WASHINGTON – The Vatican has initiated an apostolic visitation of institutes for women religious in the United States to find out why the numbers of their members have decreased during the past 40 years and to look at the quality of life in the communities.

The announcement was made on Jan 30 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington by Sister Eva-Maria Ackerman, a member of the American province of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George.

She will assist Mother Mary Clare Millea, a Connecticut native who is superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an international religious institute that has its headquarters in Rome.

Cardinal Franc Rode, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, appointed Mother Clare as the apostolic visitor.

The cardinal sent letters detailing the task to both the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, the two major organisations representing heads of women’s religious orders in the U.S..

It is too early to know how many volunteers will be enlisted to visit nearly 400 Catholic institutes for women religious in the U.S., how much it will cost or who will pay for the study, Sister Eva-Maria said during the press conference at the national shrine.

"We hope to discover and share the vibrancy and purpose that continue to accomplish so much, as well as to understand the obstacles and challenges that inhibit these individuals and institutions, thus limiting their growth and/or redirecting their resources and outreach," she said.

The study is expected to be completed by 2011.

It was not known why the Vatican chose to do this study now, why the U.S. was singled out and what prompted the Vatican congregation to order it, she said.

Once the study is concluded, a "comprehensive and confidential" report will be given to Cardinal Rode but its findings are not expected to be made public, Sister Eva-Maria said. -By Chaz Muth, cns

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