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Apostolic Visitation of US Nuns Prompts New Collaboration, Says Woman Religious Behind Report (Exclusive Interview)

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Jeffrey Bruno

Diane Montagna - published on 12/16/14

Mother Mary Clare Millea, ASCJ, shares inside story, influence of Pope Benedict XVI

The Vatican Tuesday released the final report on the apostolic visitation of institutes of women in the United States. A press conference was held in the Holy See Press Office to present the report. 

In her comments at the press conference, Mother Mary Clare Millea, A.S.C.J., the American religious sister appointed as Apostolic Visitor, explained that although the Apostolic Visitation was “met by some religious with apprehension and suspicion,” it ultimately resulted in “reflection, dialogue and communion among women religious in the United States as well as with the Church’s pastors and lay faithful.”  

“Congregation leaders, including those who at first expressed resistance to this initiative, have shared that the process has yielded surprising positive results, such as honest confrontation with the transformative power of the Word of God, deep spiritual conversations with our sisters about the life, witness and message of our foundresses and founders, earnest delving into Church documents about consecrated life, increased solidarity among women religious and renewed desire to move beyond attitudes which prevent us from being in communion with one another, a wonderful outpouring of loving gratitude expressed to women religious by bishops, clergy and laypersons, which has sparked new energy and resourcefulness among us and awakened a renewed interest in the promotion of vocations to the religious life.”

Cardinal Franc Rodé, then Prefect of the Congregation for Religious, commissioned the Apostolic Visitation in December 2008, in order “to look into the quality of the life of women religious in the United States.”

At Tuesday’s press conference, Archbishop Jose Rodríguez Carballo, OFM, Secretary for the Congregation for Religious, presented an overview of the final report and outlined the daunting task faced by Mother Mary Clare and her team. 

“The Visitation took place between 2009 and 2012 and was divided into four phases. In the first phase, 266 superiors general (78% of their total number) voluntarily engaged in personal dialogue with the Visitor. Subsequently, all major superiors were asked to complete a questionnaire requesting empirical data and qualitative information regarding the spiritual, community and ministerial life of the individual institutes. On-site visits were then conducted in a representative sample of 90 religious institutes, representing about half of the apostolic women religious in the United States.”

Archbishop Rodríguez further explained: “In a final phase of the Visitation, the Visitor submitted to our Dicastery a final General Report on the major issues and trends in women’s religious life in the United States. The Visitor also provided the dicastery with a brief overview of each of the participating institutes, using the data submitted by major superiors as well as impressions gleaned from personal interview and written documentation submitted to her by major superiors and their councils, members of the religious institutes.” 

Aleteia’s Rome correspondent spoke with Mother Mary Clare following the press conference about her hopes for the report, and the person who inspired her most in the daunting task of listening attentively to over 50,000 women religious. 

Mother Mary Clare, do you think that today’s release of the final report on the apostolic visitation to institutes of women religious will mark a new beginning for the revitalization of women’s religious life in the United States?

I do. Just among congregations we’ve gotten to know one another. And on a local level our sisters work together in many social projects. The Holy Father is saying: “Work together for the poor; celebrate your consecrated life together but also work together,” and we do that—in soup kitchens and in all sorts of outreach programs. And it will grow now, it will grow.

The notion of communion between the sisters themselves and vis-a-vis the Holy See was mentioned several times today. Do you think this communion will be seen in the ways you’ve just expressed, as well as in a closer adherence to the Magisterium by some communities who perhaps have been further away?

I thought Sister Sharon Holland, I.H.M [current President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious] gave an insightful statement, that is part of basic human nature. When we feel threatened, we seek to defend ourselves. In relaxing that, we’re more open to dialogue, and dialogue leads to more collaboration, and to more mutual listening. Let’s clear up what we don’t agree on, and we might find out that we agree on more than we thought we did. And that’s taking place already, and it has, and I think it will grow. 

What do you think the future holds for women religious in the United States, especially those religious communities who ran hospitals for so many years and who are now faced with increasingly difficult challenges?

I think the Holy Spirit has a few surprises for us. The Holy Father insists: Look at your works. If you are burdened by institutions that you can barely keep open, turn them over to qualified people and be that presence. You’ve built them, you’ve trained the people. Turn them over, and evangelize like Jesus did. 

I think American religious are very realistic about that, more that others, and say: we wanted to continue, but we will do what we can. And if we can do that with freedom and with joy, we can be attractive. Cardinal João Braz de Aviz [prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life] often tells the story of a congregation that was apparently dead, with one or two members, and someone realized they had a charism, and it flourished again. The end of the story isn’t written, and the Holy Father says, “Don’t yield to the temptation to think that your life is over. Your charism is a gift to the Church. Every congregation has a life span, but religious life will continue and if you live your charism authentically, because it comes from God, people will be interested. 

On a personal note, what was the most meaningful moment of conducting this visitation, something you hadn’t expected?

I would say the experience of these past two or three days: with the priests, the sisters, the officials of the Holy See, to see the convergence of thinking and of all our desire to be united and to move forward. 

Many people do say it’s the Francis effect, and he has done a lot to certainly project and promote this vision of a Church that’s close to the people. I received my mandate under Pope Benedict, and I didn’t talk to him about it, but I said, “I need to do it how he would want me to.” I studied Pope Benedict. I loved him and I still do, and I said, “How would he want me to listen to the sisters?” And he was my model throughout the whole visitation process. I wrote to him last year, and I told him that. I said, “I just want you to know how you’ve shaped my way of dealing with people.” 

So I see a continuity. I don’t see it as: new administration, new hope. The press has certainly in these days shown that they are seeing the Church differently; they are seeing the authority of the Holy See differently. I see a great continuity. It’s been a privilege to know so many people in the dicastery, the bishops, the sisters. It’s a great Church we belong to.

Is there a particular personal quality of Pope Benedict that inspired you in the way that he dealt with people?

I met him several times. I saw how he looked deeply into your eyes. The first words — and I heard everyone else say the same thing — the first words out of his mouth, to whoever you were, was: “Thank you for …”. And I said to myself, “what a humble man, a humble man."

I do love him. I’ve ready many, many books by Pope Benedict — and I still read Pope Benedict. I put him side by side with Pope Francis, and their message is the same. God uses each person. We needed him. They call him the Mozart of theology — a great, fine, artistic person — Benedict — to crystallize and bring theology forward, and now Francis is bringing it to the people. 

The joy of being part of this Church is overwhelming, and this experience has given me an inside view of that. It’s been priceless. And I’m so happy, because I see the revitalization is already taking place.

Diane Montagnais the Rome correspondent for Aleteia.

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