Pope Francis and contemplative nuns, part 1

As noted in the first post on this blog, it was created as a result of a Twitter conversation about the meaning and significance of Pope Francis’ recent apostolic constitution directed at contemplative nuns.  The next few posts will excerpt portions of that text (full text here) for discussion.

The document begins with statements about seeking “the face of God” and the particular resonances that attach to that for monasticism, and especially contemplative nuns.

I have deliberately not edited or abridged the passage that follows–our goal here is to read, gloss, and discuss the document in its entirety.  So let’s get started!

1. Seeking the face of God has always been a part of our human history. From the beginning, men and women have been called to a dialogue of love with the Creator. Indeed, mankind is distinguished by an irrepressible religious dimension that leads human hearts to feel the need – albeit not always consciously – to seek God, the Absolute. This quest unites all men and women of good will. Even many who claim to be non-believers acknowledge this heartfelt longing, present in every man and woman who, drawn by a passionate desire for happiness and fulfilment, never remains fully satisfied.

St. Augustine eloquently expressed this yearning in the Confessions: “You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You”. This restlessness of heart is born of the profound intuition that it is God Himself Who takes the initiative; He seeks out men and women and mysteriously draws them to Himself.

In seeking God, we quickly realise that no one is self-sufficient. Rather, we are called, in the light of faith, to move beyond self-centredness, drawn by God’s Holy Face and by the “sacred ground of the other”, to an ever more profound experience of communion.

Through Baptism, every Christian and every consecrated person is called to undertake this pilgrimage of seeking the true God. By the working of the Holy Spirit, it becomes a sequela pressius Christi – a path of ever greater configuration to Christ the Lord. This path finds notable expression in religious consecration, and, in a particular way, by the monastic life, which, from its origins, was seen as a specific way of living out one’s baptism.

2. Consecrated persons, by virtue of their consecration, “follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way”. They are called to recognise the signs of God’s presence in daily life and wisely to discern the questions posed to us by God and the men and women of our time. The great challenge faced by consecrated persons to persevere in seeking God “with the eyes of faith in a world which ignores His presence”, and to continue to offer that world Christ’s life of chastity, poverty and obedience life as a credible and trustworthy sign, thus becoming “a living ‘exegesis’ of God’s word”.

From the origins of the life of special consecration in the Church, men and women called by God and in love with Him have devoted their lives exclusively to seeking His face, longing to find and contemplate God in the heart of the world. The presence of communities set like cities on a hill or lamps on a stand, despite their simplicity of life, visibly represent the goal towards which the entire ecclesial community journeys. For the Church “advances down the paths of time with her eyes fixed on the future restoration of all things in Christ”, thus announcing in advance the glory of heaven.

3. Peter’s words, “Lord, it is good for us to be here!”, have a special meaning for all consecrated persons. This is particularly the case for contemplatives. In profound communion with every other vocation of the Christian life – all of which are “like so many rays of the one light of Christ, Whose radiance brightens the countenance of the Church” – contemplatives “devote a great part of their day imitating the Mother of God, who diligently pondered the words and deeds of her Son, and Mary of Bethany, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened attentively to His words”. Their lives, “hidden with Christ in God”, become an image of the unconditional love of the Lord, Himself the first contemplative. They are so centred on Christ that they can say with the Apostle. “For to me, to live is Christ!”. In this way, they express the all-encompassing character at the heart of a vocation to the contemplative life.

Contemplatives, as men and women immersed in human history and drawn to the splendour of Christ, “the fairest of the sons of men”, are set in the heart of the Church and the world. In their unending search for God, they discover the principal sign and criterion of the authenticity of their consecrated life. St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, emphasised that a monk is one whose entire life is devoted to seeking God. He insisted that it be determined of one aspiring to the monastic life “si revera Deum quaerit”, whether he truly seeks God.

In a particular way, down the centuries countless consecrated women have devoted, and continue to devote “the whole of their lives and all their activities to the contemplation of God”, as a sign and prophecy of the Church, virgin, spouse and mother. Their lives are a living sign and witness of the fidelity with which God, amid the events of history, continues to sustain his people.

4. The monastic life, as an element of unity with the other christian confessions, takes on a specific form that is prophecy and sign, one that “can and ought to attract all the members of the church to an effective and prompt fulfilment of the duties of their christian vocation”. Communities of prayer, especially contemplative communities, which “by virtue of their separation from the world are all the more closely united to Christ, the heart of the world”, do not propose a more perfect fulfilment of the Gospel. Rather, by living out the demands of Baptism, they constitute an instance of discernment and a summons to the service of the whole Church. Indeed, they are a signpost pointing to a journey and quest, a reminder to the entire People of God of the primary and ultimate meaning of the Christian life.


5 thoughts on “Pope Francis and contemplative nuns, part 1

  1. I am struck that this opening section groups male and female contemplative monastics with the exception of one paragraph that breaks out contemplative nuns. It says that “in a particular way” they follow this path of seeking God through the contemplative path. But it doesn’t really define what is “particular” about that “way.” Is it particular because they are women?


    1. The language here does seem to distinguish them according to gender. (Although the phrasing is somewhat ambiguous. Is it the Church that is “virgin, spouse and mother” or is that the contemplative nun as Bride of Christ? I think I’m right in reading it as the latter.) That’s fitting into a long tradition of theologians and ecclesiastics thinking about a religious woman (and Ecclesia as sponsa Christi that goes right back to Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and that is of course particularly influential in the High Middle Ages. Since there’s no similar metaphor for monks (in medieval French profession ceremonies, monks “put on the new Christ” rather than wedding anyone), is this reminder of the nun’s gendered body inevitably linking to thoughts of marriage, domesticity and thus the cloister?


  2. This group discussion of Vultum Dei quaerere is of great interest to me. Until I was a member of a contemplative monastic community in an international order. As a member for over 15 years I was a party to discussions of and response to a questionnaire received late in the spring of 2014 from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL). To the best of my knowledge the distribution of this instrument by the Congregation to contemplative monasteries was not covered in Catholic media. In the intervening years we have wondered how the responses were received in Rome, what the nature of the responses was and how (if) they would be incorporated into to responded to in a document that we had been told was surely coming. Just two weeks ago I asked the nuns of my former community if they had heard anything in this regard. The answer was “no”.

    I have no idea if there is interested in the nature of this questionnaire and my response to it. I eagerly await other comments from readers of this blog.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s