Academic Formation and Consecrated Life of Women

Interview with Sister Samuela Rigon, Institute of Psychology

PAOLO PEGORARO | Editorial Director


Editorial Director

The academic formation of women who entered consecrated life is a complex subject. For historical reasons, preference was given to qualifications that can be used in civil society, while theological formation is often limited to two or three years. Authentic collaboration requires an understanding of service without distortions, rediscovering baptism as our common vocation.

Sister Samuela Rigon’s academic path is somewhat emblematic of the academic education of consecrated women. She recently completed her doctorate at the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Institute of Psychology, where she studied and has been teaching for the past years, while simultaneously carrying out other tasks for her Congregation, the Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows. “I accepted to offer my contribution as a teacher while simultaneously carrying out other ministries in my life, both in the areas of formation and governance, as well as other external realities, for example as apostolic commissioner”, she says. “I thought it would be hard to balance so many tasks, but at the same time it marked a crowning achievement and made it possible for me to develop greater understanding of the religious world as a whole, including some scientific insights.” 


While we normally take for granted that the candidates for ordained ministry - i.e. diocesan and religious seminarians - will devote several years to philosophical and theological studies, it is still assumed that to be a good nun it is not necessary to pursue overly long academic studies. Why?

“Some prejudices certainly need to be overcome, but there are also other reasons. Service - diakonia - especially in the areas of education, health, social care, etc., traditionally constituted the embodiment of the charism of many religious institutes of women. Over time, there emerged an increasing need to acquire skills in these areas and obtain qualifications that could also be used in civil society, thereby sidelining theological studies.

Another reason is that female religious congregations are very heterogeneous, extremely numerous, and occasionally very small. This implies mobility within the congregation, whereas a certain stability is needed to perform a professional ministry such as teaching.

Last but not least, the economic aspect is a significant factor, both because consecrated women cannot rely entirely on subsidies from pastoral care, and because studying philosophy and theology cannot be put to good use in the short term.”

The lack of formal education confined the consecrated life of women to menial jobs in the past. How should the charism of service be properly understood?

“When tackling this issue, I believe it is important to embrace two perspectives: one personal and subjective, and the other institutional and societal.

Firstly, it is important that a consecrated woman’s education foster the development of inner freedom and authentic motivation, enabling her to govern and guide her journey. In other words, if the meaning I attach to my ministry is a response to a call from God to serve the Church... then I will be able to carry out even the most inconspicuous service and be fulfilled in my religious consecration. Conversely, I may carry out a socially recognised activity - at high civil, academic and ecclesiastical levels - and experience it as a way to climb the social ladder or as careerism, as if it were the role that defined my identity. Therefore, motivation and the person’s inner freedom are crucial.

The institutional and social perspective, on the other hand, precludes consecrated women from accessing certain opportunities or relegates them to certain spheres. It is a fact that consecrated women have no access to the realm of authority inside the Church, as it is connected to ordained ministry, although today we welcome clear signs of openness and novelty set in motion by Pope Francis. Yet there is the risk of an imbalance in this relationship. If the consecrated life of women is requested because it is more affordable - as cheap labour - then “service” is being confused with “servility”. Such distortions must be redressed, because investing in training, developing skills and earning degrees deserve fair and equitable remuneration.”


Studying is perhaps the primary means of emancipation. There are young women religious that come from cultural contexts that still exclude women. What is the role of university education?

“I firmly believe that this can be an opportunity for many consecrated women, for there are places in the world where women still experience a condition of extreme subordination in social, civil and even ecclesial life. Offering appropriate cultural training to women amounts to a true recognition of their dignity. Clearly, especially with regard to consecrated women, this should be integrated into a broader project, namely integral human development that includes consecrated women.”


Which level of education is required of a woman religious today?

“There is great heterogeneity, as mentioned earlier. In the very first years of formation we try to ensure that young women receive a basic theological formation, even if not academic, so as to lay the foundations for developing their vocation and for further studies. I think this is offered today to all, also thanks to entities such as the USMI (Major Superiors Union of Italy) and to other organisations. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that this applies to Europe, the Americas and some other countries, while in other parts of the world the situation remains precarious.

Several institutes require the equivalent of a three-year degree in Religious Sciences or a Baccalaureate in Theology, but this is not the case everywhere. Not all religious institutes have updated guidelines on education, despite the fact that it is required by the Church. By contrast, the fact that many young women enter religious life in adulthood, many of them having completed their academic studies and generally with significant professional experience, is a strong incentive.”


As regards the professors teaching at pontifical universities lay women are normally more numerous than women religious. Wouldn’t it help future priests to form a more accurate image of the consecrated life of women, if nuns were among the lecturers?

“This is certainly an area that needs to be developed. In my experience, both in teaching and in apostolic and vocational formation, I found that there is not enough knowledge of the different forms of religious life inside the Church. And without knowledge, appreciation and esteem can hardly arise - nor can genuine collaboration be developed. 

Women religious are frequently posted to roles at diocesan and parish level, but priests tend to focus on what they can do for the community - as they should - without delving into the spiritual identity and the charism of their congregation. We still have a long way to go to achieve Church-communion and people of God. Much is yet to be reaped from documents such as Mutuae Relationes.”

Does the Synodal path have something to teach us in this regard?

“I hope it may serve as an encouragement and a reminder that baptism is our fundamental vocation. The various forms of consecrated life represent different ways - albeit with equal dignity - of embodying that very same baptism. And each vocation is called to bear witness to one another in ordinary life. If not, we run the risk of confusing vocation and service with power. I think it would benefit everyone, because the encounter with those different from us help us bring into focus our identity. This is true at the personal level, as well as at the level of vocation inside the Church. Different vocations, but equal in dignity.”