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CURRENT ISSUE:  April 26 , 2010
VOL. 48, NO. 8   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Bishop details local, Vatican actions in Kiesle case
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MSJ Dominicans first stop
for Visitation team

The Mission San Jose Dominican Sisters in Fremont are the first community of Sisters to be visited by representatives of a Vatican apostolic delegation looking into the quality of life of U.S. congregations of women religious.

Three visitors spent April 11-14 at the congregation’s motherhouse in Fremont meeting with the congregation’s leadership, its formation team, the community’s one novice, and five Sisters in temporary vows.

Sister Gloria Marie Jones, congregational prioress, likened their presence to a time 2,000 years ago when Mary of Nazareth visited Elizabeth to offer help and support to her expectant cousin. Just as Mary and Elizabeth met together “as sisters, so did these three Sisters who came to us,” she said. “They have been very supportive. We gathered as Sisters to share our stories, lives, hopes and challenges.”

Sister Jones voiced her hope that the visitations “will be an opportunity for the Church of Rome to better understand the profound gifts of the Church in the United States.”

The visitation team members — Springfield, Illinois Dominican Sister Dominica Brennan, Nashville Dominican Sister Angela Highfield and Divine Missionary of the Most Holy Trinity Sister Mary Catherine McDonald of Philadelphia — are three of the 78 religious who had been recommended by their communities’ leadership as prospective visitors. These nominees attended a training session Feb. 26-28 in St. Louis to discern whether they wanted to become apostolic visitors, said Sister Jones. Sixty-four agreed to serve.

During that meeting, they learned the design and procedures of the visitation process, prayed together and became acquainted with one another as potential team members. After committing to serve, they made a profession of faith and took an oath of fidelity during a Eucharistic liturgy.

Teams will be visiting congregations through June 4, with a second series scheduled for this fall. Twenty-five percent of religious institutes will be visited this year.

Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist Kieran Foley, spokesperson for the visitation office, said selections were made to ensure a representative sample of congregations based on congregational size and growth patterns, principal apostolic works, and geographical locations.

The visitation office is not publishing the names of the congregations being visited to ensure confidentiality for each order, she said.

In recounting the four-day visit, Sister Jones said it began with an orientation session which included dinner for the guests and about 100 Sisters of the community.

In addition to meetings with the leadership and formation teams, the visitors had a group session with several people familiar with the Sisters and their ministries. They included Oakland Bishop Emeritus John Cummins, Dominican Father Roberto Corral, pastor of Most Holy Rosary Parish in Antioch and former Dominican provincial, Precious Blood Father Jeff Finley, motherhouse chaplain, and several lay women associated with the Sisters’ ministries.

Thirty Sisters also communicated with the team by phone, letter, or in person.

All of the groups were asked to discuss what they see as the strengths, gifts, and challenges faced by the Mission San Jose Dominicans; their hopes for the community, and how priests and pastors could be more of a support to the Sisters.

Preparations leading up to this spring’s visits commenced in 2009, soon after Cardinal Franc Rode, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, announced that his office would open an apostolic visitation process to look into the 341 U.S. communities, totaling 67,000 religious women, to find out why the numbers of professed Sisters have gone down during the past 40 years, and to look at ways to assure a better future for women religious.

Cloistered nuns were exempted from the study because their life styles and needs are “very different from those of apostolic communities,” according to the Apostolic Visitation website.

Prior to the on-site visitation, Sister Jones met for an hour last June with Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the official apostolic visitator for the entire Apostolic Visitation. Her office is located in Hamden, Connecticut.

During the session at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles, which was optional, Sister Jones shared the history of her community, its mission, charism, and current joys and challenges. Superiors of other religious communities also met with Mother Millea in Los Angeles and she made visits to three other geographical parts of the country to accommodate religious communities there.

Last fall, for phase two, Sister Jones and the other congregational presidents throughout the U.S. filled out two sets of questionnaires concerning the structural makeup of their communities. Sister Jones described the questionnaires as “very thorough.”

Part A asked for the number of postulants, novices, and those under temporary and perpetual vows as well as figures concerning those who entered and left between September 1, 1999 and August 31, 2009. Other questions focused on the number of convents, whether Sisters live alone or in small groups, or with Sisters of another community.

Part B inquired into how communities identify and govern their religious institutes; their vocation promotion, admission and formation policies; their spiritual, common and liturgical life; their mission and ministry, and financial administration.

The visitation web site said the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) will prepare an aggregate report of the quantitative data collected from all reporting institutes in Part A of the questionnaire. Individual congregations will not be identified in any way. Cardinal Rode has authorized the public release of this report.

Each of the visiting teams will submit a report to Mother Millea from which she will prepare a report for Cardinal Rode and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. It will include recommendations regarding each of the institutes, whether or not they have received an on-site visit. That report will be confidential.

The project officially concludes in 2011.

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