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Mary Ann WalshDecember 16, 2014
Five Dominican sisters face Nashville bishop during Mass where they made final profession of religious vows.

Never has so much been done for so few.

That paraphrase of Churchill’s statement on Britain’s defense of England in World War II can be said about efforts of religious orders to draw new members in the last half century. The concern runs through the much-awaited apostolic visitation final report, dated Sept. 8, 2014, and released Dec. 16 in Rome.

Signed by Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, O.F.M., secretary of the congregation, the report addressed the inability of religious orders to attract new members. It stated that despite differences among religious orders “the overall trends among a large majority of religious institutes, especially those related to aging and diminishment, are clear.”

“Currently, a significant number of religious institutes are expending considerable spiritual and material energies in the area of vocation promotion. While some of these have since shown an increase in the number of candidates entering and remaining, for many other institutes the results are not commensurate with the expectations and efforts,” the report said. “Some institutes reported that they have suspended vocation efforts for a variety of reasons, the most common being the declining membership and the ever-widening age gap between their current members and potential candidates.”

The decline in new members marks a key concern for religious orders. The institutes have faced it head-on without much success, according to a report on contemporary religious orders of women submitted by Mother Clare Millea, a Connecticut nun and head of the Congregation of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Mother Millea was tasked by the Vatican with the unenviable challenge to assess modern day religious life in the United States. (Read my interview with Mother Millea here.)

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.

Cautious Reception

Despite efforts to be fair, the report comes out of the gate saddled by a sense of unfairness because many U.S. nuns, even some bishops, and other Catholics felt blindsided when the visitation was announced. Most laity drew to the nuns’ (not the Vatican’s) side. They felt the nuns could do little wrong because they had educated them and their children and served them in the hospitals the nuns built. Adding to the confusion was the subsequent and still on-going investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious by the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. C.D.F. looked to be piling on when it criticized L.C.W.R., the nuns’ leadership group, though the Vatican maintains the two investigations were unrelated.

The Vatican congregation that oversees religious orders “is well aware that the apostolic visitation was met with apprehension and suspicion by some women religious,” the report stated. “This resulted in a refusal, on the part of some institutes, to collaborate fully in the process. While the lack of full cooperation was a painful disappointment for us, we use this present opportunity to invite all religious institutes to accept our willingness to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with them.”

The final report provided sobering numbers.

“Today, the median age of apostolic women religious in the United States is in the mid-to-late 70s. The current number of approximately 50,000 apostolic women religious is a decline of about 125,000 since the mid-1960s, when the numbers of religious in the United States had reached their peak,” the report noted. “It is important to note, however, that the very large numbers of religious in the 1960s was a relatively short-term phenomenon that was not typical of the experience of religious life through most of the nation’s history. The steady growth in the number of women religious peaked dramatically from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, after which it began to decline as many of the sisters who had entered during the peak years left religious life, the remaining sisters aged and considerably fewer women joined religious institutes.”

The report looked at areas of religious life beyond vocations: charisms, finances, community prayer, ecclesial communion and other matters, including women in the church.

“The majority of the religious institutes are intensifying their efforts to share their charism with lay collaborators and those whom they serve so that the charism might continue to enrich the life of the church. Mission effectiveness training programs prepare lay collaborators to carry forward congregation-owned or -sponsored ministries according to the original charism,” the report stated. “Associate and similar programs enable lay persons to share in differing degrees in the life and charism of the institute.”

“This congregation praises these creative ways of sharing the charismatic gifts given by the Holy Spirit to the church and asks that the essential difference between the vowed religious and the dedicated lay persons who maintain a special relationship with the institute be respected and celebrated,” the report stated.

By The Books

The visitation report noted contradictions. What is written in the institutes’ books about prayer and Scripture is not always lived out.

“A review of the constitutions and other directives of apostolic religious institutes generally revealed that institutes have written guidelines for the reception of the sacraments and sound spiritual practices,” the report stated. “This Congregation asks the members of each institute to evaluate their actual practice of liturgical and common prayer. We ask them to discern what measures need to be taken to further foster the sisters’ intimate relationship with Christ and a healthy communal spirituality based on the Church’s sacramental life and sacred Scripture.”

It added that “the church is continually challenged to a fresh understanding and experience of this mystical encounter. However, caution is to be taken not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith.” The final report further stated that the congregation “calls upon all religious institutes to carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption.”

The report also touched on those who have grown up with a weak sense of community and now seek to literally live together. They also want modern-day branding, from wearing the habit to a cross on the lapel.

“In general,” the report also said, “candidates to the apostolic religious life tend to be older, more educated, and more culturally diverse than in the past. Vocation and formation personnel interviewed noted the candidates often desire the experience of living in formative communities and many wish to be externally recognizable as consecrated women. This is a particular challenge in institutes whose current lifestyle does not emphasize these aspects of religious life.”

“For women religious in the United States the expression of community life is varied, ranging from communities composed of many individuals who live a structured common life to individuals who live singly or with one other sister, from her own or another institute. Most women religious who reside alone do so for reasons of ministry or health, and both they and their institutes are committed to mutual support, communication, and contribution to the life of the community,” the report said. “We urge religious institutes to reflect deeply upon their lived experience of the community dimension of their consecrated life and to courageously take steps to strengthen their communities that they might become ever more convincing signs of communion in Christ.”

The congregation asked “the religious institutes to evaluate their initial and ongoing formation programs, assuring that they provide a solid theological, human, cultural, spiritual and pastoral preparation which pays special attention to the harmonious integration of all these various aspects.”

The church’s challenge now is to deal with the hurt that erupted when the church’s call for visitations seemed to disregard what tens of thousands of nuns accomplished both in the past and today.

Sisters bristled when the visitation sought financial information in the initial process and many orders did not hand over the information.

Stories of sisters being underpaid or summarily dismissed by a newly appointed pastor have hurt relationships between church officials and individual sisters. There are too many stories nuns have experienced or at least heard of which found sisters shortchanged.

“Despite careful stewardship, most institutes reported a significant and ongoing loss of income for several reasons,” the report stated. “Among these are the long-term consequences of women religious having been undercompensated for their ministry over an extended period of time. The current diminishment in membership in most institutes results in fewer sisters earning a salary or stipend. Elder religious serving as volunteers do not receive remuneration for their service,” the report added. “Also, many sisters working with the poor and disenfranchised are partly or wholly subsidized by their institutes. Some sisters serving in ecclesiastical structures receive relatively low salaries or have lost their positions in the downsizing of the institutions they serve.”

The report added that “in many institutes long-range planning for the care of the elderly, retired, and infirm sisters is a high priority.” It added that “a great number of religious institutes receive assistance through the National Religious Retirement Office. This organization conducts an annual, national parish-based appeal that yields the largest amount of donations of all national collections. Since its inception in 1988, the NRRO has distributed more than $500 million to institutes of women religious for the care of their elder and infirm members. The respect and gratitude of the nation’s Catholics for religious are clearly and concretely demonstrated in this outpouring of support. Despite responsible stewardship and the assistance from NRRO, however, many institutes are still significantly underfunded in this area.”

The congregation “encourages all religious institutes in their efforts to wisely administer their resources in order to provide for the needs of their members and to further the Church’s evangelizing mission,” the report said. “At the same time, we ask all religious, by their individual and corporate witness to evangelical poverty, to heed the plea of Pope Francis to imitate Christ, who became poor and was always close to the poor, so that we might concretely contribute to the integral development of society’s most neglected members.”

The challenge of relations with pastors drew interest too.

“A number of sisters conveyed to the Apostolic Visitator a desire for greater recognition and support of the contribution of women religious to the Church on the part of pastors,” the final report said. “They noted the ongoing need for honest dialogue with bishops and clergy as a means of clarifying their role in the Church and strengthening their witness and effectiveness as women faithful to the Church’s teaching and mission.”

The problems cited in the report are recognized by most religious. Do they always live out the constitutions in their daily lives, for example, stressing devotion to the Mass and Scripture? Young people want community and a distinctive branding that sets religious apart from other laywomen to be “countercultural.” Are religious orders ready to provide these elements? Do they need to do so? Can religious orders accommodate both younger and older members? Can the Vatican fulfill promises to include women in decision-making?

Closer Collaboration?

The Vatican congregation offered an olive branch when it promised that “the upcoming Year of Consecrated Life is a graced opportunity for all of us within the church—religious, clergy and laity—to take those steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation that will offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion to all.”

The congregation reaffirmed its desire “to strengthen the spirit of ecclesial communion in our direct contact with conferences of major superiors of women religious, as well as with the superiors and members of the individual institutes.” “We express the hope that together we may welcome this present moment as an opportunity to transform uncertainty and hesitancy into collaborative trust, so that the Lord may lead us forward in the mission he has entrusted to us on behalf of the people we serve.”

The Vatican congregation offered further hope when it stated in the report that “Pope Francis has asked our dicastery, in close collaboration with the Congregation for Bishops, to update the curial document "Mutuae Relationes" regarding the collaboration among bishops and religious, in accord with the church’s resolve to foster the ecclesial communion which we all desire.”

Will women be involved?

The apostolic visitation final report also stated that “we joyfully welcome the many recent statements by Pope Francis about the indispensable and unique contributions of women to society and the church. In "Evangelii Gaudium," the Holy Father readily acknowledged that ‘many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church.’”

It further declared that “this congregation is committed to collaborate in the realization of Pope Francis’ resolve that ‘the feminine genius’ find expression in the various settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures.” It added that “we will continue to work to see that competent women religious will be actively involved in ecclesial dialogue regarding ‘the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the church’s life.’”

As a people of hope, we can only go forward.

Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is a member of the Northeast Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and U.S. Church Correspondent for America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Robert Killoren
8 years 5 months ago
Thanks be to God.
Janice Bader
8 years 5 months ago
Among other issues, Sister Mary Ann’s post and the report itself highlight the ongoing struggle religious communities face in providing for their aging members while sustaining vital ministries for the People of God. The National Religious Retirement Office is privileged to work with a broad spectrum of religious communities, yet we see a commonality in both the retirement-funding issues facing U.S. congregations and in the fidelity and dedication of women and men religious to their vowed commitment. There is also a universality to what senior religious still have to teach us. In their younger years, these women and men religious worked tirelessly to educate the young or care for the sick. As they get older—and perhaps face physical diminishment—the time and energy once dedicated to active ministry is devoted to prayer. In accepting the challenges and limitations of aging, senior religious model for us what it means to completely surrender to the will and providence of God. Their continued witness of religious life is an inspiration for me and no doubt for the countless Catholics who each year generously support the Retirement Fund for Religious collection. May each of us continue to find hope and encouragement in their example of selfless love. Sister Janice Bader, CPPS Executive Director National Religious Retirement Office
Walter Sandell
8 years 5 months ago
I believe that the status and situations of Women's Institutes is severely restrained by the refusal of the hierarchy to admit women to Holy Orders.' The 'attempt to ordain women' has been classified a 'delecta gravia,' incurring 'excommunication.' It has been classified with the sexual abuse of children, which does not incur excommunication. I consider it a 'delecta gravia' to exclude half of the Church from Sacramental Ministry. Retired priests continue to receive stipends for Masses, as well as regular retirement benefits. Masses in convents, once typical, are almost unheard of today. This has to have an impact on religious' spirituality. A priest I knew, and thought I knew well, was credibly accused of abusing pre-teen girls in conjunction with Confession. Should girls and young women have to go to a male priest for Confession? I think, NOT! The status of women in many areas is 'Second Class,' or even less. It appears that the Holy Spirit has taken over in this instance; but there's a long way to go. BTW, Sister Mary Ann Walsh - I went to Camden Catholic High School when it was run by the Sisters of Mercy of New Jersey. Sister Mary Edwin, my Math teacher, was later featured on the front page of the Courier - Post advocating the ordination of women.
Michael Sullivan
8 years 5 months ago
I first want to applaud the Sisters of Charity that educated many in my NW Bronx parish. They were patient and good teachers and principals. Then to say that the first paragraphs of this report are very accurate in pointing out that the membership has declined. Why did the report not state that many of the orders should start talking merger? To have Franciscan orders, Sister of Charity and Dominicans to name just a few. What is the purpose to Dominicans of Blauvelt and Sparkill - a half hour drive apart? Merge them and reduce the fundraising and costs of care for the elderly. Everybody spends a great deal on fundraising and maintenance of their grounds and health care - that money can be put to better use if there are fewer orders.
Frank Gibbons
8 years 5 months ago
The sisters shown in the photo accompanying this article are the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. They are affiliated with the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) and not with the LCWR. They "Love the Church and seek to serve her in fidelity... Foster a reverence for the priesthood and the Church’s Magisterium, Share with enthusiasm the truth of the Gospel, Witness to our consecration by the wearing of a distinctive habit [and] Look to the Virgin Mary as our model and mother, seeking to imitate her humility and recognizing in her what is meant by true womanhood." The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia engage in choral recitation of the rosary, Eucharistic devotion and have a great love for the liturgy and the Sacraments. They are a teaching order and besides teaching at many high schools, they administer and teach at Aquinas College in Nashville. I thank "America" for highlighting these extraordinary sisters who are rooted in prayer and the life of the Church while working in the world. I recommend visiting their web site for a deeper picture of their mission and charism.

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