People are responding in different ways to the Vatican’s Apostolic Visitation report that ends a highly controversial moment in the history of religious life in the United States. I think quite a few people expected the report to feed the “Nuns versus the Vatican” narrative that is so attractive to some. Instead the report is conciliatory and mostly positive. Some people seem to be disappointed with this reality. Others are thrilled.
After reading the report, I can say that the tone and sense of the document is completely unsurprising to me after just a short time in the convent. Visitations are a normal part of religious life. As much as this visitation was billed to be unprecedented and highly controversial, any religious will tell you that visitation from superiors is a regular event prescribed by canon law. The fact that the Vatican, rather than the superior generals of each individual community, got involved indicates that there was a concern on the part of Rome that prompted this visitation. Whether this concern was disciplinary or fraternal seemed to be under discussion from the beginning, but I think the report generally points to the latter.
Some things I have found interesting from the discussion around the report:
1. The Conciliatory Tone Began With Benedict Not Francis: People seem to immediately point to Pope Francis’ influence after seeing that the tone of the report is conciliatory. But I think this reflects a simplistic juxtaposition of Benedict XVI with Pope Francis, (nothing new there).
John Thavis writes:
This balanced approach reflects a changing of the guard at the Vatican — but it’s a change that began under Pope Benedict. In 2011, Benedict named Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz to replace Cardinal Rodé. The Brazilian cardinal took over the investigation of women religious, but adopted a much more conciliatory approach.
2. Negative Feedback Was Saved For One-On-One: People seemed to be surprised that there was not a lot of talk about what needs to change in some religious orders, (although there was a key section that does, as Sr. Lorraine Trouve points out). For the most part though, the report stays positive.
Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, in her article for America magazine, indicates why:
I think this is a prudent approach. It’s not really anyone’s business but a religious order and their superiors, within the congregation and without, to tell them in specifics what might need to change.
Mother Millea offered a fair-minded report culled from meetings with various religious orders. Her report, based on a “sister-to-sister” dialogue, involved broad consultation as well as personal visits to specific orders. Where negative reports were deemed advisable, they went directly to the orders and were not included in the public report. (emphasis mine)
3. The “Apostolic Visitator” Was a Woman: Yah, this is really the title of the religious sister put in charge of the visitation. Makes me think of:
..but back to the main point. Contrary to the popular conception of this visitation being about the male hierarchy against female sisters Kathryn Jean Lopez points out:
The so-called “Vatican investigation of nuns” had as its facilitator a religious sister. This was not a hostile intervention, but a collaborative process seeking revitalization during challenging times.
4. Everybody’s Happy: Both the LCWR and the CMSWR (the umbrella organizations for religious sisters in the United States) welcomed the report.
Mother Agnes, the chair of the CMSWR writes:
The Apostolic Visitation offered us a tangible opportunity to ‘feel’ along with the Church. In the words of one member Superior of the CMSWR, “from the beginning preparations to the closing prayer, (the Visitation) was an overwhelmingly beautiful experience.” Another was grateful that the process opened up “community-wide study and discussion, providing each sister the opportunity to reflect on fundamental areas of our life and apostolate, and to share with one another.”
Sister Annmarie Sanders from the LCWR writes:
While the Vatican’s decision to conduct an apostolic visitation caused great pain and anxiety for many Catholic sisters, our members frequently speak of how our experience of the study became the source of profound transformation for our institutes. The process led us to study the heart of our vocation as we engaged one another in significant conversations that explored our spirituality, our mission, our communal life, and our hopes for the future. As we did so, our bonds with one another grew even deeper and our understanding of the potential of this life to serve the needs of the world grew even keener.
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I frankly find that some of the disappointment beneath peoples’ responses to the report is found more in the desire for contention rather than reconciliation in the Church. This visitation began with a measure of distrust from some women religious and lay people but it ended with feelings of renewal and hope for most involved. That may not be newsworthy or headline-grabbing information, but it is how the Holy Spirit works in the Church and in our individual lives.
God lovingly guides us where we need to go, sometimes with a good kick in the pants, but most often with gentle invitations and nudges.
I, for one, am glad he’s in charge.