By Carol Zimmermann Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — When more than 900 women religious attend the annual gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious Aug. 7-10 in St. Louis, it will be “business as usual and not business as usual,” according to the group’s president.
Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell emphasized that the meeting will have its routine education, business matters and the “opportunity to share ideas with one another,” but it also will include executive sessions devoted to discussing the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment of LCWR and its calls for the organization’s reform.
“We don’t want the assessment to take over our agenda,” Sister Farrell told reporters Aug. 2 in a telephone press briefing. But she also noted that the sisters intend to review the document in depth and discern their response to it.
The gathering will be the first time the organization has assembled since the doctrinal assessment was issued April 18 by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. LCWR’s members are the 1,500 leaders of U.S. women’s communities representing about 80 percent of the country’s 57,000 women’s religious congregation.
The assessment said reform was needed to ensure LCWR’s fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas that include abortion, euthanasia, women’s ordination and homosexuality. The organization’s canonical status is granted by the Vatican.
When the assessment was first announced, LCWR’s leaders said they were “stunned” and “taken by surprise.” But a Vatican spokesman disputed the suggestion the sisters had been taken entirely by surprise by the assessment, and LCWR revised its initial statement to say, “We were taken by surprise by the gravity of the mandate.”
A letter from the prefect of the doctrinal congregation had informed LCWR leaders in early March that they would hear the results of the assessment at their annual meeting at the Vatican May 2.
After a board meeting in late May, LCWR officials said the assessment was “based on unsubstantiated accusations” and that its reform measures “could compromise” the group’s ability to fulfill its mission.
Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis will deliver the opening greeting at LCWR’s assembly Aug. 7.
LCWR’s custom is to ask the bishop of the diocese where the assembly is being held to attend the opening of the assembly and welcome the participants, Sister Annmarie Sanders, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and LCWR’s director of communications, told CNS.
Archbishop Carlson told the St. Louis Review, archdiocesan newspaper, that his presence at the gathering “would only indicate my love for the church, and my hope that the concerns of the Holy See — which I support — and the memory of the wonderful religious who have helped me during my earliest days as a child, help to resolve the challenges which exist at this time.”
Across the country, protests and vigils have taken place to show support for U.S. women religious.
In mid-June, Sister Farrell and Sister Janet Mock, a Sister of St. Joseph and LCWR’s executive director, met with U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the doctrinal congregation, and with Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, charged with leading the association’s reform, but details of the meeting were not released.
The Vatican named Archbishop Sartain to provide “review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work” of the organization, with the assistance of Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, Ohio, and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill.
In a July 17 interview on National Public Radio, Sister Farrell discussed options for how LCWR might proceed, noting the group could comply with the mandate, not comply and form a separate organization, or “look for some maybe third way that refuses to just define the mandate and the issues in such black-and-white terms.”
Sister Farrell, whose term as president ends at the close of the assembly, told reporters Aug. 2 that immediately prior to the group gathering Aug. 7, LCWR leaders planned to meet with past presidents and executive directors of the association to get their input on the best way to respond to the Vatican’s call for reform.
During executive sessions each day, she said, facilitators will lead members through a discernment process where they will be updated on information and given the chance for “prayer, thoughtful reflection and the time to listen to one another.”
She said she could not speculate on the outcome of the discussions and that LCWR would not share these details publically until the meeting’s conclusion.
During the gathering one of the keynote speakers will be Barbara Marx Hubbard, an author, speaker and educator who is known for promoting a view called “conscious evolution.”
Sister Farrell said the speaker was invited to “give us context in the world sisters are ministering in.”
The group will transfer its leadership during the assembly since the LCWR president’s term is one year, after serving as president-elect for a year. On Aug. 10, Sister Farrell be succeeded by Franciscan Sister Florence Deacon, currently president-elect.
Sister Sandra Schneiders, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister, will receive an award for outstanding leadership. She has written about women religious and is a professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.
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