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Rome OKs history project on women religious

NCR Staff

Two years after regaining a measure of autonomy from strict Vatican control, CLAR, the Latin American Conference of Religious, has circumvented a new confrontation with Rome concerning a groundbreaking project on women religious.

In April, Archbishop Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life, halted progress of CLAR's "Recuperation of the Historical Memory of Women's Religious Life in Latin America."

This four-year initiative, according to CLAR President Elza Ribeiro, a Brazilian Sister of Providence, aims to help Latin American women religious "step out of anonymity and be recognized for their dignity and the role they play in church and society."

The project will document a 40-year history of women religious in Latin America by compiling historical records from religious communities, testimonies from women, surveys, written reflections and theological analysis. The group hopes to have the project completed by 1999, CLAR's 40th anniversary.

"It will not be written by historians but by women religious themselves, reflecting their perceptions, their form of critical analysis, their perspectives. We will tell our own stories," Ribeiro said, adding that CLAR will invite some male theologians to participate in the theological analysis.

The project was paralyzed in April, however, when Errazuriz impeded the distribution of a survey to 25 conferences of women religious after he received news of a controversial January 31 letter criticizing CLAR's actions. The letter was signed by Consuela Fernandez and was written on letterhead bearing the name of the Daughters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a Colombian order. Copies of the letter reached some 30 cardinals and dozens of superior generals in Rome, CLAR Secretary-General Fr. Pedro Acevedo told NCR in a telephone interview from the organization's headquarters in Bogota, Colombia.

The letter, of which NCR obtained a copy, claims some religious "want to ruin traditional religious life" in Latin America in the same way others ruined it in the United States. It asks that CLAR's project be "urgently" stopped to "avoid this tragedy."

The letter blames Jesuit priests for introducing religious women to "radical, unsubmissive and rebellious feminism." A second letter from Fernandez to women superior generals, dated March 19, warns of the negative influence of Dominican, Jesuit, Claritian and Redemptorist priests.

Errazuriz requested further information about the project and summoned CLAR officials to discussions in Rome.

On April 16, CLAR received a letter from the superior general of the Daughters of the Sacred Hearts saying Fernandez was not a member of the congregation and that the letterhead did not bear the community's official stamp.

"We are interested in knowing where this came from. Many people (who have analyzed the letter) believe it was not written by a woman. It is an enigma," Ribeiro said, also speaking from Bogota. "This incident is very damaging to the life of the church."

Prior to heading to Rome in May, Ribeiro wrote a letter to Errazuriz, expressing "surprise" at his suspicion of the project. "Dialogue is the correct path, not suspicion, mistrust or prejudgment," she wrote.

During a series of meetings in May with representatives from the congregation, whose prefect is Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, CLAR officials convinced the Vatican of the validity of the women's historical memory project.

"We are happy with the results. We will go forward with the project; we have improved it, receiving contributions from the congregation and important vision from superior generals," Ribeiro said. "We are free to continue our work in August all over Latin America."

CLAR officials had good reason for concern as they headed to Rome. The organization, which represents more than 160,000 women and men religious throughout Latin America, regained full institutional autonomy only in 1994 after five years of interventions from the congregation. During that time, CLAR was forced to suspend dynamic pastoral and theological programs and to accept Vatican appointments of certain representatives. In 1991, Rome assumed direct control of CLAR, granting plenipotentiary powers over the institution to a titular Colombian bishop (NCR, May 25, 1990; Feb. 15, 1991; and Oct. 11, 1991). CLAR survived the intervention by organizing regionally a strategy that allowed religious some freedom to work despite Rome's impositions.

In 1994, the Vatican relaxed control, allowing CLAR to resume the election of its own officers. In June of that year, CLAR representatives came back in full swing, choosing as president Ribeiro, 64, the first woman to head the organization since its founding in 1959.

Ribeiro stressed the importance of the women's historical memory project. "The time has arrived for women religious to take their rightful place. We have been marginalized. We must begin to believe in ourselves, in the rich potential we have, potential that has often been disregarded because of the social and historical circumstances of the last 400 years," she said. Two- thirds of all religious in Latin America are women.

As they assume this posture, Ribeiro said, "women will help make history more humane, more beautiful, more true to the gospel." This will bring a change in men, she added, because they will be "obligated to see with their own eyes, understanding a distinct reading of our reality, our life and our identity."

National Catholic Reporter, August 9, 1996