Hopes and concerns of U.S. women religious to be addressed during Apostolic Visitation

By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer

Cardinal Franc Rodé, Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, appealed to leaders of U.S. women religious to prepare to share their observations, hopes and concerns at an upcoming Apostolic Visitation of the principal religious institutes for women in the U.S.

According to a recent Catholic News Service article, the  announcement was made Jan. 30 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., by Sister Eva-Maria Ackerman, FSGM, a member of the American Province of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George.

The announcement was made at the National Shrine for a variety of reasons. It is recognized as the patronal church of the U.S., located in the nation’s capital, and it clearly represents the many cultures and ethnicities that comprise the church in America — as well as its many women religious.

An Apostolic Visitation, conducted under the auspices of the Apostolic See, is a formal but personal meeting with the superiors and members of a religious community. It offers members an opportunity to comment on various aspects of community and religious life.

The purpose of this visitation is to determine why the numbers of religious have decreased during the past 40 years and to look at the quality of life in the communities. Another objective is to assess and encourage the growth of Catholic institutes of women religious in the U.S. who engage in apostolic works.

There are approximately 400 apostolic religious institutes for women in the U.S., and approximately 59,000 women religious.

Cardinal Rodé appointed Mother Clare Millea, ASCJ, a Connecticut native who is superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an international religious institute with its headquarters in Rome, to oversee the visitation. Mother Clare and numerous visitation teams will listen to the superiors and members of the religious communities through written communications and personal meetings. At the end of the visitation, Mother Clare will submit a confidential report to Cardinal Rodé based on her observations and findings in all phases of the process.

The process, which is expected to take about two years to complete, has several stages. First, Mother Clare will solicit voluntary input from the superiors general by inviting them to make personal contacts with her in Rome or in the U.S.

During the second stage, the major superiors in the U.S. will be asked for information such as statistics, activities and community practices.

Selected on-site visits will be made during the third stage. During this time, the sisters will have an opportunity to share with the visitation teams their joys, hopes, challenges and concerns about their lives as women religious in the church today.

Mother Clare has contacted the superiors general, letting them know that she would be traveling to three cities within the U.S. to meet with them. In June, Mother Clare will visit Los Angeles, St. Louis and Chicago. Mother Clare added that if the superior’s circumstances don’t allow for travel to those destinations, she is available for individual appointments at the provincial house in Hamden, Conn. from May 12-31 and from June 11-13. She will also be available in Rome from April 27-May 7.

Mother Clare said she realizes that it may not be feasible to dialogue with each of the superiors in person. She mentioned that communication by telephone, Skype or writing are also possible ways to dialogue.

Sister Patricia Burkard, OSF, general minister for the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, said she received a letter from Cardinal Rodé last February and was somewhat surprised to hear of the Apostolic Visitation. “We had no advance notice that it was coming and that was also the case for our national leadership,” said Sister Patricia.

Sister Patricia said that she and her general leadership are undecided as to how they’ll communicate with Mother Clare. “It’ll probably be by way of a conference call or a report,” she said.

In 2004, three communities of Franciscan Sisters — from the Archdiocese of New York, the Diocese of Buffalo and the Diocese of Syracuse — joined to form Sister Patricia’s congregation, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities. The group’s general headquarters is located in Syracuse. In 2007, the Franciscan Sisters from the Pittsburgh Diocese also  merged with the group.

“We’re pleased to talk with Mother Clare about the story of our merging congregations,” said Sister Patricia. “We have a common history that dates back to the 1800s.” Each can trace its roots to the original foundation of the Neumann-Bachmann Heritage Congregations founded in Philadelphia in 1855 by St. John Neumann, Mother Mary Francis Bachmann, Sister Margaret Boll and Sister Bernardina Dorn.

Sister Patricia believes that the new congregation has become exceptionally strong. “We want to continue to serve God’s people in the church and to pool our resources to remain viable so we can continue to serve them,” she said.

Sister Patricia said that in five years they have made significant organizational changes. “We’re very confident going into the future,” she said. “The focus of our service changed as the church changed. We are constantly discerning where the greatest needs are — where we can do the most good. We’d like  to talk to Mother Clare about our long history of service. We have a need to share our story with the Vatican.”

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