ST. LOUIS –– Members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious announced Aug. 10 at the close of their four-day assembly in St. Louis that they will continue to dialogue with church officials about the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment of their organization.20120810nw1536Franciscan Sr. Pat Farrell, center, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, addresses a press conference near the end of the group’s annual assembly Aug. 10 in St. Louis. Joining her was president-elect Franciscan Sr. Florence Deacon, left, and Dominican Sr. Mary Hughes, right, past president of the organization. (CNS photo/Sid Hastings)

LCWR’s outgoing president, Franciscan Sr. Pat Farrell, said the group’s leaders would begin dialogue with Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who is charged with overseeing the group’s reform. He attended the organization’s board meeting the following day.

Sr. Farrell said LCWR members hoped its leaders would have “open and honest dialogue” that would lead to greater understanding and to greater opportunities for women to have a voice in the church.

She said the officers would “proceed with these discussions as long as possible but would reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission.”

Archbishop Sartain said that along with LCWR’s, he remained “committed to working to address the issues raised by the doctrinal assessment in an atmosphere of prayer and respectful dialogue.”

“We must also work toward clearing up any misunderstandings, and I remain truly hopeful that we will work together without compromising church teaching or the important role of the LCWR,” Archbishop Sartain said in a statement released Aug. 11 after his meeting with the LCWR board. “I look forward to our continued discussions as we collaborate in promoting consecrated life in the United States.”

In its assessment issued in April, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said a reform of LCWR was needed to ensure its fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women’s ordination and homosexuality.

Archbishop Sartain said in his statement LCWR brings “unique gifts to its members and to the church at large. This uniqueness includes sensitivity to suffering, whether in Latin America or the inner-city; whether in the life of an unborn child or the victim of human trafficking.”

The U.S. bishops “are deeply proud of the historic and continuing contribution of women religious to our country through social, pastoral and spiritual ministries; Catholic health care; Catholic education; and many other areas where they reach out to those on the margins of society,” he said.

During an afternoon news conference Aug. 10, when asked how LCWR officials would be able to dialogue on issues of doctrine, Sr. Farrell said that “dialogue on doctrine will not be our starting point.” She also said LCWR officials cannot speculate how the dialogue will proceed but will see “how it unfolds.”

Nine hundred sisters attended the St. Louis meeting, which included several closed sessions where members discussed how they would respond to the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment.

At the start of the Aug. 7-10 meeting Sr. Farrell announced that this gathering would be “like no other” because of the particular focus on the doctrinal assessment.

At the close of the assembly, Franciscan Sr. Florence Deacon, president-elect, was to succeed Sr. Farrell. Sr. Carol Zinn, a Sister of St. Joseph, was chosen president-elect.

The gathering was the first time the organization had assembled since the assessment was released April 18. The organization’s canonical status is granted by the Vatican.

The participants, leaders of women’s religious congregations, were urged at the outset of the St. Louis meeting to take a thoughtful and prayerful approach to discerning the assessment and not to discuss the deliberations with members of the media since the process would continue to unfold in each day’s executive sessions.

One described the process of discernment as “muddling through” and said it is not new to the sisters but something they said they are used to doing, particularly in their work with other religious communities and lay groups.

References to how the sisters were discerning their next steps were clear in the daily prayer sessions where the sisters were continually reminded that they were at a crossroads and should let go of fears and preconceived ideas and trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Sr. Farrell told the group in her closing address that the doctrinal assessment’s “historical impact” could not be ignored.

“Yes, much is at stake,” she said, pointing out that the LCWR can only go forward with “truthfulness and integrity” which she said she hoped would both contribute to the “good of religious life everywhere and to the healing of the fractured church we so love.”

In the final days of the meeting security near the ballroom where discussions were taking place became tighter, preventing anyone from even being outside the doors.