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Centre for Catholic Studies

Religious Life Vitality Project

Phase 1

In partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Centre for Catholic Studies, the Religious Life Institute of Heythrop College, London, and the Margaret Beaufort Institute, Cambridge, phase I of this project focused on helping female apostolic congregations in the UK, Ireland and the US to consider in depth what is vital to their mission. Three areas were in focus in this first phase of the project:

1) Social interactivity including daily practice and resource allocation; 2) Theological transmission and reception in female apostolic congregations; 3) The ecclesial frameworks which support/diminish the capacity for vitality.

Key questions of Phase I were: What does vitality look like to the participant congregations? How do they deploy/expend resources (human, physical, financial, spiritual) in support of that vision?

View the key findings from Phase 1

View the full report from Phase 1

Phase 2

Following the success of phase 1, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has funded further research over three years from June 2016 to May 2019. This second phase falls into two parts:

1) A study of the sustainability of religious life of women in East and Central Africa implemented in partnership with local researchers/religious sisters

2) A study of new and potential entrants to women’s religious life in the UK & Ireland since 2000

The Co-Directors remain as in phase 1: Professor Paul Murray (Durham University), Dr Gemma Simmonds CJ (Religious Life Institute at Heythrop College, London), and Catherine Sexton (Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge).

Vitality: - from left to right: Sr Dr Gemma Simmonds CJ, His Most Rev. Joseph William Tobin, C.Ss.R.; Ms Catherine Sexton; and Prof. Paul D. Murray, CCS

Due to the length and complexity of phase 2, the three co-directors are now supported by Dr Maria Calderon Muñoz (Research Assistant) and Yvonne Williams (Project Coordinator). This core team is also supported by an Academic Advisory Group who meet twice each year. Each of the seven members of the Academic Advisory Group has an international academic reputation and brings a wealth and depth of expertise to complement that of the team

East and Central Africa

A consultation meeting was held in Zambia from Sept 17-19 2016, as a result of which there is now substantial enthusiasm for the project from the 5 national organisations representing Catholic sisters in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. As in phase 1, a key tenet of the research is to privilege the voice of women religious. Accordingly, the research question was developed with the sisters attending the conference and is:

What are sisters saying is the essence of women’s Religious Life in Africa today and into the future? What are the key challenges that hinder this essence? What are the best practices for ensuring the understanding & living of it, and the communication of this to sisters in formation?

This research question will be piloted this year in Zambia, Kenya, and with one Dominican congregation. The team are now actively looking for congregations to take part in the full study.


The research question has been formulated in the hope of offering congregations the understanding needed to make better-informed policies, strategies and decisions about possible future membership or indeed the choice no longer to pursue or accept new vocations:

Is religious life as currently lived by apostolic women religious in the UK and Ireland liveable for new members? Can it attract new members, or are structural and ideological changes necessary to make it translatable and fit for purpose for new generations?

Twenty five UK congregations have agreed to take part and interviews will commence in March of 2017, and we hope for a similar uptake in Ireland. Such is the importance of this question, that interest has also been expressed by congregations that were not originally invited such as by Monastic orders and Anglican women religious orders.