U.S. women religious feel they are under unfair scrutiny

  • September 22, 2010
Sr. Donna MarkhamTORONTO - For many religious women in the United States the Vatican-appointed apostolic visitation on American sisters is an open wound, a sore point and something they would rather not talk about.

Sr. Donna Markham is coming to Toronto to talk about it. The Dominican Sister will deliver the annual Dominican Family of Toronto lecture at the University of St. Michael’s College Oct. 15. Markham has titled her talk “Mission, Membership and the Apostolic Visitation” and organizers are promoting it under the banner “Women Religious Under Scrutiny.”  

In January 2009 Cardinal Franc Rode, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, ordered the visitation of all the apostolic communities of sisters in the United States, excluding contemplative orders. At that time apostolic visitors gave three goals for the wide-ranging inspection of American nuns. The visitors would look at “the quality of religious life,” learn about the ways women religious contribute to the welfare of the Church and society and look for ways to “strengthen, enhance and support the growth of the institutes.”

However, across the United States women religious feel they haven’t been given a straight answer about why the Vatican has singled them out, said Markham.

“To this very day, two years into this thing, there has still been no clarity of purpose conveyed to the 65,000 religious women of this country — about why this is happening,” said the former prioress general of the Adrian Dominican Congregation.

The Vatican doesn’t usually order visitations unless there’s something wrong. Recent visitations have included the 2005-2006 visitation to American seminaries and houses of formation in the wake of sex abuse scandals and an ongoing visitation of the Legionaries of Christ after it was learned that the order’s founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel, was a serial sex abuser and morphine addict who had also fathered up to six children.

The sisters’ suspicions are further heightened by the refusal of the Vatican to make public the final report of the visitation, expected in the spring of 2011. Still unanswered is the question of whether the Congregation will share the final report with the sisters themselves.

“There’s a significant amount of hurt and a feeling of being devalued,” said Markham.

Some have speculated that the fall in vocations over the past 40 years prompted the visitation. Less than 10 per cent of the women religious in the United States are under the age of 60.

“That doesn’t hold too much water, because in Europe there are far fewer vocations to religious life than there are in the United States,” said Markham, who is well known to Canadians for the years she spent as head of the Southdown Institute, a treatment centre for mental illness and addictions in Aurora, Ont.

As a fellow of the American Academy of Clinical Psychology she has had a prominent role advising bishops about clergy sexual abuse.

American communities haven’t spent enough time making sure that people know who they are, what they do and why, said Markham.

“After Vatican II we haven’t been real good about telling the story of religious life,” she said. “That’s something we can really take to heart. We’ve got to do a better job of that.”

In the end, the sisters will carry on working, finding ways of being true to the mission of the Church, said Markham.

“The sisters aren’t afraid at all,” she said. “There’s a deep sense of hurt. They feel that the integrity of our lives speaks for itself. Our investment in the mission of the Church and the mission of the Gospel is so strong that we have nothing to hide and nothing to worry about.”

Tickets for Markham’s talk are $20 and are available from marcos.ramos@utoronto.ca or by calling (416) 595-5665.

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