Spirituality for Today – December 2009 – Volume 14, Issue 5

Revisiting the Apostolic Visitation

By The Most Reverend William E. Lori, S.T.D., Bishop Of Bridgeport

I decided to take a break from the columns I've been writing on the "Year for Priests" and instead focus on the Apostolic Visitation for Women Religious in the United States. You may recall an extensive article on the Visitation in the September issue of the Fairfield County Catholic. In recent weeks, however, the purpose of this initiative has been shrouded in misinformation and controversy. Much of the commentary in both the secular and religious press has been angry and misleading. At the same time, others have raised legitimate questions that deserve an answer.

A photo of Mother Mary Clare Millea, A.S.C.J.Mother Mary Clare Millea, A.S.C.J.,
Photo by Pat Hennessy

For example, some have asked why the Church would want to focus on religious communities, especially in view of all the good work they have done or are doing. Aren't there more pressing issues in the Church? Given the scandals of recent years, shouldn't we simply affirm the religious women who taught us in school, who work in our parishes, and provide help to so many – and let it go with that?

Such objections resonate with many people. However, I'd like to offer another perspective, that of a bishop who deeply loves and respects religious life and seeks to foster it here in the Diocese of Bridgeport.

Indeed, in recent years, I have invited a number of women's religious communities to serve in the Diocese of Bridgeport, and to my delight and that of many others, they accepted the invitation. Among these communities are: the Missionaries of Charity; the Sisters of Life; the Marian Community of Reconciliation; the Franciscans of the Immaculate Heart of Mary; the Sisters Servants of the Lord and of the Virgin of Matara; the Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of the Springs of Bridgeport; and the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Go Vap from Vietnam.

They have joined women's religious communities whose service in Fairfield County goes back many years, such as the Sisters of Mercy; the School Sisters of Notre Dame; the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chambery; the Sisters of the Holy Family in Nazareth; the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; the Daughters of Charity; the Dominican Sisters of Hope; the Bernardine Franciscans – to name but a few.

I'm happy to say that this diocese is blessed by the presence and service of no fewer than 37 women's religious communities. It's hard to envision life in our diocese without women's religious communities.

This brings us to the purpose of the Apostolic Visitation, authorized by Pope Benedict XVI: it flows from a desire to foster and strengthen religious life in the United States. Throughout the history of the Church in the U.S., many communities of religious women have provided a real-life witness to Christ and to the Gospel. Their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience continue to show us the face of Christ. These communities live the Gospel so radically that they are like a live forecast of what it will be like to be among the redeemed in Heaven.

Think about it. In Heaven, our only possession and sole desire will be to share with all the Saints the vision of the Triune God who is love.

Flowing from this consecrated way of life have been works of education and charity that have contributed immensely to building up the Church in the United States. It was largely the work of Religious Sisters that made possible Catholic schools and hospitals throughout our country. Religious Sisters continue to work in an array of important ministries. These Sisters have established a precious legacy which should be acknowledged, celebrated, and November 2009 fostered by every member of the Church.

As I see it, this is the basic premise on which the Apostolic Visitation is based. To quote a recent statement by Cardinal Franc Rode, who heads the Vatican department charged with fostering consecrating life: "This Apostolic Visitation hopes to encourage vocations and assure a better future for Women Religious."

Recognizing the importance of Religious Women in the life and communion of the Church, the Apostolic Visitation offers religious communities an avenue of discernment aimed at the growth and vitality of religious life throughout the U.S.

Unfortunately, there are religious communities which may vanish in the foreseeable future. The median age of some communities is late 70s or early 80s. The Apostolic Visitation asks all religious communities of women in the United States to reflect in a comprehensive way on their life and mission. The desired outcome is to see whether or not the conditions for renewed growth can be found, including a spirit of communion with the Church, fidelity to Church teaching, and the fundamental components of religious life. If such conditions are present, can they be deepened and fostered? If they are lacking, can they be re-introduced?

Such a comprehensive study is a good thing. Dioceses are audited annually by outside firms both for finances and compliance with the Charter and Norms for the Protection of Children and Young People. Every five years, the Holy See asks dioceses to do a comprehensive self-study, and then calls each bishop to Rome to discuss his diocese with the Holy Father and with various Vatican departments. The parishes of the diocese also undergo an annual financial review. Seminaries in the United States have undergone several studies, two initiated by the U.S. bishops and the most recent study initiated by the Holy See. Almost everyone agrees that these studies have led to a renewal of seminary life and an uptick in priestly vocations. All our Catholic schools and Catholic Charities likewise undergo an accrediting process. The list goes on.

All these studies have something in common: they are self-studies that involve an objective look by qualified persons outside the diocese, the parish, the seminary, the school or the social service agency.

The same is true for religious life: not only is an objective look at each individual religious community a good thing, so also is the process of getting a more accurate picture of the state of religious life, especially in a country such as ours which has over 400 women's religious communities.

This Visitation is being conducted by a team of Religious Sisters led by Mother Clare Millea, General Superior of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Mother Clare was appointed to this task by the pope who invested her with apostolic authority.

The process involves three phases: 1) informal conversations which Mother Clare held with the superiors of various religious communities; 2) each community's response to a comprehensive questionnaire, similar to what might be sent for a self-study process at a school; and 3) on-site visits to a wide variety of communities. This is a process with which we are very familiar in our American culture and it has been adapted for this important purpose.

Mother Clare and her team are involved in a herculean task. The Apostolic Visitation is a labor of love - love for religious life, love for religious communities, and love for the heroic Sisters who continue to help us along the way of discipleship. Please pray for the success of the Apostolic Visitation.