Pope Francis and contemplative nuns, part 2

Let’s continue the discussion of the apostolic constitution…I’ve excerpted the next portion.  Full text is here.

What jumps out at you here?  Particular words or phrases?  The rhetoric of the argument?  Are there resonances with other historical periods/places?  Add your comments below!


Esteem, praise and thanksgiving for consecrated life and cloistered contemplative life

5. From the earliest centuries the Church has shown great esteem and sincere love for those men and women who, in docility to the Father’s call and the promptings of the Spirit, have chosen to follow Christ “more closely”, dedicating themselves to Him with an undivided heart. Moved by unconditional love for Christ and all humanity, particularly the poor and the suffering, they are called to reproduce in a variety of forms – as consecrated virgins, widows, hermits, monks and religious – the earthly life of Jesus in chastity, poverty and obedience.

The contemplative monastic life, made up mainly of women, is rooted in the silence of the cloister; it produces a rich harvest of grace and mercy. Women’s contemplative life has always represented in the Church, and for the Church, her praying heart, a storehouse of grace and apostolic fruitfulness, and a visible witness to the mystery and rich variety of holiness.Originating in the individual experience of virgins consecrated to Christ, the natural fruit of a need to respond with love to the love of Christ the Bridegroom, this life soon took form as a definite state and an order recognised by the Church, which began to receive public professions of virginity. With the passage of time, most consecrated virgins united in forms of common life that the Church was concerned to protect and preserve with a suitable discipline. The cloister was meant to preserve the spirit and the strictly contemplative aim of these houses. The gradual interplay between the working of the Spirit, present in the heart of believers and inspiring new forms of discipleship, and the maternal solicitude of the Church, gave rise to the forms of contemplative and wholly contemplative life that we know today. In the West, the contemplative spirit found expression in a multiplicity of charisms, whereas in the East it maintained great unity, but always as a testimony to the richness and beauty of a life devoted completely to God.

Over the centuries, the experience of these sisters, centred on the Lord as their first and only love, has brought forth abundant fruits of holiness and mission. How much has the apostolate been enriched by the prayers and sacrifices radiating from monasteries! And how great is the joy and prophecy proclaimed to the world by the silence of the cloister!

For the fruits of holiness and grace that the Lord has always bestowed through women’s monastic life, let us sing to “the Most High, the Almighty and good Lord” the hymn of thanksgiving “Laudato si’!”

6. Dear contemplative sisters, without you what would the Church be like, or those living on the fringes of humanity and ministering in the outposts of evangelisation? The Church greatly esteems your life of complete self-giving. The Church counts on your prayers and on your self-sacrifice to bring today’s men and women to the good news of the Gospel. The Church needs you!It is not easy for the world, or at least that large part of it dominated by the mindset of power, wealth and consumerism, to understand your particular vocation and your hidden mission; and yet it needs them immensely. The world needs you every bit as much as a sailor on the high seas needs a beacon to guide him to a safe haven. Be beacons to those near to you and, above all, to those far away. Be torches to guide men and women along their journey through the dark night of time. Be sentinels of the morning, heralding the dawn. By your transfigured life, and with simple words pondered in silence, shows us the One Who is the way, and the truth and the life, the Lord Who alone brings us fulfilment and bestows life in abundance. Cry out to us, as Andrew did to Simon: “We have found the Lord”. Like Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, announce to us: “I have seen the Lord!” (Jn 20:18). Cherish the prophetic value of your lives of self-sacrifice. Do not be afraid to live fully the joy of evangelical life, in accordance with your charism.


5 thoughts on “Pope Francis and contemplative nuns, part 2

  1. I can’t help but wonder–given what I know about the historical development of female contemplative monasticism–if a passage directed at male contemplatives would highlight the word and concept of the “cloister” as frequently.


  2. Talesoutofschool responded to my comment in regard to Part I of this conversation by asking me to elaborate concerning the questionnaire received by female contemplative monasteries in the spring of 2014. It was sent out by CICLSAL, the Roman Congregation responsible for religious. At the time I had been a member of my contemplative order for about 14 years and was very much concerned with these matters.
    Unlike the lengthy and very probing questionnaire sent to apostolic congregations of women in the United States a number of years before, this document was asking for our viewpoint on a number of issues. These included but were not limited to prayer life, vocation development, enclosure or maintenance of cloister, use of electronic media, and current challenges. We had been informed by the leadership of a male congregation to which we were related by history and spirituality that a new instruction (document) would be coming from Rome regarding orders of contemplative women. We knew that we would be obliged to follow its directives.
    On one hand we were pleased to receive the questionnaire because it seemed to reflect a new approach of the Congregation indicating that perhaps some lessons had been learned from their experience with apostolic communities which found their earlier probing to be highly intrusive and demeaning. Our questionnaire was actually asking for our input. But questions about the rules of enclosure and the responsibility of the local ordinary (bishop or cardinal) for compliance to see that they are obeyed did cause us concern.
    The community of which I was a member at the time (I withdrew from the community in the fall of 2015 after 15 years of membership) replied simply indicating our desire to preserve the traditions of cloistered contemplative life while seeking ways to be appropriately present to those living around us and to the surrounding culture. We also spoke of the ability of dedicated contemplative women in current circumstances to be as self governing as our male counterparts. Concerns expressed and shared by CICLSAL were fewer vocations, decreasing membership, the challenge of creating a proposed federation of our autonomous monasteries, and meeting the needs of the aged and handicapped. As for the issue of electronic media the group expressed that it had a presence on the internet, engaged in email, found new media essential for vocation work and did not find that this use interfered with prayer or community life.
    I personally found the very nature of the questions too indicative of a persisting intrusive and demeaning attitude toward female contemplative monastics. I wrote a narrative response to the questionnaire and shared it with my community. Should anyone be interested I can post it here.


  3. Hildegard: thank you so much for this response! It helps immensely in placing the document in context and providing an on the ground perspective. If you would be willing to share, I would be very interested in your narrative response. Thank you again for your generosity.


  4. This was my personal response to the CICLSAL Questionnaire of 2014 as written in August of that year:

    In concert with the desires of Pope Francis, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has been directed to prepare a proposal for a new apostolic constitution for monasteries of nuns, a successor to Sponsa Christi promulgated in 1955 by Pope Pius XII. It is possible to discern within this directive an invitation offered by our loving God. A call can be heard; a call issued to our Church which, having entered the 3rd millennium, is invited to affirm the dignity of all women created in the image and likeness of God and particularly women of our faith baptized into the Paschal Mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ who is priest, prophet and king.

    In formulation of the proposed Papal document, the first of its kind in the 21st century, the Congregation, cognizant of current theology and scripture interpretation with regard to women as well as the cultural and societal norms of our period in history, can be attentive to the signs of our times. Recognizing the import of these factors, the new document should assert the dignity of women, render respect, declare trust and, by its stipulations, affirm the full equality of women in the Church and society, both secular and ecclesial.

    The regulations concerning Papal Enclosure were first promulgated over 1,000 years ago. Analysis by historians has revealed that these regulations and their periodic reiteration in a variety of documents were rooted primarily in the political, economic and cultural context of times long passed; more rooted in constructs and circumstances long passed than in any purely spiritual value. To this day anachronistic provisions are draped with the cloth of spirituality.

    Just as apostolic congregations of women are largely self-determining in the manner in which they live out their vows and fulfill their stated active apostolic purpose to serve the needs of the people of God, women in solemn vows and committed to the apostolic work of prayer, should be similarly self-determining of the manner in which they remain committed to and exercise their vowed ministry. In this way their dignity and equality in the ecclesial setting would be affirmed.

    In the matter of interaction with the world at large and the ways in which modern technology can present a challenge to contemplative life, contemplative women, in accord with the philosophy described here, should be paid the respect and trust that their dignity and equality merit. They have the ability to self-manage the circumstances of their lives and the availability of new technologies in a manner that supports contemplation, corporate prayer, and community life in accord with their varied charisms while remaining focused upon the apostolic work of prayer for our Church and our world. The current technological challenge is not a new species of development. In the 16th century there was the appearance of the printing press. The 19th century brought with it the telegraph and telephone. In the 20th century we dealt with the advent of the automobile, television and mass media. All of these challenges were weathered as this question was answered, “How can we use this development to foster faith, prayer and community (local as well as international) but not allow it to destroy the focus of our charism and crumble the enclosure of our hearts?” Contemplative women can be trusted today to answer the same question with great integrity and to respond appropriately to current technological developments in computer sciences, the ability to access to the Internet and the availability of social media.

    The document under consideration can express this trust in allowing mature women who are committed to their vows and the person of Jesus to formulate the question over and over as the times demand and to continue to live lives centered on Jesus, pledged to Gospel values and determined to preserve contemplative life dedicated to the apostolic work of prayer.


  5. Thank you for sharing your response Hildegard, and everyone else who has replied. Whenever I hear that Rome has sent another questionnaire I’m reminded of the one sent out in the late 60’s. We filled them out faithfully, but I think the decisions had already been made.
    I was a member of a cloistered community for 12 years until 1969. Then became part of a new community of diocesan contemplatives, living without cloister and forming different ways of living in community. Long before there were cloistered nuns, there were contemplative women. I have difficulties with the Pope’s statement about contemplative life and how “special” cloistered nuns are, and the whole tone of the document. As Hildegard wrote, the cloister was the fruit of a specific time, place, circumstance. Then it became “sacralized” and now it’s considered by some as essential to contemplative life. For me, it became a hindrance to prayer and to growth. It fosters a dichotomy of “them” and “us”, “holy” and “secular”, “spirit” and “world”, which in my experience is a barrier to immersion in the Divine Life that sustains all creation.
    I really wish the men, most of whom have never lived in a monastery let alone a cloister, would stop telling us how “special” we are, keep still, and listen to the experience and knowledge of the women who live monastic and contemplative life – not necessarily the same thing.


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