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American nuns come under Vatican scrutiny

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 12, 2009 - The majority of American nuns are of retirement age. Indeed, their median age is 70.

And if you brought together every American sister and nun under the age of 30, they could not fill the pews in one average-size St. Louis Catholic church. Just 320 sisters nationally are under 30, according to the office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Retirement Fund for Religious.

This lack of younger women entering a religious order is one of the reasons for the first-ever Vatican ordered and supervised study of American sisters, called the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States .  The survey, which is being prepared now, will examine American Catholic sisters’ quality of life, the Christian doctrine being publicly professed and whether they are following the ideals of their founders.

According to Sister Eva-Maria Ackerman, “The visitation’s goal is to strengthen the vitality of religious life in this country and to acknowledge the gifts of (Catholic) religious women through the decades, and to really tell the wonderful stories of religious women.”

Ackerman is communications director and the liaison between the visitation and the nation's 400 Catholic institutes of religious sisters. She was reached Thursday at Lambert Airport as she scrambled to get from her home convent in Alton to Apostolic Visitation office in Hamden, Conn.

Until January, Ackerman, 55, had spent 12 years at the St. Louis Archdiocese Chancery Office as director of the archdiocese’s Office of Consecrated Life. The Texas native is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George whose U.S. motherhouse (headquarters) is in Alton.

Her immediate job is to oversee a mailing in August of more than 700 surveys to governing sisters. These will go to every Catholic religious woman’s national headquarters, provincial (regional division) office, and noviceship (convents where women study and prepare to take vows).

The Vatican assessments are focusing exclusively on “apostolic nuns” who serve outside their convents. Nuns cloistered in convents with scant public contact, such as the Carmelites or “Pink” sisters, are not subjects of the assessment.

Next year after the surveys are analyzed, teams will go to the leadership offices of the 400 institutes of Catholic religious women nationwide and interview leaders, staffs and some rank-and-file members. Also, someone in the visitation leadership will meet with the bishops in each diocese that has a noviceship, provincial or national office.

The visitation goes to the heart of helping the church since the stronger, the more vibrant religious life is, the more vibrant is the life of the Catholic Church, Ackerman said. In her years as a liaison between archdiocesan sisters and two St. Louis archbishops – Justin Rigali and Raymond Burke -- Ackerman said she was “in awe” of what nuns were achieving despite declining numbers and a higher median age. While chiefly the elected leaders will be interviewed, all sisters can ponder the assessment, she hopes. "The visitation is an opportunity for all (Catholic religious women who have taken vows) to reflect on their own vocations,” she said.

Ackerman hopes the final report will proclaim the many ways that women religious contribute to their church and society, she said. And she said, the surveys encourage sisters to add more comments; “It’s about listening.”

In St. Louis

About 1,788 Catholic sisters live within the St. Louis archdiocese, which is a drop of one-third over the past 15 years. For 40 years, the number of dying sisters has not been equalized by new recruits.

Some St. Louis sisters agree with Ackerman that the three-year examination is potentially helpful. Others called it intimidating; and one said she was “hurt to the quick” by the idea of such an examination after sisters openly devoted their lives to the poor, and the church and faithfully reporting to their bishops and the Vatican departments each year.

In interviews with a half dozen rank-and-file St. Louis sisters, several used the phrase, “We must stay calm.” All lamented that all their decades of daily prayers and various innovative “marketing” efforts -- even magazine ads and musicals about nuns to encourage Catholic women to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience -- proved weak. Several added that that was not just in America but in the West.

Rodé’s Call

The man behind the Apostolic Visitation is Vatican Cardinal Franc Rodé, 74. For the past five years, Rodé, a Slovenian, has been prefect of the Vatican department called The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. This office has oversight over all Catholic sisters, religious order brothers and priests. He’s seen some groups of sisters dissolve or merge on his watch. The visitation, however, is more than numbers.

He initiated the assessment three months after telling a Boston-area audience that many American sisters have “acquiesced” to the disappearance of their way of religious life. He’s disturbed that some sisters credit the Holy Spirit for the drop in numbers, quoting some as saying that the Spirit changed the way young American women chose to serve their church. 

In his lecture at Springhill College last fall, Rodé talked about a small group of American sisters “who have opted for ways that take them outside communion with Christ in the Catholic Church, although they themselves may have opted to 'stay' in the Church physically. These may be individuals or groups in institutes that have a different view, or they may be entire communities.”

The visitation will study “doctrinal problems that have presented themselves in the area of female religious life in the United States," Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told the Catholic News Service.

The visitation final report to Rodé should be complete by the end of 2011. It is to be confidential and won’t be made available for publication. 

One Vatican source, familiar with Rodé, said that sisters who have attended and supported the priestly ordination of women in forbidden illicit ceremonies need to be “severely censured” by their superiors, not protected. The superiors themselves might be censured. Pope John Paul II forbade any public discussion of the idea of ordaining women as priests.

Some American sisters have gathered to “break bread and bless wine” using the Gospel words of Christ’s Last Supper without a priest. They, too, are in the cross hairs of the investigation, said the source who declined to allow his name to be used. Also under investigation are a few sisters who minister to homosexuals and have condoned their sexual activities, which the church condemns as gravely sinful.

Vatican Visitator

In December, Rode appointed Connecticut-native Mother Mary Clare Millea as his Vatican Visitator for the project. Millea is the Rome-based leader of the small 1,250-member international order the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. About one-fifth of the apostles' 135 American sisters serve in St. Louis where they run Cor Jesu Academy in South County.

Millea offered to hold one-on-one confidential interviews in person, on Skype or by letter. Just half of the superiors general invited agreed to meet with Millea. Few knew her. She does not attend meetings of the network of superiors general that include 95 percent of U.S. superiors general: the Leadership Council of Women Religious .  Millea -- as well as Ackerman’s superior general, Mother Ingeborg Rohner, of Alton -- attend a newer group of about 5 percent of the American superiors: the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious founded in 1992. Most of its members are more traditional orders that wear veils and call their superiors Mother. A few superiors belong to both groups.

“Since Mother Millea is a superior general herself, she thought it was respectful and that she could learn more by starting with other superiors general,” Ackerman said. “She respects that the (visitation) will affect their members.”

Millea came to St. Louis in June and met with several national superiors of women. Some St. Louis-based nuns who head national orders here met together before meeting with her.

St. Louis Motherhouses

In St. Louis, the largest orders of nuns are The Sisters of St. Joseph with 368 nuns residing in the archdiocese, the Schools Sisters of Notre Dame with 283, the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood with 149, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary  with 112, and Sisters of Mercy with 78. The meetings were confidential.

“Mother Clare listened very carefully as I spoke about our founding story, about how we seek to live our charism and mission of reconciliation, about our spirituality, and about the hopes and challenges we face as a congregation,” wrote Sister Mary Whited, superior general of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood whose motherhouse (world headquarters) is O’Fallon, Mo.

Whited declined an interview request but in a statement also said, “When I affirmed the various expressions of religious life enrich the church, she agreed. When I spoke about the need for reconciliation within our church and the importance of building on common ground, she understood. I trust that my contribution to the many conversations taking place across the U.S. and in Rome will make a difference toward a fruitful outcome for congregations of apostolic women religious throughout the U.S.”

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet’s national director, Sister Laura Anne Bufano, also met with Millea and introduced members of her elected leadership team afterward. She declined an interview but said the visitation process can be “an opportunity for us to deepen our communion with and within the Church,” in a statement.

This spring, the worldwide network of 2,000 superiors general of most of the world's nuns offered a letter of solidarity with the Americans sisters praising their global leadership.

“Our sisters in the United States response to the mandates of the Second Vatican Council, particularly in Perfectae Caritatis, (Perfect Charity) has been a great gift not only to the pluralistic society in which they live but also to the universal Church,” the global group wrote. Its board advised American sisters during the visitation to share their stories with “confidence, humility and joy.”

One rank-and-file St. Louis nun said that, across St. Louis, sisters' work with the poor, those on society’s margins, and for justice and peace illustrate many ideas in Pope Benedict’s new encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth) released last week. She recalled that the late Cardinal Joseph Ritter and Archbishop John May championed their work.

“There are all sorts of ways one could wonderfully educate the Vatican about what religious women are doing in our time,” said Sister Donna Day of Webster Groves, the vice president of the national leadership team of the Sisters of Loretto.

Rode's Concerns

In his five years as head of the Vatican department Rodé has met with sisters worldwide. He puts U.S. religious sisters into three categories: New communities that are thriving and the older established religious communities of sisters whose median age is lower than the average and “have taken action to preserve and reform genuine religious life in their own charism” (the talents their founders’ wanted them to use in service).

A third group of sisters, the largest, troubles him he told his audience outside Boston last fall.

“Third, there are those who accept the present situation of decline as, in their words, the sign of the Spirit on the Church, a sign of a new direction to be followed. Among this group, there those who have simply acquiesced to the disappearance of religious life or at least of their community, and seek to do so in the most peaceful manner possible, thanking God for past benefits.”

Happily Listen

Now American sisters wait for the survey package in August.

“If the cardinal has some ideas to spur vocations in the West, that we have not tried, we’ll happily listen,” said Sister Mary Jo Heman, a Dominican nun in St. Louis. “We are very proud of what we have done. We are not apologizing for the way we live. All feel we have done the best we could following the Spirit of God and the spirit of Vatican II. We welcome and will give what information we can give our visitators. We have nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of.

“We are a hospitable bunch, we will give them time, reflect who we are, our values that are important. And then, we’ll get back to work.”

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who has long written on religious issues. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.