Thursday, October 8, 2009

Archbishop O’Brien on the Apostolic Visitation of Women Religious

When the Vatican released a public report on the Apostolic Visitation of U.S. Seminaries earlier this year, I wrote about it for the National Catholic Register (subscription only). Archbishop Edwin O’Brien (now of Baltimore) headed up that visitation, and when I asked him how the visitation and report were received, he said the response was “overwhelmingly positive.”

There were naysayers at the beginning of the process and certainly not everyone was happy at the end – but most were. I spoke with visitors and the visited and Archbishop O’Brien’s assertion that the reaction was “overwhelmingly positive” did, in fact, check out. Father Michael Sweeney, O.P., President of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, even said that the report his institution received was “so glowing that I’m actually using it in our fundraising.”

Of course, not every institution’s report was so glowing, but the point is, the visitation of U.S. seminaries was not the slash and burn operation some had anticipated.

In his column this week, Archbishop O’Brien turns his attention to the ongoing Apostolic Visitation of U.S. Women Religious. He has just met with representatives of religious congregations in his diocese who expressed concerns about the visitation and he relays his response:

Having played a role in the 2005 Apostolic Visitation of Seminaries and Houses of Priestly Formation (the second such seminary visitation since the Vatican II Council), I cannot help but see some reactions on the sisters’ part which were very similar to those on the part of formation and seminary personnel at the announcement of both prior Visitations: Why us? Why now? Why the secrecy? Have we done something wrong? In time, once the process gained momentum, most of the seminaries accepted the Visitation and in the end even found it most beneficial.

I hope and pray the same will be said about the current Visitation.

I was not in a position to answer all the concerns of the FORUM members satisfactorily, but I did assure them of my full support and, indeed, of my admiration of the women religious serving in our Archdiocese. During my two years of pastoral visits I have been inspired by our sisters’ selfless service in every area of ministry, including in our schools, health care institutions and parishes. Likely because of their embrace of the vow of poverty, so very many of them, in the Spirit of Christ, instinctively reach out to the poor, hungry and homeless. The admiration they have won from both Catholics and non-Catholics for more than 200 years is a jewel in the crown of the Church in Baltimore.

As far as I can see, our women religious have nothing to fear from an Apostolic Visitation, and I will do all I can to assist in making this a positive experience for all involved.

This is not to say that all is perfect, as our sisters readily admit. The fact that some communities are receiving few if any vocations, for instance, is of real concern to them and the whole Church.

As in seminary life, so in religious life, the Second Vatican Council brought about many changes and involved, in some cases, experiments into forms of life and ministry which might depart from the founding purposes of the community in question. Canon law reserves for the Holy Father the authority to monitor such developments, “to take care that the institutes grow and flourish according to the spirit of the founders and sound traditions.” An apostolic visitation is one way the Church carries out this responsibility. Might not a fresh, objective and reflective look into religious life over the last 45 years be of some help?

Now, some of the more liberal Catholic publications have decided that the Apostolic Visitation of U.S. Women Religious is a heavy-handed, unwarranted inquisition and witch hunt and they have given voice to a handful of sisters with extreme views on the visitation and on the Church itself.  It is not unfair to characterize some of the reaction as seething, hysterical and condescending. For some good commentary on these pieces see this post at Mirror of Justice by Father Robert Araujo, S.J.

I have worked with, for, around, been taught by and visited in convalescence numerous religious women whose congregations are represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The vast majority have been faithful to their vocation and the Church. The vast majority have in fact been tremendous role models of faith, fidelity and charity. Almost none have expressed the views and attitudes of the women highlighted at NCR, Commonweal and America. The only exceptions in real life have been encountered in the university, academic setting. Beyond that, such attitudes are encountered more often in print than in encountering actual religious.

It is a disservice to highlight such angry, dissenting voices as these three publications have simultaneously done. It misrepresents the religious women of the U.S. It causes undue fear among the religious. And I’m sure it provides no ease to the women who have accepted the responsibility to lead the Apostolic Visitation.

Let us rather hope and pray, as Archbishop O’Brien has suggested, that this Apostolic Visitation will be “overwhelmingly positive”.