Sr. Margaret Henry, a member of the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, participates in morning prayer Aug. 8 during the 2012 Leadership Conference of Women Religious assembly in St. Louis. (CNS photo/Sid Hastings)

ST. LOUIS (CNS) — As the Leadership Conference of Women Religious prepared to respond to the Vatican's doctrinal assessment and its calls for the organization's reform, opening speakers at the LCWR assembly in St. Louis emphasized the enormity of the task and the need for prayerful reflection.

“This is a very historic moment, a moment of grace,” Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell, LCWR's outgoing president, said Aug. 7 at the evening opening session.

Sr. Farrell and the other LCWR leaders were greeted with a standing ovation from 900 women religious at the Millennium Hotel in St. Louis.

She pointed out that the Aug. 7-10 gathering would be “like no other we've ever had” and stressed that the sisters in attendance would gather their “wisdom in response to the doctrinal assessment” and would do it “thoughtfully and deliberately.”

LCWR's members are the 1,500 leaders of U.S. women's communities representing about 80 percent of the country's 57,000 women's religious congregation.

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis welcomed the group and spoke highly of the dedication and work of the nation's women religious. He urged the assembly participants to have a prayerful discussion of the assessment of their organization issued April 18 by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The St. Louis gathering is the first time the organization has assembled since the release of the doctrinal assessment, which said reform was needed to ensure LCWR's fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas that include abortion, euthanasia, women's ordination and homosexuality. The organization's canonical status is granted by the Vatican.

“I pray that the dialogue between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and LCWR is not politicized but worked out within a community of faith,” he said.

The archbishop, who is chairman of the USCCB Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, broke away from his prepared remarks to urge the sisters to look at examples in Church history of people working as they faced challenges.

“As people of faith … we have some lessons to look back upon,” he said making a reference to the First Council of Jerusalem where Sts. Peter and Paul engaged in a dispute over circumcision. “They managed to work out things then and I pray that you will resolve things now,” he added.

The archbishop assured the group of his prayers, the prayers of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the intercession of St Rose Philippine Duchesne, a pioneering woman religious who opened the first school for young women west of the Mississippi in 1818.

Also welcoming the assembly delegates to St. Louis was Sr. Patricia Clune, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who is a member of the leadership team for community's St. Louis province.

She echoed Sr. Farrell by saying: “I don't have to remind you that our gathering is historic in this organization.”

She stressed that “prayers are sent from around the world” for the meeting and she hoped that attendees' time together would “be rooted in this prayer.”

Sr. Clune and other speakers stressed their appreciation for support they had received. Visible signs of support included a gathering outside the hotel earlier in the day where people welcomed the women religious to the city as well as letters of appreciation — placed on each of the tables where the sisters were seated — that had been sent to LCWR in recent months.

Commenting later on Archbishop Carlson's remarks, Sr. Marjory Ann Baez, a Daughter of Charity from Los Altos Hills, Calif., called his challenge — “to work our difficulties through like the early Church did” — a hopeful message.

By Carol Zimmermann, Catholic News Service. Contributing to this story was Jennifer Brinker.