An Opportunity of Grace
Reflections on the Apostolic Visitation
By Rev. Thomas Nelson, O.Praem.
Recently, Rev. Richard McBrien wrote a syndicated column on the apostolic visitation to women religious in this country. He began his reflections saying: “Religious communities of women have been responsible for many of the good things that the Catholic Church in the United States has achieved both before and after the Second Vatican Council.” I couldn’t agree more with Father McBrien. What women religious have accomplished in this country is well documented in a book I highly recommend entitled Sisters by John J. Fialka. Women religious certainly deserve our praise and support. But it seems that Father McBrien misunderstands the purpose of the apostolic visitation. He goes on to say: “It is all the more distressing, therefore, that the two Vatican agencies—the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—have targeted these communities and their principal leadership organizations for a “visitation” and “doctrinal assessment” respectively. Why would it be distressing when the whole purpose of the visitation is to help these communities remain firm in their evangelical commitment and magisterial fidelity to assure that they will continue to be a vital influence in our Church and country? An “apostolic visitation” and a “doctrinal assessment” is not a witch-hunt for heretics or religious rebels. It is a pastoral instrument with an almost thousand-year tradition which enables the hierarchy to fulfill its obligations in justice and charity to guide the Lord’s most chosen portion of the flock, namely, consecrated religious.
Visitations are of two kinds. There is the canonical visitation as spelled out in the religious constitutions. Canonical visitations are part of the ordinary life of every religious institute. They occur about every three to six years depending upon the constitutions. Then there is the apostolic visitation at the initiative of the Apostolic See. It is not part of the ordinary life of a religious institute but occurs when the Holy See judges that a visitation from outside the institute itself would be beneficial for its renewal. A visitation is a time of reflection for an institute to assess its strengths and weaknesses, to correct any abuses or irregularities that are contrary to Church law or one’s constitutions and to renew itself in Christ. It is indeed an opportunity of grace. However, it must be approached with faith and humble docility to the visitators who come as representatives of Christ and his Church. And like any grace one must prepare oneself to accept the grace and cooperate properly with it. As a religious for more than thirty years I have witnessed many visitations, both the ordinary canonical visitations and extraordinary apostolic visitations. And I have experienced that the grace of visitation is proportional to the faith in which a visitation is received as well as the preparation an institute puts into it.
The present apostolic visitation was announced earlier this year and there are four phases to the visitation. The first phase consists in initial meetings and communication with religious superiors in order to draw up a questionnaire to gather information and help individuals and communities reflect upon their lives as religious. This phase has already been completed. The second phase will be conducted this September and October. In this phase religious congregations respond to the questionnaire which seeks empirical information about identity, mission, governance, finances, spiritual life and activities to promote vocations. The third phase is the heart of the visitation and it consists of visitation teams meeting with select religious communities. Not all communities will be visited. Only a representative group will have that grace. This phase begins in January 2010 and will end January 2011. The final phase from mid-2010 to mid-2011 consists of compiling the information gathered from the visitations and delivering a report with recommendations to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Society of Apostolic Life. Each phase is important for the success of the visitation and all should cooperate with the process to the degree that one is involved. Most importantly we should all pray for its success since ultimately it is a grace.
I believe the fear generated by this present visitation comes from its being directed by the Apostolic See, an authority outside the institute itself. This assures a greater objectivity in relation to the essential elements of the religious life and perhaps that is what many fear. The conditions of most institutes of women religious objectively speaking is not good if you look simply at their numbers, their aging membership and ability to attract new candidates that stay and profess perpetual vows. It is not unreasonable to surmise that they have fallen from their original ideals and fervor and that they have misunderstood or misapplied the principles of renewal given in the Vatican II document Perfectae Caritatis. Some are even more aligned to the secular culture and its worldly values than to a Catholic culture informed with evangelical values. The Holy See through various post-Conciliar documents has clearly outlined the path to authentic renewal in continuity with the Church’s Tradition but not all institutes seemed to have listened. They have not cooperated with the ordinary grace Peter offers to the Church through the ordinary magisterium. This has occasioned the Holy See to take extraordinary pastoral measures, that is, an apostolic visitation, to help assess their situation objectively according to Church teaching in order to put them on the course of authentic renewal.
The success of such an apostolic visitation requires good and prudent visitators. They must be carefully selected since they carry with them an extraordinary grace. Rev. Richard McBrien in the article mentioned above laments the fact that the visitators will be required to make a public profession of faith and an oath of fidelity to the Apostolic See. Such an oath, however, is not to assure that that the visitation teams will be skewed in a particular ideological direction as he says. Rather, on the contrary, it is meant to assure objectivity according to the faith of the Church. Besides, an oath is an act of the virtue of religion which carries with it a particular grace—in this case the grace of fidelity to the Holy See—a grace all Catholics and especially religious should seek. Oaths are hardly “demeaning” as Father McBrien says many women religious find them to be. Oaths, like vows, elevate the moral life and root it more firmly in the virtue of religion which makes one pleasing to God. Anyone who would consider an oath demeaning is hardly fit to make a visitation and should be excluded from a task that requires a special fidelity to the Apostolic See.
The oath apostolic visitators take is meant to strengthen them in their delicate task and should inspire confidence in them as visitators. The last thing wanted in a visitator who represents the Holy See is someone who puts his or her private judgment above Church teaching and practice and conducts a visitation according to his or her own subjective ideology. Objectivity is needed in such an important task. The oath and profession of faith are meant to assure that.
Lastly, Father McBrien objects to the updated profession of faith which the visitators must make. It adds to the previous version: “Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.” Why would he object to something that comes almost verbatim from Lumen Gentium no. 25? Vatican II has given us the principles for authentic renewal of religious life, and religious submission of will and intellect to the ordinary magisterium in one of those principles. Religious communities which are faithful to Vatican II as interpreted by the Holy See, even in non definitive teaching, are doing well; some communities are even thriving while those who dissent from such teaching are on the decline. Certainly if this apostolic visitation is able to draw more communities towards accepting true and authentic renewal of religious life as envisioned by Vatican II, it will be well worth the effort.
Fr. Thomas Nelson, O.Praem., is the National Director of the Institute on Religious Life. He is a member of St. Michael’s Norbertine Abbey in Silverado, California.