'Power of Sisterhood' illustrates sisters' journey through apostolic visitation

by Mary Ann McGivern

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On Dec. 22, 2008, the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life announced an apostolic visitation to investigate the lives of sisters in the United States. This announcement begins the book Power of Sisterhood: Women Religious Tell the Story of the Apostolic Visitation, a journey of sisters together across the United States. Because no report has been made public and the investigated lives and works of the sisters has been neither praised nor criticized, the journey is continuing across uncharted territory.

Eight members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, calling themselves the Grassroots Group, wanted to capture the experience of the visitation. They prepared 18 questions and sent them to the 328 members of LCWR. Almost 150 valid responses were returned.

Many questions asked, "How did you feel when ... ": you first read the announcement; you understood the implications of the visitation; your community was or was not selected for an on-site visitation; etc. Others asked about the questionnaire prepared by the visitation leaders; for example, if all, some or none of the questions were answered and why. The final questions asked whether the visitation has made a difference in how the respondents function today as leaders.

The body of Power of Sisterhood details the responses to the Grassroots Group survey. The responses are often moving. They are varied and detailed. They provide a picture of the dismay sisters felt at the seeming disregard of their lives of dedication and their earnest efforts in this moment of crisis to respond to the Vatican investigation with integrity.

The book begins with a brief explanation of the canonical apostolic visitation in the history of the Catholic church and a summary of recent questions posed by U.S. bishops and others about U.S. communities of sisters who are members of LCWR about issues such as theology, feminism and reform and renewal.

The creation of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious in 1987 is described under the section "Failure of Dialogue and Charity," and the chapter author calls it a "source of pain and probably scandal." This small reference caught me, the reader, by surprise. I'm a sister in a community that belongs to LCWR, but I hadn't thought much about the split with our more conservative sisters. They were the visitors in the actual series of on-site visitations. I wasn't there, but my sisters who met with them found them warm and engaging. Now I wonder what they took home with them and if their encounters with us changed them and have the potential for bringing us together.

The four concluding chapters are reflections on religious life today. The communities that are members of LCWR have become much closer to one another and more appreciative of the power of collaboration in sisterhood. On a deep level, they have grown in appreciation of their vocation to stand at the margins in imitation of Christ. The visitation inspired deep theological reflection by women like Sandra Schneiders and sharp critical analysis by women like Joan Chittister. It also inspired an outpouring of grateful storytelling by the laity in whose lives the sisters have made a difference.

As one chapter says, the experience of the visitation was like skating on thin ice. The authors used as their theme poet Cecily Jones' "Thin Ice on Mary's Lake." Jones, a Loretto sister, writes that "holding hands ... We balance on the thin tensility of hope." The writers extend the metaphor, describing the day-to-day fears and hopes and even rare exultations among the hundreds of religious leaders and thousands of sisters who were part of the process.

Editor Mary Ann Zollmann concludes by considering what religious communities have gained by the silence of the Vatican. Unburdened by reports, sisters have grown in understanding of the lives they have chosen. Having been questioned, they are confident that the path they are on is a good path. Yet the sisters remember those hundreds of reports on each congregation, lying on some shelf or in a box, never having been seen by the subjects of the investigation. It's an abuse of power the sisters live with in silence.

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