Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Power of Sisterhood: Women Religious Tell the Story of the Apostolic Visitation”

An hourlong teleconference with

Mary Ann Zollmann and Margaret McCarthy

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Mary Ann Zollmann and Margaret McCarthy for a WATERtalk on June 10, 2015. They are co-authors of the book Power of Sisterhood: Women Religious Tell the Story of the Apostolic Visitation. Margaret is professor in the Department of Graduate Education and Leadership and associate vice president for academic affairs at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. Mary Ann, BVM, PhD, has been a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary for 57 years. WATER thanks Mary Ann and Margaret for an inspirational time and for the notes they graciously provided on their presentations. A Q&A session followed.

 These notes are not meant to be verbatim, but to be used along with the posted audio of the call.

Presentation notes kindly provided by Mary Ann Zollmann and Margaret McCarthy

Margaret McCarthy:

Simply put, an apostolic visitation is a formal process initiated at the highest levels of the Church, to look into the welfare of a particular aspect of the Church. In this case, the decree authorizing the apostolic visitation was signed by Cardinal Rode in December 2008. He was then prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Its stated purpose was the “Look into the quality of the life of religious women in the United States.”

The dynamics in religious life that led to the visitation are two-fold. The first has to do with long-evolving issues and the second with a more immediate chronology of events leading to the announcement of the Visitation.

According to one of our chapter authors in the book, Sister Patricia Walter, OP, there were six long-evolving issues which factored into the decision to launch this visitation:

  • Theologies of religious life: Over time, hundreds of years, religious life has emerged in various forms in response to the movement of the Spirit and the needs of particular contexts. As a result, there is a natural degree of pluralism in the self-understanding of religious congregations and theologies of religious life. However, new developments are often judged wanting in terms of older, established patterns of religious life.

2) Feminism: Women’s inherent dignity and women’s equal dignity with men before God are tenets of church teaching. However, many church leaders seem unaware of the pluralism of feminist positions and some brand claims for true equality as “radical feminism.”

3) Reform and renewal: Following the directives from Vatican II, most religious institutes studied their charisms and the spirit of their founders and attempted to make their structures reflect the Gospel. They worked to put Christ and his message at the center of their lives. In going back to their roots, many groups discovered different models and practices of authority, obedience, and governance than those developed subsequent to the Councils of Trent and Vatican I and embedded in canon law.

4) Autonomy and unity: According to church teaching and canon law, religious institutes have a rightful autonomy of life. Throughout history, there have been tensions between religious institutes and members of the hierarchy. Unfortunately, too frequently the way that the members of the hierarchy try to resolve the tensions is to appeal to a rhetoric of obedience rather than a rhetoric of dialogue and discernment.

5) Reception of Vatican II: Most religious obediently followed the directives of returning to the sources of their lives, the evangelization of their structures, and the involvement of all members in prayer, study and dialogue about their lives and the directions they should take. One way of understanding a good number of the conflicts between some religious institutes and some members of the hierarchy is that those institutes had become models for the renewal of the church, a renewal which has not yet taken place as fully in other Church groups and structures.

6) Failures of dialogue and charity: Although the document “Religious and Human Promotion” calls religious “experts in communion,” from the early days of renewal, individual women religious and even religious institutes at times exhibited considerable lack of charity toward those who differed from them in terms of the pace and extent of renewal. In 1971, when the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (CMSW) decided to be more inclusive or collegial by including leadership teams and switched its name to the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR) to reflect that change, a split among women religious developed which, despite attempts at dialogue, was unfortunately institutionalized by the approval of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR). There is no other country in the world which has two officially recognized groups representing women religious. This situation has sometimes led to contrasting the “good” and the “bad” sisters.

Note: 1980 – Religious and Human Promotion identifies four criteria for discernment: “Fidelity to humanity and to our times; fidelity to Christ and the gospel; fidelity to the church and to its mission in the world; fidelity to religious life and to the charism of one’s own institute.”

There were a series of chronological events which led directly up to the visitation. The one most often cited is the Stonehill College Symposium held in the Boston Archdiocese. There, on September 27th, 2008, Cardinal Rodé –delivered the keynote address and noted that “All is not well with religious life in America.”

A few months later at the end of January, 2009, a press release and a news conference announced the Apostolic Visitation of institutes of women religious in the United States. This was the first-ever canonical investigation of an entire class of persons—it would examine the quality of life of approximately 59,000 women religious from more than 400 religious congregations in the United States.

Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was announced as the Apostolic Visitator, with the responsibility of sending a detailed report to Rome.

The Apostolic Visitation consisted of four phases:

  • In Phase 1, superiors general were invited to personally share “joys, concerns, and other observations” with Mother Mary Clare.
  • In Phase 2, major superiors were asked to complete a Questionnaire offering “empirical data as well as observations and aspirations”
  • In Phase 3, onsite visits were conducted to selected institutes across the United States;
  • And finally, Phase 4 required the compilation and delivery of a comprehensive report to the prefect of CICLSAL;

Our book was intended to serve as an historical record of the event and to understand the Visitation through the women religious who experienced it.

In order to record those experiences, a group of women religious known as the Grassroots Group decided to conduct a survey about the visitation as it was on-going. The survey was designed to collect data and to gather thoughts, feelings, and experiences from participants across the Visitation process.

We invited participation from both the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. Only the LCWR accepted so I think it is important to note that, unfortunately, the experiences of the Council are not represented in the book. We had a good response rate from the LCWR however- about 44%.

I will highlight just a few questions to give you a flavor of the experience as reflected through the survey.

About two-thirds of the respondents accepted the Phase 1 invitation to communicate their hopes and observations with Mother Mary Clare— and the vast majority (86%) indicated that interaction was positive and characterized it using language such as cordial, open, professional, or respectful.

Phase 2 of the Visitation requested major superiors to complete a questionnaire. The response to this phase was mixed. Of those who answered our survey questions, many reached out to canon lawyers for advice; about a third sent a letter to Mother Mary Clare rather than completing the questionnaire; others answered all questions; others answered only some. Many referenced their constitutions.

Our survey also requested data on the third Phase, the visit itself. Mother Mary Clare anticipated selecting “approximately 25% of the congregations involved in the Visitation to receive an on-site visit.” Among our survey respondents, 39% received a visit…..61% did not. Many of those not visited described feelings of relief. The words “relief” or “relieved” were used more often than any other descriptors.

The narrative, qualitative responses to our survey questions provide a rich portrait of the Visitation as it unfolded and detail the emotional, spiritual, and practical impact on the women who participated.

For example: We asked the leader(s) of congregations or provinces, what their thoughts and feelings were in January of 2009 when they learned that U.S. women religious would become the subject of an Apostolic Visitation.

  • 86% expressed thoughts and feelings that can be characterized as negative. Although the words anger and angry were most common, other words expressing similar dissatisfaction were also used including disappointment, fear, shock, sadness, and stress.
  • Two-thirds expressed concern about the purpose of the Apostolic Visitation and/or its outcome; Almost one-third noted their surprise or confusion regarding the announcement.

Here is a quote from one of the respondents to this survey question:

  • As the— order has served the church and the people of God faithfully for over 1,500 years I deeply resented any attempt to silence or control the Spirit speaking in and through us. I strongly felt that the matter was poorly conceived and even more poorly executed and communicated.

The second question I want to highlight today asked if the respondents’ thoughts and feelings about the Visitation changed over time.

  • Almost three-quarters reported that their own thoughts and feelings about the Visitation changed over time.
  • 50% of this group described thoughts and feelings that moved in a more positive direction.
  • For about one-third, the response was a mix of both negative and positive and, for a small minority [8%], initial negative thoughts and feelings persisted or intensified.

The most commonly expressed changes included the development and growth of solidarity with other women religious, regionally and nationally, and the recognition of the Visitation as an opportunity for growth, for collaboration, and for development of individual religious communities, sometimes in spite of a continued belief in the injustice of the Visitation itself.

I offer a quote from one of the respondents:

  • My hope is that women religious will help to create a transformed reality in our church reflective of the gospel in the future. The initial awful sense of assault on our integrity and fidelity as women religious deeply committed to the church has subsided over time. Anger and resentment gave way to deepening bonds of solidarity and support among our various congregations, both at the regional and national level. The experience has unified and strengthened us in our core. We received so many expressions of support from the laity, and especially from our colleagues in ministry, as well as from many priests and religious orders of men…

I will close by noting that for the women who responded to our survey, many had questions about the Visitation, its purpose, the process, and the possible consequences, but they seemed to feel that they had moved through it with other women religious as colleagues and collaborators. In spite of how it began, the end result for many was a reaffirmation of their shared charisms, a recommitment to their mission, constitutions and founding principles, and the realization that they have a powerful gift in each other.

Mary Ann Zollmann:

 The first sentence in emails originating with WATER quotes Emily Dickinson, “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word.” Truly it is the intuitive sense of the power of a word that catalyzed our book, Power of Sisterhood .We wanted to name the meanings, to remember them so as to live out of the event’s ongoing inspiration. So, what are the meanings we glean from this experience and what is their significance for women religious, for our world and church moving into the future?

The Apostolic Visitation has been a liberation event. Moving through it and beyond it has catalyzed an evolution of consciousness that, like the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, is revolutionary. To quote a central passage from our book:

Into the silence of patriarchal androgynous voices…the feminine voice breaks forth in an embodied greeting of mutuality…. The home of Elizabeth overflows the confines of male-defined domesticity as Mary and Elizabeth proclaim without restraint that, through their agency as women, God is dismantling prevailing hierarchical and patriarchal domestic order and birthing a new order of relationship in God’s own household. Pregnant with the life of God they sing into being the subversion of all oppressive structures and the advent of egalitarian relationships, a right and just order focused on the flourishing of life for all….For Mary and Elizabeth and for all who come after them nothing will ever be the same again (199).

Through the way we engaged the Apostolic Visitation we came to a much deeper appreciation of who we are as women religious. The description of our identity that threads its way through every page of our book is clear: We are women whose intimacy with God is lived as communion in the spirit of courage. In a process of profound self-validation, we became convinced of the radical necessity of releasing unfettered into church and world the dynamics that define us: contemplative spirit, collaborative engagement, and courageous commitment to boundless communion.

Plummeting us into God for our source of strength and guidance, the Apostolic Visitation renewed us in the primacy of a contemplative spirit. We learned how essential it is that we keep growing in our understandings of God so as to live truly in the divine image. We are called to the discipline, challenge, and the delight of individual and communal theological reading, reflection, and conversation. We are called to make a habit of contemplative sinking into God where, experiencing the certitude of God’s all inclusive unconditional love, we stretch the reach of our love. We know more than ever before that it is the practice of contemplation that has and will keep us faithful, honest and relevant in meeting real needs in an ever evolving universe.

Secondly, the Apostolic Visitation awakened us to the potential and possibility of living our sisterhood largely, collaboratively, in ever-widening porous circles of communion. The solidarity experienced within religious communities, among religious communities, and with the laity is an energy that compels us to run with it together creating a universal household where all are honored. The mission lived vividly by women religious is a contagious one because it is not ours alone but belongs to all the people of God for the good of the whole people of God. This realization inspires all of us, religious and laity, to work together for the realization of God’s mission in our world and church. For us women religious this means intentional collaboration with one another in religious communities, including those whose expression of religious life differs from ours; and a commitment to collaborate with laity in creating heretofore unimagined and untried partnerships for the sake of the mission we all share.

A third learning is that living this way, contemplatively, collaboratively, for a mission of boundless communion requires courage and together we have all the courage we need. During the Visitation we retrieved the stories of our founders and foundresses and individual women in our congregations who have reached out to those at the margins even with the threat of political or religious sanction and judgment of heresy or infidelity. The Apostolic Visitation marked a pivotal and irrevocable turning point in our tradition of courage. We stood for what we believe in, not just as individuals or as individual congregations, but together. With the voice of our sisterhood come to maturity, we proclaimed together our fidelity to the gospel. That radical act of communal integrity emboldens us to move into the future faithful to boundless communion.

In this process we experienced the liberation that comes from discovering the meaning and significance of our lives, not due to external affirmation by Rome, but from the inside out. As articulated in words from the book’s Epilogue:

What we are saying and doing speaks, without compromise or equivocation, to our understanding of the identity and mission of religious life in our times, testifies to our joy-filled awareness that community is ever more expansive than what we had imagined it to be, and tells a story of redemption from fear evoked by external authority for freedom to live with courageous integrity (207).

Like Mary and Elizabeth we learned how blessed we are. We know that the gift of religious life we give to the future holds more depth and, yes, more joy because of what we and God have been doing together through and beyond the Apostolic Visitation. Simply said, we know that we have and are engaging a time of grace and we pray that for our own integrity and for the flourishing of life in our universe, it will not let us go.


The moderator added say a word about the so-called resolution to the Apostolic Visitation. The book ends before the final chapter, as it were. Did Mary Ann want to add a footnote about the conclusion of the Apostolic Visitation?

Mary Ann: On December 16, 2014, there was an open press conference and the Apostolic Visitation came to a formal close. The conference was collaboratively done by leaders in Rome and leaders from LCWR and the CMSW. The manner was in stark contrast to the way it was announced. There’s still a sense of more work to do. My hope is that everything doesn’t end with the report that was given on December 16, especially the part that speaks to the role of women in the church. There are a few sections in the final report that commend women religious for the work we have done, but also acknowledge that the dialogue needs to be ongoing, because it’s very clear that some of the offices and leadership in Rome understand the work of women going forward differently from the way we women understand our participation going forward. Just to quote from the final report, “We will continue to work to see that competent women religious will be actively involved in necessary dialogue regarding the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the church’s life.” That part of the report is something we need to continue to attend to.

Questions followed:

  1. An associate member of the IHMs of Monroe Michigan who is writing an article about the Visitation in the context of collaboration and conflict, was moved by the authors’ analysis on the interaction between those being visited and the visitors. Could they reflect more on that as part of the ongoing experience of collaboration?

Mary Ann: My experience is that we had fruitful dialogue with the visitors and it was the kind of dialogue that I would like to see happen more. Some of it depended on who the visitors were and how those processes were carried out. If that kind of dialogue across difference can occur more in our church, it would be a gift not only for women religious but also for the church as a whole. Some of that modeled the best processes of dialogue.

  1. A Presbyterian caller wondered what the authors’ experience has to say to women working towards ordination in the Protestant church, and about the relationship between Roman Catholics and Protestants, especially whether there was ecumenical support for the nuns in the situation of the Apostolic Visitation.

Margaret: In the survey, when women spoke about the support they received, they often spoke of support from the laity. Most often they referred to Catholic laity. There were several examples of Protestant members of the laity as well as clergy who supported the sisters. The specific issue of the ordination of women didn’t come up at all in the process of the survey itself.

  1. An Episcopal activist was very moved by the accounts of the story – a very inspiring thing – and wondered if Mary Ann could speak a little more about how her experience of the presence of God changed through this process, individually or collectively.

Mary Ann: One of the deepest experiences of the presence of God happened in the times of dialogue and conversation like the one we’re having now, where you could hear other women religious speak to their experience, and know that we don’t have to agree about things but it’s the richness of the diversity that carries us into the future. That diversity can be born on the wings of the spirit alive in each one of us.

  1. A caller from Canada wondered what the fate of the word ‘feminist’ was in the final report. She was offended. Here were the men bullying the religious women who claim the word feminist, which is a very important term to claim worldwide. She watched this with real doubt and concern that religious women would back down on the appropriation of those terms and ideas, and wondered about the fate of the word ‘feminist’.

Mary Ann: In our lives as women religious, without the power and the strength of who we are as women, we would not have been able to move through this whole experience of the Apostolic Visitation with such gracefulness and courage and conviction. It’s the question of this rigorous honesty and fidelity to who we are as women that is going to carry us forward, and that’s where that gracefulness is for me.

The caller asked: Was anything settled by the suffering, by the courage shown, by the solidarity? Will the boys never do this again?

The moderator responded: When I was reading the opening historical materials, it was clear that that apostolic visitations are a way to consolidate papal power. Is there a shadow we need to look at – another side that we should also be dealing with critically, both in contemplation and in strategy?

Mary Ann: I can only speak personally. What happened to me throughout this whole process was a strengthening of my conviction of the role of women in the church and the critical role that women play in this process going forward. I am moving forward with a sense of solidarity with women and with many lay men who have companioned with us, sometimes silently, through the process. Something is happening in the church as a whole because of what we experienced, and I don’t want to lose that sense of larger solidarity with the whole church. We work together to continue to create the kinds of inclusive church that we long for. That may be the gift of this – to open up to relationships that expand beyond us. There’s something generating in times like this that place us in community and solidarity with one another.

Margaret: How different leadership was in the beginning compared to how it was in the end. We started it with Pope Benedict XVI, who had a more hierarchical approach, and ended it with Pope Francis, who seems to have a more open response to the needs of people in the church. They have very different leadership styles. I am a Catholic but not a member of a religious institute, so my work in this was really from the outside, but I think Mary Ann will remember when we reached the end of the book I was so excited that women religious across the entire globe could come together in some way and be a voice of change for the church. There is tremendous respect for women religious all around the world. Are we going to find a way to pull these communities together to be a voice for the church universally?

  1. The moderator wondered as they talk about what’s next, how, as women have gotten closer in this process, is your sense of moving in the direction of “post-community” religious life, as numbers shrink? Is there any suggestion with the solidarity across communities that we are heading in that direction?

Margaret: What will post-community life be like as religious communities become smaller and smaller in the U.S. in particular? What kind of organizational structure might lay women create for themselves in the church?

Mary Ann: Perhaps there is the new birth for our church as lay women and women religious connect deeply around similar dreams and desires and values. There’s a growing communion with lay women and women religious that is happening through the process that we can only begin to name as we see it evolving.

The moderator said one important note is the clarification of terminology. All Catholic women are lay women until the first one is ordained validly and licitly, so in the women’s movement, the terms “lay women” and “women religious” are not used in juxtaposition. To get rid of the term lay women would be a first step in the right direction. We really are all in the same boat; these events prove that in so many ways.

Mary Ann: Throughout this process that was catalyzed by something that was originally very difficult, what I see happening is the relationships among women religious and beyond between vowed women religious and laity is that those relationships are becoming stronger. Although we can’t see the future, the strength of those relationships across boundaries that used to define us is important as the boundaries become more porous. There’s something about the porousness of the boundaries that are becoming more fluid because of the in-depth communication that is going on. That’s an incredible gift to the future and not yet come to fruition in terms of what that will mean going forward – for women, men and the whole church.

WATER thanks Mary Ann and Margaret for a fruitful conversation. The next WATERtalk will be “Electric Santeria: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion” with Aisha Beliso-De Jesus from 1 to 2 p.m. ET. For more information, visit our website. All are welcome.

Kate Stoltzfus, Silver Spring, Maryland       June 15, 2015