Sisters Speak out on Visitation: Commissioned Study Collects Experiences of US Women Religious during Vatican Inquiry

Article excerpt

The fourth and final phase of the Vatican's apostolic visitation of the communities of women religious in the United States, announced in 2009, has yet to emerge. In the meantime, some women religious sought to compile their feelings about the visitation, since the only public women religious perspective on the investigation has been in the media.

The nine women religious--from different congregations--compiled the voices of the women religious about the experience in their commissioned study, "The Apostolic Visitation as Experienced by U.S. Women Religious."

"I think as a group, we had a really deep desire to enable women religious to speak in their own voice collectively," said St. Joseph of Carondelet Sr. Jean Wincek.

"We wanted to preserve this story in a way that will allow people 30 or 40 years from now to go back and look at a bona fide study. It was our intention really to have this data collected so there would be an appropriate study done on this process," she said.

In the months before the survey was sent out in March 2011, a few women religious of different congregations were talking at a conference assembly--not a formal discussion, but just passing time in the hallway--about their experiences going through the visitation. Out of that discussion came the idea to record the experiences of women religious in one report.

"I think we're a product of the very thing we're talking about. We--the grass-roots group is a visible product of the experience we're trying to convey," Congregation of St. Joseph Sr. Nancy Conway said about the group directing the survey.

Although the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has been going through a different Vatican assessment, the group wants to clarify that the two are in no way related.

"We're not in any way speaking about LCWR and the doctrinal assessment," Ursuline Sr. Lynn Jarrell said. "We're talking about the process started by [the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life] called the apostolic visitation of women religious. We're not an official group. We're a grass-roots group that wanted to gather the story."

The nine women enlisted the services of a sociologist from Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., to analyze the results. The questionnaire was sent out in March 2011 to the 143 congregations who said they would participate All the completed forms were returned by June 2011.

The report was a questionnaire for all the women religious communities to complete. It had about 18 questions with a number of subquestions that provided a very "complex" study and a substantial amount of data, said Margaret McCarthy, the sociologist who worked on the report.

McCarthy drew "dozens and dozens" of themes from the information in the questionnaire. Similar experiences were the majority, but there were exceptions.

"As you might imagine, the responses are across the board. ... Everyone experienced the apostolic visitation in their own way, but you can see some themes come through," McCarthy said.

The process that she used was mostly qualitative, although there is some quantitative analysis. "The vast majority [of questions] are qualitative in nature, describing an experience in response to a question. …