The speakers in the conference were Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life; Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, O.F.M., secretary of the same congregation; Mother M. Clare Millea, A.S.C.J., director of the Apostolic Visitation in the United States; Sister. Sharon Holland, I.H.M., president of the “Leadership Conference of Women Religious” (LCWR); Sr. Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., coordinator of the “Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious” (CMSWR), and Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., assistant to the Visitation Committee.
Cardinal Braz de Aviz explained that the Visitation was initiated “because of our awareness that apostolic religious life in the United States is experiencing challenging times. Although we knew that any initiative of this magnitude would have its limits,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.
“Our final report on the Apostolic Visitation is addressed to the women religious of the United States as well as to the Church’s Pastors and faithful. In addition to publishing this general report, our Dicastery will send individual reports to those institutes which hosted an on-site visitation and to those institutes whose individual reports indicated areas of concern. We will also send letters of thanks to those institutes which participated in the first two phases of the Visitation. … We are aware 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, 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”.
The cardinal went on to remark that Pope Francis had asked the dicastery, in close collaboration with the Congregation for Bishops, to update the curial document Mutuae Relationes regarding the collaboration among bishops and religious, “in accord with the Church’s resolve to foster the ecclesial communion which we all desire”. He concluded by expressing his joy at Pope Francis' many recent statements about “the indispensable and unique contributions of women to society and the Church. I assure you that this Congregation is committed to collaborate in the realisation of Pope Francis’ resolve that 'the feminine genius' find expression in the various settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures. We will continue to work to see that competent women religious will be actively involved in ecclesial dialogue regarding “the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life”.
Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, O.F.M, secretary of the Congregation, then went on to present an overview of the final report. He explained that the dicasteries of the Apostolic See regularly authorise Apostolic Visitations, which involve sending one or more visitors 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, this Apostolic Visitation was unprecedented. 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. Both diocesan and pontifical right institutes, to which approximately 50,000 women religious throughout the United States belong, were part of the Visitation. 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. Our dicastery appointed a woman religious from the United States, Mother Mary Clare Millea, A.S.C.J., as Apostolic Visitator, granting her the faculties to design and carry out the Visitation. She, in turn, chose a core team of American religious who assisted her throughout the process”.
“The Visitation took place between 2009 and 2012 and was divided into four phases. In the first phase, 266 superiors general (78% of their total number) voluntarily engaged in personal dialogue with the Visitator. 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. On-site visits were then 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, the Visitator submitted to our 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, they were significant enough to warrant mention in her report”.
“The document we are presenting today is our Congregation’s response to the Vistitator’s general report. Following a brief introduction, it describes the rationale and offers an overview of the Visitation process. It then briefly treats the principal issues evaluated during the Visitation process: empirical data, charism and identity, vocations and religious formation, Christ-centred prayer, community life and ministry, governance and financial stewardship, collaboration in the evangelising 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”.
Archbishop Rodriguez Carballo added that “any oral summary of the Apostolic Visitation during this press conference would risk impoverishing its content. The full text of the Report will be made available for consultation at: www.vatican.va, www.uisg.org, www.vidimusdominum.org, www.lcwr.org, www.cmswr.org, and www.usccb.org) and will be sent to all the participating religious institutes.
The Visitator, Sr. M. Clare Millea, A.S.C.J., remarked that the Visit had provided many opportunities for “reflection, dialogue and communion among women religious in the United States as well as with the Church's pastors and lay faithful. Congregation leaders, including those who at first expressed resistance to this initiative, have shared that the process has yielded surprising positive results, such as honest confrontation with the transformative power of the Word of God, deep spiritual conversations with our sisters about the life, witness and message of our foundresses and founders, earnest delving into Church documents about consecrated life, increased solidarity among women religious and renewed desire to move beyond attitudes which prevent us from being in communion with one another, a wonderful outpouring of loving gratitude expressed to women religious by bishops, clergy and laypersons, which has sparked new energy and resourcefulness among us and awakened a renewed interest in the promotion of vocations to the religious life”.