Women Religious Leadership Meets in New Orleans

Article excerpt

NEW ORLEANS * Facing two Vatican investigations, some 800 women religious leaders from throughout the country gathered here Aug. 11-14 to discuss their congregations' uncertain futures.

Many women, in informal conversations, spoke of their determination not to let the Vatican actions get in the way of their ministries and religious life, hammered out over decades, both through experience and through exchanges with Rome on congregational constitutions.

As if to underscore their concern for their ongoing apostolic missions, the women, at the outset of the three-day assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, toured several sites in this struggling city where sisters were working in a variety of social ministries.

The women filled six buses and spent a half day viewing their sister congregations' works, offering personal encouragement.

"There are simply too many things going on in religious life to get derailed," said Franciscan Sr. Nancy Schreck, past president of the leadership conference, which represents 95 percent of women religious in the United States.

At the 2006 leadership conference assembly members had called for an effort to assist the women religious of New Orleans, who were then responding to the previous year's hurricane. As part of that response, the conference established the New Orleans Recovery Project.

Working with the Washington-based fundraising group Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, known as FADICA, and under the direction of Notre Dame Sr. Suzanne Hall, the women religious raised more than $7 million. The money is being used to fund schools, senior citizen centers, nursing homes, early childhood learning centers and a variety of other social programs.

Nevertheless, despite the stated focus on ministry, it was also clear that the Vatican investigations were very much on the minds of the women here. Some said they were bewildered as to why they would be the focus of ecclesial concern now, especially when many clergy have come under fire for sex abuse.

Some expressed resentment. "This is the year of the priest and they are investigating women religious," one woman said sharply.

Some spoke of sadness and disappointment. Still others said that a self-evaluation, albeit forced, could be a good and useful thing.

The first Vatican investigation was announced last December by Cardinal Franc Rode, who heads the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. This study is aimed at U.S. women religious congregations. The second Vatican investigation was announced in February by Cardinal William Joseph Levada, prefect of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Its stated purpose is to obtain a "doctrinal assessment" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Just a week before the women assembled here, each congregation head received a letter from the woman Rode appointed as apostolic visitator, the person in charge of carrying out the investigations. The letter from Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Mother Mary Clare Millea came with a Vatican document called an instrumentum laboris, or "working paper," which outlined the Vatican investigation and for the first time stated that its scope includes an examination of "the soundness of doctrine held and taught" by the women.

That revelation further focused the attention of the women religious. Going into the three-day conference, many women expressed confidence that they would handle the matters thoughtfully. They also agreed the time together would provide opportunities to listen to each other and better discern the road ahead.

"We are being called to deeper reflection," said the incoming conference president, Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Marlene Weisenbeck. "It is important to stand on our own integrity as we go ahead."

A number of women said their knowledge of the nature, scope and reasons behind the Vatican actions is still sketchy. …