American sister leading Apostolic Visitation talks about Vatican report

Mother Mary Clare Millea, Superior General of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart, was appointed by the Vatican to lead the Apostolic Visitation to Institutes of Religious Women of the United States. She is a native of Connecticut and entered the Congregation of the Sacred Heart in 1965. She holds a doctorate in canon law from the Lateran University in Rome and was elected superior general of her congregation in 2004. Mother Millea discussed the final report, released on Dec. 16., with America.

What are major findings of the apostolic visitation?

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The Final Report of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life (CICLSAL) accurately presents my confidential report to the dicastery in a concise and reader-friendly manner. It follows the basic outline I had used throughout the entire process, summarizing general empirical findings as well as the major topics evaluated during the apostolic visitation.        

I strongly suggest that interested persons read the Final Report in its entirety to understand the content and personally perceive the pastoral tone which permeates it. I sense that the dicastery's response is based on the premise that religious life in the United States has a great story to tell, not only in recounting its past but as an incisive presence in the world today and into the future. The Report praises and thanks women religious in the United States who, throughout our nation's history, have courageously been in the forefront of the church's evangelizing mission, selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals, especially the poor and marginalized.

Given the vast proportions of the visitation and the widely diversified expressions of apostolic religious life in the United States, the findings summarized in the Final Report cannot be presumed to apply to each of the four hundred congregational units assessed. However, the challenges related to the aging and numerical decline in membership in most institutes have significant bearing on how we express our unique charisms within community and in ministry as well as in our long range planning.

Are any specific actions being called for?

The CICLSAL Final Report has chosen a respectful and insightful approach in response to the joys and difficulties we experience. Its message is strong, positive and challenging. Each of the main topics evaluated during the visitation is introduced by short and pertinent excerpts from current church documents, followed by a concise summary of the findings of the apostolic visitation. Each section concludes with the observations of the dicastery and invites us to reflect on pertinent aspects of the topic.

Personally, as superior general of an international congregation, I am convinced that my own sisters, not only in the United States but throughout the world, would do well to reflect on this message, in order to see how we can more faithfully respond to our calling and the expectations the church and the world have of us. I believe that the institutes in the United States, though widely diverse in charism, structure and lived reality, will experience the timeliness of this report as well.

Regarding more specific actions that might take place between the CICLSAL and the institutes, the Final Report states that it plans to communicate directly with the institutes which hosted an on-site visitation and those whose individual reports indicated areas of concern. It will also send a letter to those institutes which participated in the first two phases of the visitation.

What were the positives that you found?

The apostolic visitation provided many opportunities for reflection, dialogue and communion among women religious in the United States as well as with the church’s pastors and lay faithful. Many congregation leaders, including some who initially expressed resistance to the initiative, have shared that the process has yielded surprising positive results. These include, but are not limited to, deeper contact with the Word of God, the words and witness of their foundresses and founders and church documents about consecrated life. The visitation also fostered productive dialogue among religious and with the church’s pastors and elicited an outpouring of loving support of the sisters by bishops, clergy and lay persons. It has also awakened a renewed interest in promoting vocations to the religious life.

What were the challenges you had to address?

The sheer magnitude of the task presented an enormous challenge. On a personal level, as a superior general with over a thousand sisters in 15 nations, all of whom I visit periodically, this additional responsibility required a major change in my plans and the comprehension and support of my own councilors and sisters. Another challenge was the visitation’s design, the formulation of its strategies and the ongoing evaluation and modification of the process. From the outset, the dicastery showed its deep trust, allowing me to choose a core team of collaborators and to devise an approach compatible with the American cultural context. For example, the public website for the apostolic visitation was a first!

Other ongoing challenges were related to the understandable questioning about the nature and purposes of the visitation on the part of American religious and those who love them. My core team and I listened attentively to what was being said and modified our course in response to reasonable requests, while keeping focused on pursuing the most respectful and efficacious means to accomplish the service entrusted to us.

Our approach was based on deep reverence for the dignity of every person and on compassionate listening. Throughout the entire process, we honored the precious obligation to the institutes being evaluated of holding the data we obtained in careful confidentiality, while making essential information regarding the process itself available to the public. 

My core team and I chose the Gospel image of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth as the icon of the apostolic visitation. We opened every team meeting with a prayer to Mary who, with Jesus hidden beneath her heart, went to serve her cousin Elizabeth. We asked Mary to help us serve our sisters in faithfully loving the church and love the church in humbly serving our sisters.

What surprised you from the process?

I believe that with time, we'll understand that this long visitation journey has a significant role in the Holy Spirit's plan for the revitalization of religious life. This idea struck me when I read Pope Francis' “Apostolic Letter to Consecrated Persons in Occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life” (11/21/14). I now see that although we seemed at times to be journeying through the visitation in uncharted waters, we were already being led in the direction the Holy Father is now asking all consecrated persons to embrace.

In his beautiful apostolic letter, the Holy Father explained the three objectives for this year-long celebration of consecrated life. The first is to look to the past with gratitude, reflecting on our origins and history, in order to thank God who grants the church a variety of gifts which embellish her and equip her for every good work. And didn't we all do that with our sisters during the Apostolic Visitation? In connecting more deeply with our foundresses and founders and in recounting our history, we reawakened our desire to follow in the footsteps of past generations in order to grasp the high ideals, vision and values which inspired them (I, 1).

Pope Francis then calls us to live the present with passion. As we gratefully remember the past, we listen attentively to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church today, so that we might implement ever more fully the essential aspects of our consecrated life. Francis asks us to be “women of communion, with the courage to be present in the midst of conflict and tension, as a credible sign of the presence of the Spirit who inspires in human hearts a passion for all to be one” (I, 2).

The third objective isto embrace the future with hope, a hope that is not based on statistics but on the One in whom we have put our trust (cf. 2 Tim 1:2), conscious that the Holy Spirit spurs us on so that he can still do great things with us (I, 3).I perceive that through the apostolic visitation, women religious have already entered into the lived experience of these three objectives, the heart of the Year of Consecrated Life.

How does the Apostolic Visitation relate to LCWR investigation?

The two initiatives were conducted independently of each other. The apostolic visitation was much broader in scope, encompassing almost 350 institutes of women religious in the United States, regardless of affiliation with one, both or neither conference of major superiors. My mandate was from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which asked me to assist the dicastery in gaining a deeper knowledge of the contributions of women religious to the church and society as well as those difficulties which threaten the quality of their religious life and, in some cases, their very existence.

My evaluation, as well as the Final Report released by CICLSAL and any further communication from the dicastery have been and will be directed to the institutes on an individual basis and not through the mediation of the conferences of women religious.

The intervention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the other hand, has dealt exclusively with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a body recognized under church law that brings together the major superiors of approximately 80 percent of the institutes of women religious in America.

In hindsight, would you have approached this differently or recommended that the Vatican approach the visitation differently?

Although the Apostolic See acted within its realm of authority as the entity which oversees institutes which are publicly recognized as belonging to the church, clearly the element of surprise in the announcement of the Apostolic Visitation contributed to a climate of apprehension among the women religious. I believe that should the dicastery decide to conduct a similar initiative elsewhere, the many insights gained through our American experience, combined with ongoing dialogue with the religious themselves, could bring about even greater mutual collaboration.

The visitations and LCWR investigation have seemed to create hurt among U.S. Catholics. How does the church go about healing the hurt?

Once again, Pope Francis is showing us the way to reconciliation and healing. In his letter to consecrated persons, he has said that the current Year for Consecrated Life concerns not only consecrated persons, but the entire church. I am confident that the great American people, pastors and laity alike, will join in this world-wide ecclesial celebration and experience this Year as a moment of thanksgiving to the Lord. They will undoubtedly pray with us for unwavering fidelity to our charism, rejoice with us and share in the challenges we face in our common service to the mission of the church.

Perhaps it's not presumptuous to say that the Apostolic Visitation journey has drawn us closer to our gospel and charismatic roots, has sparked healthy dialogue among our own sisters and with members of other institutes of women religious, and has sharpened the awareness that each vocation is precious and essential to the Church's evangelizing mission. And now, at the beginning of the Year dedicated to the celebration of our consecrated life, we have been encouraged and challenged by the messages of our Holy Father and his representatives in the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life.

In true synergy with all other vocations in the Church, may we “wake up the world”and spread the spirituality of communion in our own communities, in the ecclesial community and in the existential peripheries of a world looking for a purpose in life, thirsting for the divine (cf Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter for the Year of Consecrated Life II, 2 and III, 3-4)

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Walter Sandell
2 years 10 months ago
Dear Mother Mary Clare Millea, You have done an incredible job. I was opposed to both the visitation and your appointment; and had little hope for anything positive. I apologize for rash judgement and congratulate you. Thanks to the Holy Spirit!
Nancy Walton-House
2 years 10 months ago
Thank you Mother Mary Clare Millea for your wisdom, grace under fire and skillful execution of a most challenging assignment. Bravo to you. The Holy Spirit is at work. Deo Gratias!

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