Vatican to Visit U.S. Women Religious Institutes

The excellent blog of the diocesan newspaper of Kansas City, MO, The Catholic Key has an interesting piece.

You remember the Apostolic visitation of seminaries?

Vatican to Visit U.S. Women Religious Institutes

Breaking. Just came across my desk. More to come . . .

Vatican initiates study of Catholic sisters’ institutes in the United States

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has begun an Apostolic Visitation or comprehensive study of institutes of women religious in the United States.

The action was initiated by the Congregation’s prefect, Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé, C.M. The decree, issued December 22, 2008, indicated the Visitation is being undertaken ?in order to look into the quality of the life? of the members of these religious institutes.

The Visitation will be conducted under the direction of Mother Mary Clare Millea, A.S.C.J., whom Cardinal Rodé appointed Apostolic Visitator. Mother Millea, a Connecticut native, is superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an international religious institute headquartered in Rome, with approximately 1250 professed sisters worldwide, including 135 in the United States. She entered religious life in 1965 and professed perpetual vows in 1973.

The Visitation, which will collect and assimilate data and observations about religious life, will be limited to apostolic institutes, those actively engaged in service to Church and society. Cloistered, contemplative sisters, who have distinctly different lifestyles, are excluded from the study. Mother Millea will submit a confidential report to Cardinal Rodé at the conclusion of the task. Though there is no deadline, she hopes to complete the task by 2011.

Catholic women religious have been involved in apostolates such as education, healthcare and a variety of pastoral and social services in the United States since before the nation was founded. According to the Washington-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) however, the number of U.S. women religious has been in decline during the past 40 years, while their median age continues to increase.

"I am truly humbled, and a bit overwhelmed," Mother Millea said of her assignment. "While I have visited each of the communities and missions in my own congregation, the thought of gathering facts and findings about nearly 400 institutes across the United States can be daunting in scope."

"I am praying for all the sisters who will be a part of this Visitation, and hoping for their prayers
– both for the good of the process as well as for me in this role," she continued. "I ask the prayers of the American Catholic clergy and faithful too."

Despite her sense of awe at the size of the task, Mother Millea was encouraged by the project.

"I know that the object of this Visitation is to encourage and strengthen apostolic communities of women religious, for the simple reason that these communities are integral to the entire life of the Catholic Church, in the United States and beyond."

Mother Millea indicated that while she is not obliged to visit every community of women religious, she looks forward to learning and better understanding the "multi-faceted dimensions of the sisters’ religious lives, as well as their abundant contributions to the Church and society."

A website,, has been launched to provide basic information about the project.


Biretta tip to KK for the link.

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  1. Tim Ferguson says:

    This is very good news, and Mother Mary Clare Millea seems like a good person to conduct the visitation. This will be a huge task, and she is going to face a tremendous amount of resistance from groups that have convinced themselves that they’re on the proper path, despite the evidence of dwindling (and aging) numbers, flagrant dissent and waning influence. I will certainly keep Mother Millea and her task force in my prayers, and urge others to do so as well.

  2. dominic1962 says:

    I think Mother might be shocked when she looks into some of these groups with ashrams and celebrate their own community “eucharist” sans priest. Hopefully this visitation will be a chance to put these kind of groups out of business.

  3. Sharon says:

    Dominic,those communities which celebarate their own eucharist wouldn’t be foolish enough to do this when sister is visiting; as far as possible these communities will pretend to be orthodox.

  4. Fr. Gary V. says:

    Mother Mary Clare Millea is a religious sister of A.S.C.J. Their religious institute is a member of Council of Major Superior Women Religious, a group of traditional orders (that wear habits). Leadership Conference of Women Religious a group of progressive sisters
    (that doesn’t wear their habits, dissident sisters, new age & nature worship sisters) probably doesn’t like the idea of visitation proposed by the Vatican.

  5. Tim Ferguson says:

    Sharon, I’m not convinced that the wackier religious communities will pretend to be orthodox during the visitation. Certainly, some will, but so many of these groups wouldn’t even know how to begin. I think a lot of the loonier groups will use this visitation to make a defiant stand (which they will refer to as “speaking truth to power” or some other such slogan) and proudly boast of their feminized liturgies, their embrace of Far Eastern or earth-centered spirituality and their rejection of the hierarchical structures of the Church.

    This will be a welcome pat on the back to Orders that have remained orthodox. Hopefully it will also a vindication for those few, aging Sisters who have remained personally faithful despite the crumbling of their Orders around them. Some of these Sisters have truly suffered white martyrdom at the hands of their own Sisters for a generation or more.

  6. PMcGrath says:

    Mother Mary Claire — leader of the HAZMAT team!

  7. Joe says:

    I don’t know how much help “pretending” will be. I hope they start with the Sinsinawa Dominicans and their infamous “Nun for Choice”, Donna Quinn ( if you dare)

  8. Jacque B says:

    The most sad thing about these dissident groups of sisters is they are the ones runnning the parishes. The Priest shortage has opened the door for them to teach their own brand of Catholicism to un-suspecting children and immigrants.

    I’m praying the groups that haven’t gone to far yet, will be reigned back into the fold, and the ones’ that have just gone completely un-orthodox will be called on their errors.

  9. Fr. BJ says:

    To those who worry that the crazies will dress the windows before Mother and her team arrive: of course some might do that, but I think that Mother will know what to look for. It will be impossible to hide everything. You have to remember that there is a top-secret international university*** that women religious go to in order to be trained as master con artists capable of getting anything they want: the Sisters will have their ways to find out if this or that Order is up to shenanigans.

    We have seen how well the report for the Seminary visitation came out — and how thoroughly it criticized the men’s religious communities in particular, who on the whole scored much worse than the regular diocesan seminaries did. I think something similar will come out of this process.

    The end result, I think, will be that some Orders will dig in their heals and go back to their labyrinths and pretend like nothing happened; others, however, might come around and return to the right path. This Visitation can only work out for the best. Let us, for our part, pray that the Orders that need reform will have the humility to accept the recommendations of the Visitation.

    *** For those who take life too seriously, I was joking about the “top secret university” part.

  10. Magdalene says:

    My thought is that the congregations that still have their holy religious garb will make for a good visit and the ones who don’t will show their departure from their original charism.

    I will never forget my visit to a Mother House in Illinois in 2000 when a friend was looking for an Order. Those ‘nuns’ were scary, scary women. Feminist and so on. There were older sisters who were ostracised and who actually met in the basement to pray the rosary together and so on. Some of them clung to at least a part of their religius garb for which they took much heat. In the early years these sisters were nursing sisters who gave their lives to care for the sick. Now many are high-powered business women living in the world with new clothes, jewelry and apartments and little of ‘religious’ life clinging to them. Our own local hospital has such ‘sisters’. Only the very oldest come to daily Mass. They have new age speakers come in and have crystals in their office and do reiki and so on. Not pretty. Not an uncommon thing for the corrupted orders either. When you lose your charism, you die off.

  11. Davide says:

    will they plunge into the tiber???

  12. variously curious says:

    Will they hopefully make nuns wear habits again?

  13. Fr. BJ says:

    Habits are not the solution to all problems. I know of communities that wear more-or-less full habits that have problems. It is generally a good thing when a community has retained the habit, but not always.

  14. therese b says:

    The latter comments seem to show a situation which mirrors that of Europe just prior to the counter-reformation. Certainly Henry VIII and his henchman Thomas Cromwell would have taken great delight in reporting these abuses. Now comes an interesting question. Many of these older orders which have dwindled into corruption have considerable property assets. Who has control of these? Sister Pantsuit and Sister Outreach? The Diocese? Could the hierarchy recover these assets and apply them to newer, reformed traditional orders who could put them to good use.

  15. Bro. AJK says:

    So, when will the brothers be visited?

  16. TJM says:

    What’s to visit? Visiting many of these communities would be like visiting a nursing home to see your old, daft aunt. The only difference being that these “nuns” were daft when they were young. Lots of luck. Tom

  17. mysticalrose says:

    FINALLY!! I am thrilled to hear this news. Out with the sage-burning, drum-circling, ribbon-waving, reiki-practicing wanabe priests! This visitation could potentially lead to real renewal in the women’s religious orders and more vocations. I am delighted.

  18. Mark says:

    Sisters as opposed to nuns, right? Nuns are cloistered habit-wearing obedient lovely daughters of The Almighty. If the Vatican is visiting them, it must be for support and a huge thumbs up.

    If the visits are with say the eerie Erie Benedictines, they’d better take their vampire killing kit. And I hope it has better results than the seminary visits of recent memory.

  19. irishgirl says:

    Be strong, Mother Clare! Don’t let the radical ‘sisters’ pull the wool over your eyes!

    Oooo Mark-‘eerie Erie Benedictines’ and ‘vampire killing kit’-good one!

    I hope she visits the Franciscans of Syracuse-they’ve gone weird!

  20. Tiny says:

    I wonder why some of you are using the plural “nuns”. I believe in a number of cases it would actually be a visit to one nun or none nuns.

  21. prof. basto says:

    Great news! Apostolic Visitations are important and very much needed.

    I am just curious as to the appointment of a religious sister to the office of Apostolic Visitor. Has this happened before? Not that I’m opposing the appointment or anything like that – and I also don’t doubt Mother Mary Millea’s personal qualities – I’m just curious as to the possibility of women being appointed for that kind of an office in the Church.

    I explain. Apostolic Visitors are considered as a species within the gender of Legates of the Apostolic See (cf. Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on Visitors Apostolic:

    Thus, I tought that only people in the priesthood (therefore only men) were appointed to the office of Apostolic Visitor, given that it is not only an office that involves jurisdiction (power of governance) but also is an office that one discharges as a Papal representative.

    Hence the reason for my curiosity, not doubting also the validity of the appointment. In the same spirit of simple curiosity regarding canon law, I ask: there similar precedents?

  22. TJ says:

    Too bad they can’t send Mother Angelica. She’d take names!

  23. Tim Ferguson says:

    prof. basto, I’m not aware of any other woman being appointed as Apostolic Visitator, but there has been a good deal of discussion in canonical circles about the impact of the appointment (in 2004) of Sr. Enrica Rosanna, a Salesian sister, as undersecretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL).

    Canon 274 establishes that only clerics “can obtain offices for whose exercise the power of orders or the power of ecclesiastical governance is required.” Accompanying this is c. 139, which permits the lay faithful to “cooperate in the exercise of this same power according to the norm of law.”

    The precise distinction between exercising power and cooperating in the exercise of power remains nebulous. Some would claim that, contrary to canon 274, lay people have, for centuries, exercised the power of ecclesiastical governance (viz. Abbesses, religious superiors of non-clerical religious orders). Others claim that lay people can exercise administration, but not governance (making a distinction without a difference, in my opinion). Still others claim that, even in the situation of an Abbess governing her abbey, she is merely cooperating with some clerical authority. There are problems with all of these approaches.

    Since Mother Millea was appointed by Cardinal Rode, it would seem that any jurisdiction she exercises could be understood as being cooperation with a cleric in a position of governance (c. 129). It would be interesting to see the actual mandate appointing her to this Visitation, to see what distinctions are drawn there.

  24. TNCath says:

    This is going to prove to be very interesting to watch. Can you imagine the buzzing going on in some of the religious communities in the U.S.? I look forward to the release of the list of communities being visited. While I am skeptical about whether or not these institutes will really do an “about face” and return to religious life as envisioned by the Church, it will be nonetheless fun to watch Mother Mary Clare and her staff enter the motherhouses of these communities wearing a habit and expecting a report from these superiors general/presidents/coordinators (or whatever they are called these days) in pant suits and earrings.

  25. prof. basto says:

    Mr. Ferguson,

    The Apostolic Visitation has a website, and the website has a link to a copy of the decree in .pdf format:

    Although the decree does not mention it, I wonder if the Apostolic Visitor will also have the power to supress irregularities on the spot.

    For instance, Bishop Kueng, Apostolic Visitor to the Austrian Diocese of St. Poelten – rocked by sex scandals in 2004 – having been sent there to report on the allegations of homosexuality and pornography in the local seminary (that were denied by the local Bishop), used his authority as Apostolic Visitor to impose a gag order on the local Bishop, and also ordered the Seminary shut.

    So I wonder: if this new Apostolic Visitor encounters signs of grave irregularities, can she act on them or not (being, in that case, strictly limited to preparing the report)?

  26. Tim Ferguson says:

    Since the decree establishes her position as Visitator “ad inquirendum et referendum” it would not seem that she has been given any authority to act herself, but only to investigate and recommend.

    I hope she’ll have a cell phone with Cardinal Rode’s phone number pre-programmed, if there’s a need for a swift response and decisive action (though, in so many cases, the need for a swift response passed about 30 years ago…)

  27. TNCath says:

    I hope Mother Mary Clare’s “visitation” is more than just a tour of the motherhouse, study of the constitution, and interviews with the sisters. I know this might sound a bit superficial, but I hope Mother Mary Clare takes a look at these sisters’ websites! Nowadays, one need not leave one’s recliner to be able to tell the direction of these religious communities. What one often sees can be shocking.

    A few examples:

    The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, KY:
    The Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine, KY:

    Contrast these with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia in Nashville:

  28. I am not Spartacus says:

    Will they hopefully make nuns wear habits again?

    Doubt it. Those who have shed the habit are dying out. Those religious traditionalists who wear habits are growing. To me, it makes it very visible who Rome ought to succor.

    Can. 669 §1. Religious are to wear the habit of the institute, made according to the norm of proper law, as a sign of their consecration and as a witness of poverty.

    §2. Clerical religious of an institute which does not have a proper habit are to wear clerical dress according to the norm of ? can. 284.

  29. perhaps Sister Joan Chitchester, OSB, should leave Dodge A.S.A.P.

  30. TNCath says:

    Father Trijilio: Or drive off the motherhouse grounds in her Dodge.

    I think we might see some concern of the visit in some motherhouses throughout the country, but let’s face it: most of these sisters are neither going to fundamentally change nor are they going anywhere because they have nowhere else to go. They are dying, they know it, and they don’t care. Without their religious communities, most of the sisters would be on skid row, and I contend that a fundamental reason many of these sisters have stayed in their communities is because they would have no means to financially support themselves alone. I think many of them will think, “Well, so what if the visitation shows we aren’t living the lives we are supposed to be living? We’re dying anyway, so what can they do?” A sad commentary, but I do believe this is what some orders will be thinking.

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