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Durham University

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 1 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 1 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?

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 and 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)
  • Catherine Sexton (Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge).

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.

L to R: Paul D. Murray, Maria Calderon Munoz, Yvonne Williams, Catherine Sexton, Gemma Simmonds

East and Central Africa

This project is led by Catherine Sexton. The feasibility study and plan of research were submitted to Hilton in May and since then, the research has moved at pace.

In order to enhance ownership, we are appointing sisters in each of the countries to work as Project Support Assistants. Four of the five are now in place. Although we are still working closely through the various National Associations, the relationship with each individual PSA has become key in encouraging congregations to participate.

The Co-Director and Research Assistant have led several workshops - thus far in Kenya, Uganda, and Malawi. In Zambia, the PSA arranged a series of smaller meetings in different geographical locations enabling her to meet with each congregation’s leadership team. In Tanzania, the Research assistant, and the PSA from Kenya will introduce the project to Superiors in February 2018. Across the participating countries, 57 congregations have already responded, as a result of which 508 sisters are already enrolled and have considered the research question:

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 and living of it, and the communication of this to sisters in formation?

In addition to the high participation among sisters which endorse the timely nature and relevance, there is considerable interest in this research, as exemplified by:

  • The Global Sisters Report
  • The International Union of Superiors General
  • Conference presentation: “Theological Action Research: Influence, Impact and Iterations” held at St Katherine’s Conference Centre, London.
  • Invitation to Rome in April 2018 to work with the Leadership team of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ) on the future of religious life in Africa and also to accompany a large group of 18 US and African Dominican congregations with the Needs Assessment stage of their project ‘Futuring our Dominican Charism’.

UK and Ireland

Gemma Simmonds leads on this project, and has formulated the research question 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?

The number of enquirers and entrants to the orders is small and it is important that we involve as many as possible if the report is to be useful to congregations when recruiting. From the UK 67 women have made contact 33% of whom are Anglican, and 67% Catholic and it is hoped to include more from the contemplative orders. Responses thus far have been analysed and discussed with the Academic Advisory Group. Responses to the Project in Ireland has been very low and although several reasons have been identified, we remain hopeful of hearing the voices of sisters there.

The responses are from individual sisters with complete anonymity. Given the aim of the research, it is important to represent the views of congregations. Our next task is to invite all congregations – whether participants or not – to answer general questions about their experiences of recruitment and formation.

Theological Reflection

An important part of both studies is the theological reflection on the findings. Although this reflection will be for theological ends we are nevertheless keen to include perspectives from other disciplines (history, sociology, anthropology, women’s studies) to see how they might vary the view of the data.