In the wake of the Vatican-prompted visit and report on women’s religious life in the United States, released Tuesday, the sister charged with overseeing the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious says the visitation was an open dialogue and that there is new vitality in the nation’s religious life, which many are unaware of.
Though often portrayed as a struggle between the sisters and the Vatican, the visitation was actually a cause of joy, says the leader of the CMSWR.
“While the overall trend may be towards aging and diminishment, apostolic Religious Life is not dying in the United States,” Sister Agnes Donovan said, noting there is reason for hope.
“It is a beautiful time for religious life in the Church and we look to all religious sisters in the United States that together, we may give witness and encouragement to one another as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, in the pattern of Our Lady, in love and ever increasing holiness,” Sister Donovan recently stated.
In an interview with ZENIT on Tuesday in the Vatican, Sister Donovan shared her initial reaction to the visit, about when her sisters themselves were visited, as well as her views on the report released Tuesday.
In addition, Sister Agnes described what the biggest challenges are facing sisters in the US today, but how in spite of that there is great reason for hope.
ZENIT: What was your initial reaction when you heard this visit would be taking place?
Sister Agnes: Well, actually, our experience, and my experience, I think was of joy. That as I said today that: the Holy See was coming to us in America, and that for us was a great sign of hope.
ZENIT: And could you describe the visit itself, when you were visited? Did it go as you feel you would have hoped it would go? Or were you surprised in anyway?
Sister Agnes: Yes, the visit we had on site surprised me … in this way: the great degree to which the sisters found it to be a very meaningful and hope-filled sign that the Church was interested in their lives … in our community in particular, we are a new community. The age of the sisters is very young, and these are young and very able and competent, young women who have given their lives and all of their love to the Lord and his Church. And to have the Church respond to that in such a tangible way was a great experience of solidarity with the universal Church.
ZENIT: Some do not seem to recognize the positives of American sisters and focus on certain aspects regarding them, such as the declining vocations statistics. However, in your remarks today, you spoke of hope. Can you elaborate on this?
Sister Agnes: I do believer there’s hope. It’s not universal, but it’s true there are some communities. And I can only speak on the CMSWR because I only know those statistics. But there are some communities within our council who receive many vocations every year. More than 20 … a number of them. Then there are many who receive substantial and moderate numbers annually, or at least every couple of years. So they are very much sustaining their growth. And there are those who receive very few, if any, vocations. So it participates, very much I believe, in the mystery of God.
ZENIT: Many have the impression that US sisters are generally rather elderly. However, you spoke about the young age of women sisters. Could you explain this further to those who may not be aware?
Sister Agnes: I think many of the new vocations in the communities that are part of our council receive vocations in which most of them are young women who enter in their young to mid 20s. Immediately following universities, or having spent some years in a career, but before they are even 30 years of age. So there’s a great vitality there. It’s like a young marriage. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.
ZENIT: Some wonder why sisters may have had this visit.
Sister Agnes: You know, you’ll read it in the final report, that visitation is a normal form of governance within the Church. So, for instance, within our own communities, by Canon Law, we as religious superiors, we are obliged to visit each of our convents and sisters on a very regular basis. Within the diocesan structure our bishop visits us on a pretty regular basis. And so for the universal Church to adopt that form and that method by which to be in dialogue and communion with religious in America would be normative. It wouldn’t be something unusual.
ZENIT: And for those who didn’t take part, are there concrete recommendations to help those religious? (Because they need to be addressed or heard, regardless of the fact that they, for whatever reason, chose not to take part.)
Sister Agnes: Yes, right. In the final report what you’ll read is that this dicastery, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, has extended yet another invitation to those religious to enter the dialogue. So that is yet another initiative that the Holy See has taken.
ZENIT: Are you pleased with the report?
Sister Agnes: The report, I am sure, speaks primarily to the general trends in religious life, for the largest numbers of religious women in America at the moment, which is why I spoke about the specific small, relatively small [group] … I speak for 6,000 religious sisters in the United States. And the trends among those sisters are different. And so I was happy to share those trends too because I really think it is a sign of hope.
ZENIT: Do you feel your sisters will feel heard when they read the report?
Sister Agnes: When they read the report, I think they will recognize that they are part of a small, but significant and growing trend within the Church, but they will not recognize themselves in the overall trend that is revealed in that report.
ZENIT: Is there anything else you’d like to share .. on the report, Pope Francis, sisterhood?
Sister Agnes: I’ve never been in a press conference in the Vatican and this was beautifully done. I thought this was a beautiful experience, I hope for the Church, and a beautiful tribute to religious life.
On ZENIT’s Web page:
About the visit and report: http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/vatican-officials-say-us-sisters-experiencing-challenging-times-prompted-visit
Discourses of US Sisters: http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/discourses-of-us-sisters-at-vatican-press-conference
On the NET:
Leadership Conference of Women Religious: www.lcwr.org
Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious: www.cmswr.org