Pope Francis continues reform of religious life

By Christopher Lamb | Correspondent
Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Pope Francis greets members of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life during an audience at the Vatican Dec. 11. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

One area of church life that Pope Francis has quietly sought to reform is religious life, namely the communities of nuns, religious sisters, monks and friars, and in particular the newer ones. Francis, a member of the Society of Jesus, one of the best-known religious congregations in the world, has sought to tackle problems in recently established orders. He has also publicly acknowledged the sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse of nuns both from priests and within their congregations.

He addressed some of these concerns during a recent meeting of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life, the Vatican body with responsibility for religious communities.

The Jesuit pope asked them to focus on “abuses of power” within orders, and referenced a recently published book, “Il Velo di Silenzio” (“The Veil of Silence: Abuse, Violence, Frustrations in Female Religious Life”), by Salvatore Cernuzio, a journalist for the Holy See’s official media channel, Vatican News. It contains the testimonies of 11 religious sisters who had suffered psychological and spiritual abuses by their superior. One of the sisters explains that after reporting that she had been sexually abused by a priest, she was told by her superior that she must have “provoked” him.

In his Dec. 11 address, the pope warned about founders who see themselves as “above the church” and leaders who stay in office too long and accumulate too much power. The role of the superior in a community changed following the reforms of religious life at the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, moving away from a rigidly hierarchal model.

“Pre-Vatican [II] theology was very clear that superiors discern God’s will and that their decisions are God’s will for those who are under their authority,” a sister called “Elizabeth” explains in Cernuzio’s book. She says that although her congregation initially embraced Vatican II’s reforms, the renewal in her order stopped in the 1980s.

The misuse of authority and power within religious orders is at the heart of what Francis wants to reform and is something the Vatican is trying to tackle in various ways. Archbishop José Rodríguez Caraballo, the No.2 official at the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life, recently wrote the foreword to the book “Risques et derives de la vie religieuse” (“Risks and deviations of Religious Life”), written by Dysmas de Lassus, minister general of the Carthusians, while the Vatican-approved Jesuit journal, La Civilta Cattolica, carried a long article on the exploitation of nuns.

Another area of concern is the creation of new religious communities, something that Vatican II said should be “carefully weighed” so as to avoid “needlessly” establishing groups. Echoing this, the pope said the “inappropriate creation of institutes without sufficient motivation or adequate vigor” should be avoided, and that “recently founded” communities are more at risk of closing in on themselves.

Why is this a problem? During the latter part of the 20th century, a proliferation of new “institutes of consecrated life or societies of apostolic life” were established, even though many of them were similar to one another. In an alarming number of cases, the founders of these new orders were credibly accused of sexually and spiritually abusing their members. Some notable examples include the Legionaries of Christ (Father Marciel Macial); the Community of St. John in France (Father Marie-Dominique Philippe); and the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae in Peru (Luis Fernando Figari).

To remedy this, the pope amended canon law last November to require that local bishops obtain written permission from the Holy See before setting up communities of religious in their diocese. In the past, new congregations could establish themselves in a diocese simply by winning the approval of the local bishop. After attracting members, they would then seek pontifical recognition like other well-established religious orders.

A significant percentage of the newer orders are traditionalist in character and tend to operate with a pre-Vatican II ecclesiology. Early in his pontificate, the pope decided to continue the Pope Benedict XVI-ordered investigation of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, which started in 1998 and grew quickly. But disagreements erupted in the order over the use of the unreformed Latin Mass, and they became divided.

The Vatican has also investigated and placed the ultra-traditionalist Heralds of the Gospel in Brazil under special measures. Despite the difficulties, there are several newer communities that have made positive contributions to the church, such as the Jerusalem Community and the Community of St. Martin.

Francis stressed that “discernment” and “accompaniment” are the two principles that must guide religious superiors as they evaluate whether a new community is capable of “integrating itself into the life of God’s holy and faithful people.” These principles guide Francis as he leads the church into 2022.



  • pope francis
  • religious life

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