the pastoral visit to nuns in the United States was prompted because the «religious life in the United States is experiencing challenging times.»

This was the reflection made by Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation, who spoke this afternoon at a press conference aimed at presenting the final report on the pastoral visit to women religious in the United States, spearheaded by his dicastery. 

Also speaking were Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, secretary of the same dicastery, Mother Clare Millea, Superior General of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Director of the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Apostolic Life of Women Religious in the United States of America; Sr. Sharon Holland, vice-president of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and president of Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, superior general of the Sisters of Life and Chair of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR).

“Although we knew that any initiative of this magnitude would have its limits,» the cardinal said, «we wished to gain deeper knowledge of the contributions of the women religious to the Church and society as well as those difficulties which threaten the quality of their religious life and, in some cases, the very existence of the institutes.”

“We are aware,» the prefect acknowledged, «that the Apostolic Visitation was met with apprehension by some women religious as well as the decision, on the part of some institutes, not to collaborate fully in the process.”

“While this was a painful disappointment for us,» he said, «we use this present opportunity to express our willingness to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with those institutes which were not fully compliant with the Visitation process.”

When asked specifics about who declined, the cardinal said he did not have precise figures available and he attributed their resistance to having possibly misunderstood the reason of the visit.

The visit itself, the cardinal said, «offered new opportunities for women religious to discover God’s presence and salvific action in fruitful communication with other religious, with the Church’s pastors and lay faithful.»

Our times, the prefect said, “need the credible and attractive witness of consecrated religious who demonstrate the redemptive and transformative power of the Gospel,” which he prayed could be achieved through self-assessment and dialogue sparked by the visit.

Support of the Church

Archbishop Carballo spoke about the nature of the apostolic visitation. He noted that the Holy See’s dicasteries regularly make these visits which involve sending a visitor to evaluate an ecclesiastical entity in order to assist the group in question to improve the way in which it carries out its mission in the life of the Church.

“In some ways, however,” Archbishop Carballo added, “this Apostolic Visitation was unprecedented.”

He explained it involved 341 religious institutes of women religious which engage in apostolic ministry and “which have a generalate, provincialate and/or initial formation program in the United States.” Also included in the visit “were both diocesan and pontifical right institutes, to which approximately 50,000 women religious throughout the United States belong. Each province of institutes which had more than one province in the United States was considered a separate unit, for a total of 405 entities involved in the Visitation,” he said.

Mother Mary Clare Millea was the named by the dicastery to be the apostolic visitor. She was granted freedom and what she needed to design and carry out the Visitation. She, in turn, chose a core team of American religious who assisted her throughout the process.

“From the outset,” he noted, “it sought to convey the caring support of the Church in respectful, ‘sister-to-sister’ dialogue, as modeled in the Gospel account of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth.»

Moreover, the prelate noted how the visit sought to listen to «the lived reality» of the religious, understand their rich heritage, current challenges and future hopes, within the context of the ecclesial community.

From 2009 to 2012, the visit took place and was divided into four phases. In the first phase, 266 superiors general–78% of their total number–voluntarily engaged in personal dialogue with Mother Clare. Subsequently, all major superiors were asked to complete a questionnaire requesting empirical data and qualitative information regarding the spiritual, community and ministerial life of the individual institutes.

To look at the situation first hand, on-site visits were conducted in a representative sample of 90 religious institutes, «representing about half of the apostolic women religious in the United States.»

In the final phase of the Visitation, he explained, Mother Clare submitted to the dicastery a final general report on the major issues and trends in women’s religious life in the United States.

“While these trends cannot be presumed to apply to each of the institutes,” he said, “they were significant enough to warrant mention in her report.”

To arrive at the conclusions, she used the data submitted by major superiors, impressions from personal interviews and written documentation submitted to her.

“Our Congregation will respond to the major superiors of the individual institutes in a manner consonant with their participation in the Visitation process,» he said. «Respecting the confidential nature of the content of the individual reports, we will make no public statement regarding them.»


«The document we are presenting today is our congregation’s response to the vistitator’s general report,» he said, before going on to describe it.

He said the report addresses principal issues evaluated during the visitation process, including empirical data, charism and identity, vocations and religious formation, Christ-centered prayer, community life and ministry, governance and financial stewardship, collaboration in the evangelizing mission of the Church and ecclesial communion.

“On each of these topics, a point of reference is given in the form of a brief statement of current Church teaching on the issue being reviewed. This is followed by a summary of the visitator’s overall evaluation of the reality. The third part of each section contains the Congregation’s recommendations to all religious institutes regarding that issue.”

“Any oral summary of the Apostolic Visitation during this press conference would risk impoverishing its content,» he suggested. And he noted the report will be available online on various major Catholic websites as well as sent to religious institutes as well.

Archbishop Carballo expressed his hope “that women religious will recognize their lived reality in this report and will find it to be a helpful tool in their ongoing self-evaluation and in the articulation of their strategic plans for the future.”


On ZENIT’s Web page:

Full Report:

On the NET:

Leadership Conference of Women Religious:

Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious:

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': or

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