For reasons that still remain something of a mystery, a Carmelite convent was raided by police in Argentina late last week, where they found cilices, a religious article used by some Catholics as a form of self-mortification, which police are now investigating as possible instruments of torture.
Close to 50 armed policemen entered the convent of the Discalced Carmelites in Parana, some 200 miles from Buenos Aires, in the early hours of Thursday the 25th, after a local magazine asserted that the religious women were being mistreated, suffering malnutrition and being forced to flagellate themselves.
The policemen alleged that since the mother superior of the convent wouldn’t open the door, they were forced to break it down. Once inside, they found the cilices and, allegedly, whips.
Claiming to have the testimony of women who formerly lived in the convent, the magazine also asserted that the sisters, who chose to lead an ascetic life in the cloister, are being forcefully deprived of their freedom.
Although the practice to use the cilice is not as widespread as it once was, some of history’s greatest saints wore them, either in the most common modern form of a spiked chain which irritates the skin or as an undergarment made of hair as it was customary in the past.
For instance, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Therese of Lisieux are known to have used them, as well as soon to be declared saint Mother Teresa, St. Padre Pio, and Pope Paul VI.
It’s still common practice among Discalced Carmelites and other orders, and, as Dan Brown famously wrote in his 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, it’s also practiced among the celibate members of Opus Dei.
The sisters have remained silent, yet the local Catholic hierarchy has expressed its concern over the way the situation was handled.
Archbishop Juan Alberto Piuggari of Entre Rios, the diocese where the convent is located, said the papal representative in the country and the bishops conference considered the raid to be disproportionate.
“There’s an article in a newspaper and, almost automatically, a convent is raided as if these were drug dealers,” he said during a press conference last week.
Piuggari also denied that the Mother Superior had refused to let them in: “She told them to give her a minute to call the bishop and they broke down the door. Is that refusing [to let them in]?”
The prelate also said that the procedure should have been “different,” and that Archbishop Emil Paul Tscherrig, the papal representative in the country, should have been informed beforehand since the monastery reports directly to the Vatican.
“These are all women who in their right minds decided and chose to live an austere life,” he said. “It’s not like they torture each other, there’s no forceful deprivation of one’s freedom. No law has in any way been broken, I don’t know how you can define the crime.”
Piuggari conceded that it’s possible there are some problems in the convent, saying he wasn’t refusing this was the case, but insisted the situation should have been handled differently.
“If something needs to be corrected, it’ll be done so,” but not in a “sensationalist” way, he said.
In a country were crimes often go unpunished (according to the Global Slavery Index, there are an estimated 35,000 people currently being held in bondage in Argentina), talking to a local Catholic radio, Piuggari insisted he found it odd the police had acted so promptly, adding that he wished it was “the same case for everyone.”
Earlier in the year, a convent in the outskirts of the country’s capital made news when a former government official tried to hide up to $9 million in different currencies, allegedly with the help of the four women living in the place.
Often called nuns because they wear habits, the four consecrated lay women are being investigated for helping José López, who was in the cabinet of former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and was arrested in June outside the monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima.
A neighbor had seen Lopez throwing plastic bags over a monastery wall at three in the morning, and called the police. One of the women has testified that she’d been asked to “be attentive” of the gate that night because “José is coming.”
The same day the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites was raided, also in Argentina, three men beat up a small community of the Missionaries of Charity in the sea-front city of Mar del Plata, roughly 250 miles from Buenos Aires, Pope Francis’ former diocese.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta is the founder of the Missionaries of Charity.
The three men entered the humble home the sisters have in Mar del Plata, beat them and tied the women up, before ransacking the place. The robbers also desecrated the chapel looking for money and valuable goods.
Their treasure? $3.30 (50 Argentine pesos).
In the house chapel, the assailants opened the tabernacle and took the consecrated hosts out of the ciborium, presumably to steal the vessel, but finding it wasn’t made of gold, they left it behind.
The Missionaries of Charity have been working in Mar del Plata for the last 20 years, focusing mostly on providing free healthcare for patients with HIV/AIDS in the Hogar María Reina de la Paz (Mery Queen of Peace Home).
Mother Teresa will be proclaimed a saint by Francis next Sunday, Sept. 4, in a Mass that is expected to draw hundreds of thousands to Rome.