Last week the Vatican released the final report on its unprecedented investigation of Roman Catholic sisters in the United States. Six years ago, when the Vatican announced the apostolic visitation (its formal name), many of the sisters whom the investigation affected responded with hurt and anger. Now, thanks largely to competent, spiritually grounded leadership on the part of American sisters, the spirit is conciliatory.
When the Vatican launched the investigation in 2008, under Pope Benedict, to “look into the quality of life of religious women in the United States,” the announcement was met with suspicion and apprehension. Since the Vatican had previously only ordered an apostolic visitation when a group had gone astray, sisters wondered what the Vatican wanted to investigate and why. Some congregations reported that their elder sisters felt that their whole lives had been judged and found wanting," remembers Sr. Sharon Holland, president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the U. S. When Sr. Sandra Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., learned of the visitation, she warned sisters to be cautious, treating the visitors as “uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house.”
In a situation that could have escalated badly, American sisters rose to the occasion. Grounded in prayer and equipped with excellent leadership skills, both the visitors and the visited made the best of a difficult situation. Mother Mary Clare Millea, an American nun appointed to oversee the visitation, structured the visits in such a way that they encouraged openness and respect. By September 2010, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister wrote, “There is a warm, ‘sisterly’ spirit about the way our visitors have interacted with us. They seem open and appreciative about who we are.”
When LCWR past president Sr. Marlene Weisenbeck was interviewed by the National Catholic Reporter in August 2010 and asked if the investigation could move toward being seen in a positive light, she responded, “You know, I think we’re quite a ways along the road to that being true already. There was anger at first, but as people are having better experiences with the visits, the mood has been changing.”
The visited, as well as the visitors, sought to look for the best in their sisters who were visiting them. Mother Mary Clare Millea reported in last week’s Vatican press conference:
“The Apostolic Visitation provided many opportunities for reflection, dialogue and communion among women religious in the United States as well as with the Church’s pastors and lay faithful. Congregation leaders, including those who expressed resistance initially to this initiative, have shared that the process has yielded surprising positive results.”
Sr. Sharon Holland, initially skeptical about the visitation, affirmed its value at the press conference:
First of all I would like to express thanks to Mother Mary Clare. The organization, preparation and carrying out of this enormous undertaking was truly amazing. The training of the team of religious who visited our institutes resulted, when the time came, in a great sense of freedom. . . Despite the [initial] apprehension, today we are looking at an affirmative and realistic report which, we know, is based on the study of written responses and on countless hours of attentive listening.
While more work of healing and rebuilding trust remains, the outcome of the visitation is more positive than many expected. It provides a good foundation on which to build.
American nuns have much to teach the world about leadership. Remaining spiritually grounded, working with mutual respect and openness, listening deeply, and utilizing skillful collaborative processes, all can go a long way toward healing hurts, de-escalating conflict, and moving forward. They have demonstrated that letting go of defensiveness and working collaboratively in the midst of potential conflict can lead to unexpected breakthroughs.
Margaret Benefiel , Ph.D., author of Soul at Work and The Soul of a Leader, works with leaders in health care, business, churches, government, and nonprofits to help them stay true to their souls. Visit her website.
Image: Catholic sister praying with rosary, Diego Cervo/ Shutterstock.com