U.S. Sister Talks about Freedom, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Joy

U.S. Sister Talks about Freedom, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Joy December 16, 2014

The Vatican has released its report on women religious in the United States. More about it here.

This morning I was particularly taken with the statement of Sr. Sharon Holland, IHM, from the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, delivered in Rome.

Like everyone, like the report itself she was frank. But I do hope that everyone – and media – who have been influenced by caricatures of the whole Apostolic Visitation process – takes a look at what she had to say:

First of all I would like to express thanks to Mother Mary Clare. The organization, preparation and carrying out of this enormous undertaking was truly amazing. The training of the team of religious who visited our institutes resulted, when the time came, in a great sense of freedom.

As the Report itself acknowledges, the Visitation was met by some religious with “apprehension and suspicion” (n. 11). The expressed purpose, “to look into the quality of life of religious women in the United States,” was troubling. Some congregations reported that their elder sisters felt that their whole lives had been judged and found wanting. Despite the apprehension however, today we are looking at an affirmative and realistic report which, we know, is based on the study of written responses and on countless hours of attentive listening.

A reflection on my own experience of the visitation may put in perspective some of what happened in many of our U.S. religious houses. A large number of Sisters gathered in our Motherhouse chapel; they were Sisters who live there and others living near enough to come for the opening of the visitation. There was a certain anxiety in the air.

After our two visitors were introduced, one began to explain the purpose of the visit and how they would proceed. It was clear that they would observe the official process as it was entrusted to them, but their tone and the quality of their presence began to change the atmosphere. It was evident that these were sisters like us to whom we could speak openly and honestly. The personal visits took place in open conversation, sharing the joys and hopes of post conciliar renewal; the anxieties, concerns and hopes for the future. We spoke of a deepened life of prayer rooted in Scripture, of the enthusiasm for our charism and fidelity in mission, often in collaboration with other institutes and with laity.

The Report we are receiving today reflects our reality—in its commonality and diversity. Perhaps because so many voices were heard and a remarkable synthesis made, Institutes will easily recognize their own truth, and also respect the diversity among us. Our achievements have been recognized with gratitude, and the nature of our challenges reviewed. We are urged to reflect, to strengthen, to take up opportunities, to discern, to act in extending the Church’s evangelizing mission, according to our distinctive but complementary charisms.

I am very aware that, in addition to the media, I am speaking to American religious, about whom and for whom this report was written, but who have not yet seen it. Soon all will have it in hand. It occurred to me that as the Report is read, many may recognize expressions in the document which could have been copied from their Institutes’ Chapter documents.

In a particular way, it is the realism of the text which appealed to me first. For example, in the section on vocation promotion and formation, there is the common concern for the dramatic decline in vocations. However, the Report goes on to recognize that the vocational peak of the 1960’s was unusual, and not a norm to which we can return. Rather, the focus is on providing the formation needed for today’s candidates who often are highly qualified professionally, but lacking in theological formation.

The section concerning Financial Stewardship likewise shows our complex current realities. Religious are praised for wise stewardship, socially responsible investing and strategic planning for the needs of members and ministries. Simultaneously, there is a very concrete acknowledgment of many causes contributing to our financial problems: years of undercompensated ministry, a diminished number of earners, volunteer ministries of elder religious, work with the poor and disenfranchised and the fact that sisters serving in ecclesiastical structures receive relatively low salaries and have sometimes lost their positions due to downsizing.

I mention these factors simply to emphasize again how much has been heard and understood. There is an encouraging and realistic tone in this Report. Challenges are understood, but it is not a document of blame, or of simplistic solutions. One can read the text and feel appreciated and trusted to carry on.

The Year of Consecrated Life is seen as an opportune moment, for all – religious, clergy and laity – to take steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation in witness of ecclesial communion. It offers “an opportunity to transform uncertainty and hesitancy into collaborative trust…” in service of mission. Using the words of Pope Francis, the need for a “more incisive female presence in the Church” is repeated.

Written by those who listened deeply to many sisters, to many stories, experiences, fears and hopes, the Report tells with integrity, not only the “what” of our contemporary reality, but also much of the “why”.

As our members read, study, pray over and discuss this Report, I believe they will feel affirmed and strengthened. Through participation in this process, we have deepened spiritually, reaffirmed our belief in our religious life and renewed our commitment to our mission in the Church and the world. We have benefitted anew from the experience of collaboration and communion among institutes, with pastors, and with laity.

In this Advent Season, we claim one more reason to express the joy of the Gospel.

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