Church under Pope Francis is building bridges with women, says senior nun

Despite the inquiry originally sparking mistrust among women in religious communities in the US, its concluding report has been described as "relatively warm tone".Reuters

One of Britain's most senior Catholic Church women has welcomed the report of a Vatican inquiry into nuns in the United States as a "conscious attempt to build bridges and repair trust."

Sister Jane Livesey, who is based in Rome and heads influential women's religious order the Congregation of Jesus, told Christian Today that she and other nuns were now looking forward to a Church under Pope Francis where she hoped the role of women would be enhanced.

However she also said there was "some truth" in the fears that some "edges" in some congregations in the US might have become a bit "blurred".

The final report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the US brought to an end a saga that began six years ago when the Holy See announced its investigation under Pope Benedict XVI.

Americans Catholic nuns are among the most selfless and giving members of contemporary society, as are nuns throughout the world. But their counter-cultural lifestyle of poverty, chastity, obedience and service is also out of step in a nation renowned for its advocacy of consumer ideals, and this is reflected in a decline in vocations. Most nuns are also now elderly, with many in their 70s and older.

There were fears when it was set up that the enquiry would seek to establish that there had been a movement away from traditional Catholic theology and towards a form of secular feminism. This would have devastated the thousands of nuns who have given their lives to God and signalled a male Church hierarchy that was merciless and judgmental in its assessment of these sacrificial women.

Although not uncritical, the final report could not have been further from these fears.

The New York Times reported: "The relatively warm tone in the report, and at the Vatican news conference that released it, were a far cry from six years ago when the investigation was announced, creating fear, anger and mistrust among women in religious communities and convents across the United States."

Headed by Mother Mary Clare Millea, the unprecedented inquiry looked at 341 religious institutions with a total of 50,000 women religious in the US.

Cardinal Franc Rodé, head of the Vatican office for religious orders, said at the time it was announced that the aim was to examine the "quality of life" of female religious in the US.

He added that he was concerned about "a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families and, perhaps, also a certain feminist spirit."

Sister Jane was appointed in 2011 as the first British woman since the 18th century to hold her office. She leads nearly 2,000 nuns in 24 countries in a congregation founded by Mary Ward in 1609, and told Christian Today: "I think there is some truth that in some congregations in North America, the edges might have got a bit blurred. But it has been clear all along that the majority of members of congregations continue to do what they have always done, which is serve the Church and the people of God."

Some of the theological thinking in a minority of communities might have gone "beyond the bounds" of what is considered "safe" by the Church, she added. But for the main part, the report was warm, positive and affirming and had appropriately been published towards the end of the Church's "Year of Consecrated Life".

She said the report was in effect asking women religious to do what they were already doing. It was also "interesting" that all the "players" who were responsible for instigating it had changed under Pope Francis.

"Everybody on both sides wants to build bridges," she said. "For the majority, it was a far more positive experience than they could possibly have dreamed of when it was announced."

Her order has a province in Argentina, where the current provincial was nurtured in her vocation by a spiritual director called - Jorge Bergoglio.