ROME – Earlier this month, two Poor Clare nuns were expelled from religious life for defying a Vatican order to abandon their 13th century convent on Italy’s Amalfi coast. Now 13 Benedictine sisters in Tuscany could face a similar fate as they too resist a Vatican decree, in this case involving the removal of their mother superior.
The drama centers on the “Mary Temple of the Holy Spirit” convent in Pienza in the southern part of Tuscany, nestled on a hill with a breathtaking view of the nearby Val d’Orcia, a lush green valley bisected by the Orcia River. Before becoming a convent, the property formerly hosted the diocesan seminary.
A group of 13 Benedictine sisters arrived in the convent in 2017 under the leadership of their newly elected superior, Sister Diletta Forti, who has a background as a marshal in the Forest Guards, more or less the Italian equivalent of the Park Rangers in the United States.
Under Diletta’s leadership, the sisters began a series of ventures, some intended to promote new vocations – such as taking to Facebook to invite young Italian women between the ages of 18 and 38 to spend five days with the sisters in the convent, “sharing our daily life, praying and working with us, to meet Christ and to discover the meaning of your life.”
Other undertakings were commercial, intended to help the convent become self-sustaining. They included the sale of homemade candies and votive candles in an open-air market, and also transforming unused wings of the convent into a sort of B&B, promoted on Facebook under the slogan, “It’s small but it’s got all the comforts … what do you think?”
According to media accounts, this essentially unlicensed commercial activity got the sisters into hot water with local authorities, who complained to the Diocese of Montepulciano-Chiusi-Pienza.
“These sisters surprised us a little bit,” said the deputy mayor of Pienza, Gianpietro Colombini.
“Traditionally this enclosure was different, but evidently they’ve determined rules that permit them to go out and conduct certain activities, such as running a market in an anomalous fashion,” Colombini said.
Local media reports suggest that the diocese made various efforts to rein in the sisters in recent years, which eventually led to an appeal to the Vatican and an apostolic visit of the convent conducted by Cardinal Paolo Lojudice of Siena, a close ally of Pope Francis.
According to a statement posted earlier this week on the web site of the Diocese of Montepulciano-Chiusi-Pienza, the review culminated in a decision to depose Sister Diletta and to name new leadership for the convent.
“On Feb. 13, 2023, the sisters of the ‘Mary Temple of the Holy Spirit’ convent were notified of decrees issued by the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life … The dicastery has ordered a change in leadership in the convent,” the statement said.
The statement added that the diocese will continue to pay the bills for the convent, but that “obviously everything must be done in obedience to civil laws and canonical norms, and by welcoming the dispositions of the Holy See in communion with the church.”
The statement also noted, however, that as of Sunday, Feb. 19, the Vatican orders had not yet been implemented by the sisters. In fact, local media reports suggest that the sisters have suspended their communications on social media, a padlock has been placed on the entrance to the convent and all its phone lines have been disconnected.
Forti released her own statement on Feb. 20, accusing the diocese of spreading “false and distorted news” and claiming that the Vatican decrees are legally problematic,
“This monastic community has been accused of disobedience and resistance to the dispositions of superiors, while it has simply refused to implement a provision with gross anomalies and conspicuous issues of a juridical nature, such as to call into question its validity and efficacy,” the statement said.
“For this reason, the convent has deemed it necessary to make use of the protections and guarantees of canon law in the competent offices, considering the communication forwarded to it to lack the requisites that would make it effective,” Forti said.
“We’re sorry to note,” she said, “that the diocese hasn’t had any consideration for the necessary discretion with which certain situations should be handled in an intra-ecclesial environment.”
Forti affirmed the sisters’ “filial devotion and obedience to the Holy Father Francis, trusting that this unfortunate situation can be resolved soon, and that a climate of serenity can be recomposed and justice reestablished.”
For its part, the diocesan statement said, “We hope a solution will soon be found that preserves everyone’s best interests,” while also stipulating that the convent isn’t authorized to raise any money for its accounts.
While there has not been any formal threat of returning the sisters to the lay state, media reports suggest that officials in the diocese are becoming increasingly frustrated and some have suggested privately that the community may need to be dissolved.