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Recognizing the Contributions of Catholic Sisters

By Kara Lemma, Ph.D., June 23, 2015

In the United States, Catholic sisters have had their hands full coping with not one but two official Vatican inquiries, each initiated by distinct Vatican entities.

In the United States, Catholic sisters have had their hands full coping with not one but two official Vatican inquiries, each initiated by distinct Vatican entities. On April 8, 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) announced its intention to undertake a “Doctrinal Assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Later that year, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) announced that sisters in the United States would be the subject of an “Apostolic Visitation.” Both of these events have recently come to a close. But how do we make sense of all that has transpired? What are the implications for sisters and those of us who care about sisters as we move forward?

These questions particularly resonate with me. I am a proud product of 12 years of Catholic school, and I devoted much of my graduate work to the study of Catholic sisters which culminated in a doctoral dissertation on the topic of the Apostolic Visitation. I interviewed 55 sisters from diverse congregations around the country and listened to their stories as to how this experience impacted their lives as women religious. The networks I created as a result of this research led me here, to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, where our Catholic Sisters Initiative team makes grants to organizations that support women religious around the globe. To say that I am deeply inspired by Catholic sisters is putting it mildly.

History of the Visitation & Doctrinal Assessment

The Visitation involved site visits to approximately 100 U.S. congregations by Apostolic “Visitators.” The results were publically released in early December of 2014. Our reaction to the report mirrored the reactions of the sisters I interviewed over the course of my doctoral research. We believed, just like sisters I interviewed, that the Visitators would not find any evidence that sisters were living or ministering in ways that were contrary to the Church’s teachings. Although many sisters were troubled that their communities were the subjects of an inquiry, nearly all of them agreed that the Visitators were respectful and considerate when asking for sensitive information. However, the nature of the Apostolic Visitation left many sisters feeling uneasy about their status in the church. The Doctrinal Assessment ultimately resulted in the appointment of Archbishop J. Peter Sartain as “Archbishop Delegate” to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in 2012. Sartain shepherded a process that involved a “concentrated reflection on the foundations of [the LCWR’s] work.” As with the Apostolic Visitation, the Vatican had raised concerns about programming at the annual assemblies, public addresses made by its members, and questioned the theological and faith dimension of publications.

Findings of the Report on the Apostolic Visitation & End of the Doctrinal Assessment

The final report for the Apostolic Visitation (released on December 16, 2014), which overall was favorable, raised some questions about the Vatican’s role in the lives of Catholic sisters, many of whom have devoted their lives to serving disadvantaged and vulnerable people throughout the globe. Initially, there was speculation that the results of the report would not be released or that the information would not be suitable for the general public. So, many of us expressed surprise that the Vatican, a traditionally cautious institution, was willing to share their findings with the world. The upshot of the report is that CICLSAL “…is sincerely grateful…” for the contributions of Catholic sisters to the church and to society at large. This is a message of affirmation, hope, and witness to lived realities of Catholic sisters in the United States. In the same light as the Apostolic Visitation, the final report of the Doctrinal Assessment (released on April 16, 2015) was positive; “the very fact of such substantive dialogue between bishops and religious has been a blessing to be appreciated and further encouraged.”

Celebrating the Vitality of Sisters

At the Hilton Foundation we appreciate that the Vatican is affirming the ministry and life of Catholic sisters by recognizing the profound work that is being done to eliminate suffering around the world. Our mission is to enhance the vitality of congregations throughout the world, thereby enabling sisters to advance human development more widely and effectively. The Vatican has designated 2015 as the Year of Consecrated Life and we are grateful that we have the opportunity to continue to support sisters in the spirit of our founder, Conrad N. Hilton.

“Give aid to… the Sisters, who devote their love and life’s work for the good of mankind, for they appeal especially to me as deserving help from the Foundation…” Conrad N. Hilton

Former Program Officer, Catholic Sisters Initiative

Former Program Officer, Catholic Sisters Initiative

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