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Sr. Adele Brambilla's report on diocesan institutes to the Council of 16

Council of “16” CIVSCVA

Rome, 16 November 2001


A Spirituality of Communion (NMI 43)

The path of “communion among the charisms” expressed in the Instrumentum Laboris (20) of the last Synod of Bishops effectively verbalized what religious institutes have long felt and practiced: a sense of being urged on towards others, allowing us to breathe in that prospective of communion … learning to love the community and the religious family of the other like one’s own. The joys and the sorrows, the worries and the successes thus become shared and belong to all.

It is precisely in this sense of a “spirituality of communion,” strongly underlined in the apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (43), that the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) has desired to place itself alongside particular painful situations “carrying the burden of the others.” It continues to do so, also thanks to the interests and the effort of this forum, the “Council of 16,” where the concerns of everyone are shared.

In fact, three years ago the UISG decided to use the “Council of 16” as a forum for a reflection on the problem of sexual abuses suffered by women religious. It was a painful journey but a fruitful one, characterized by respect, listening, and careful attention for a deep understanding of the causes, the implications and the consequences of a problem that touches not an institution, but the most intimate reality of the person, the consecrated woman.

The mass media, even if in an unhappy fashion, has placed this information in the public domain, generating awareness and concern.

The UISG has continued in its meetings to focus on the problem in its largest dimensions, and continues to do so with particular sensibility, discretion and tenacity, in the search for concrete solutions and initiatives for preventing the abuse and the consequences that derive from the problem. It is also engaged in initiatives regarding formation of women religious, addressing exactly such questions at all levels.

We would like to take this opportunity as the UISG to express our gratitude to the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life for the interests and efforts with which it is has involved itself in confronting the reality of the problem.

The problem has been recognized and verbalized. Now the hour has arrived for finding paths to confront and prevent it, and above all, it is the moment to focus not merely on one specific aspect, but to go to the root.

This meeting is the privileged place for giving voice to these hopes, emerging above all from Institutes of Diocesan Right, the object of our daily solicitude.

The future cannot be faced in dispersion (IL 20)

It is precisely looking at these Institutes of Diocesan Right that we feel the need to lend our voices to their expectations and hopes that are, in reality, the expectations and hopes of all the church.

As Sr. Rita Burley underlined at the recent Synod of Bishops, these institutes represent more than half of the all the female religious institutes in the church. Their number continues to grow on all continents. They are founded by bishops, priests, former religious, ecclesial movements, confraternities and groups that separate themselves from international congregations that are numerically larger.

They are without doubt a great contribution to evangelization in different parts of the world .

The pope, in his apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, affirms that here one touches upon the universal extension of the consecrated life, present in the local churches throughout the world. The consecrated life inspires and accompanies the spread of evangelization in the different parts of the world, where institutes from abroad are gratefully welcomed and new ones are being founded, in a great variety of forms and expressions. (VC 2). I’m aware, for example, that in Africa, of 130 diocesan institutes present on that continent, 110 are female. They are a precious and necessary gift for the present and the future of the people of God, because they belong to its life, its holiness, and its mission. They are without doubt a richness for the local churches. In particular they are a source of inspiration for the recognition and promotion of the dignity of the woman, often crushed by structures of sin within society. They are a sign of hope in the Christian community, and they are an essential and vital part of women’s religious life.

But it is also true, and we have to recognize it, that many of these institutes are experiencing serious difficulties (IL 92). I have experienced this personally during my numerous travels, especially in Africa where this reality appeared to me in all its concreteness.

Let us try to list some difficulties for facilitating reflection:

Abandonment: These young institutes need authentic listening, welcome, and communication with their own bishop. Their difficulties are often born from the fact that they do not always feel themselves recognized as a vital presence in the local church.

The diocesan institutes often lack resources:

1) Financial : Scarce or non-existent economic resources afflict in painful fashion not merely the internal life of the community but also the choices they would like to make. In today’s world a preparation that requires long periods and financial resources is indispensable. Like all institutes, these sisters too feel an urgent need to offer a skilled contribution to the life of the church, but they can’t do it. This impedes an adequate formation, and obliges the sisters to choose paying services or other difficult labor (e.g., cultivation of fields) in order to earn their sustenance, to the detriment of initiatives in diverse pastoral sectors.

Is taking another look at diocesan conventions, or stabilizing directives regarding the remuneration of the work of religious, not perhaps an emergency?

2) Spiritual : Few interest themselves in their spiritual growth; often they are not able to participate in retreats, spiritual exercises, etc., always for lack of financial possibility.

3) Formative : They do not have access to programs of formation, whether initial or on-going, as well as specific academic formation, precisely for lack of financial capacity, and thus they are left to themselves.

Discontinuity: Sometimes the initial vision or inspiration is not shared by the successor to the detriment of continuity or the growth of the institute, thus creating no small amount of suffering.

Lack of charismatic identity: Many young and small institutes force themselves to identify with “a charism” that realistically never existed (PC 19; MR 51), and others live a spirituality that is ambiguous. This distorts the concept of religious life and creates confusion and disorientation. A point to underscore is the serious attention that should be paid to the vocational orientation and the selection of candidates.

Uncontrolled proliferation: There are more than 3000 female religious institutes. Many are very small and some are on the path to extinction. It is known that in some countries institutes of diocesan right are multiplying. It is not infrequent that the founder does not have a very clear charismatic inspiration and a project for continuity, rather the institute is created only to respond to specific exigencies or emergencies.

Imprudence: It is a grave preoccupation to note that young members of some of these diocesan institutes are sent by their bishops or their superior generals for studies abroad without sufficient economic aid or the security of a residence in a religious community, with all the consequences that derive from it.

From listening to sharing

Now we must look ahead, we must "put out into the deep", trusting in Christ's words: Duc in altum! … the experiences we have had should inspire in us new energy … concrete initiatives. (NMI 15)

Now is the time for a new "creativity" in charity, not only by ensuring that help is effective but also by "getting close" to those who suffer, so that the hand that helps is seen not as a humiliating handout but as a sharing between brothers and sisters. (NMI 50)

The UISG has picked up this challenge and has expressed it in a concrete undertaking

In the plenary meeting of the UISG in 2001 the members of the International Union of Superiors General elaborated a declaration of intent ratified subsequently by the Assembly of Delegates. A three-year plan is in effect for implementing its concepts. In this declaration, among the various points two items especially emerge:

  • The determination to work together in solidarity in our religious communities and in the countries in which we operate for denouncing with insistence at every level the sexual abuse and exploitation of women and children.
  • The determination to continue to promote the education and the formation of women inside and outside of our institutions, utilizing personnel and financial resources to assure the integral development of the woman.

The theme of the diocesan institutes re-enters in this context, forming a privileged part of the three-year plan for the UISG with concrete initiatives that focus above all on prevention and on formation. In fact, the plan:

1) Proposes to continue to study the profound causes of the problems exposed

2) Considers it vital and important to give assistance to reinforce the diocesan institutes that suffer from lack of direction, funds, formation, education, as well as basic goods of prime necessity

3) Will continue to explore what can be done in the constellations and the congregations in terms of prevention

4) Offers through the Jubilee Community Center (that is, the organization already in existence of a house of welcome for student sisters coming from various countries) a concrete response relative to initiatives of formation

5) Hopes that the conferences of men and women religious in union with the conferences of bishops will emanate a guide document that develops codes of ethical conduct, policy, procedures and appropriate sanctions in cases of abuse, as well as indications for principles to use in formation as is already the case in some dioceses (e.g., Australia, Asia)

6) Proposes to prepare a list of sisters who are available and prepared for formation

7) Will create a UISG fund of solidarity for initial formation

8) Will favor education and conscious-raising of all its members through the publication of formative articles in the bulletin concerning these issues and problems.

Some concrete proposals to share in this assembly

Alongside the particular undertaking of the UISG other ideas could be explored in this forum for giving vitality and support to the diocesan institutes:

• The CIVSCVA, availing itself of existing criteria, does what is possible so that in the erection of new diocesan congregations, keeping in consideration the existence of a well-defined charism, the awareness of ecclesial service and the potential of the institute to be truly an evangelical presence are observed.

Are these criteria of help to bishops who enter into discernment concerning the opening of new diocesan institutes and of support in their path of growth? How should they be evaluated?

Recall the apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Africa: “With regard to the foundation of new religious institutes, great prudence and enlightened discernment are needed, and the criteria laid down by the Second Vatican Council and the canonical norms now in force are to be followed. Once established, these institutes are to be helped in acquiring juridical status and becoming autonomous in the management both of their own works and of their respective sources of income.”

• The delicate question of conventions between religious institutes and the diocese that assure the quality of spiritual, communitarian and apostolic life should remain always open.

• The possibility of inviting well constituted congregations with experience to accompany young institutions on the path.

• The UISG could assist with the realization of a “resource group ad-hoc,” available for the needs of diocesan institutes.

• In the exhortation Ecclesia in Africa in the chapter “Dignity of the African Woman” we read: “With specific regard to the church, women should be properly trained so that they can participate at appropriate levels in her apostolic activity,” and it is hoped that “episcopal conferences establish special commissions to study further women’s problems.” (EA 121). Could there not be in this invitation also a privileged place also for the consecrated woman?

In the last plenary meeting of the UISG in 2001 the members strongly reaffirmed what had been expressed in the joint communication of the USG/UISG of 21/3/2001: Some negative situations cannot cause to be forgotten the often heroic faithfulness of the vast majority of men and women religious who in following Christ find the strength for overcoming each day’s difficulties.

“Let us go forward in hope! … Now, the Christ whom we have contemplated and loved bids us to set out once more on our journey. At the beginning of this new century, our steps must quicken as we travel the highways of the world. Many are the paths on which each one of us and each of our churches must travel, but there is no distance between those who are united in the same communion.” style='font-family: (NME 58)

It is with this certainty that we welcome the invitation of the pope: “Duc in altum.” It is urgent, however, to sharpen our attention so that no one is left behind, aware that in all of us is the one and the same passion, that of running down the streets of the world to announce that “We have seen the Lord.”

The institutes of diocesan right need to feel, to perceive, this intense and profound communion. Thank you, above all in the name of all the sisters of institutes of diocesan right, for having heard us.

Sr. Adele Brambilla, SMC

Questions suggested for discussion

(1) From your experience, which criteria do you see as useful for helping bishops in their discernment regarding the opening of a new congregation?

(2) How can these criteria be applied in the different dioceses?

(3) Why are the women’s congregations growing in such a great number?

(4) What other proposals and recommendations are there that promote the quality of life and of spirituality in these situations?

Translated from Italian by John L. Allen, Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, Posted November 30, 2001