ROME – A new Vatican document effectively amounts to an overhaul of contemplative women’s religious orders, allowing cloistered nuns to use social media, empowering mother superiors, and recognizing the autonomy of female monasteries.
Contemplative communities must enjoy “a real autonomy of life, meaning the ability to manage the life of the monastery in all its functions (vocational, formative, governmental, relational, liturgical, economic),” the document, called Cor Orans (“Praying Heart”), reads.
Yet if a monastery can’t satisfy a series of conditions, including a minimum number of members and prospects for long-term stability, it can lose its autonomy and be placed under the inspection of the Vatican, according to the document.
“The Holy See is the only one that can erect a monastery, and the Holy See is the only one that can suppress it,” said Spanish Archishop José Rodríguez Carballo, the pope’s top official for religious life, during a press conference at the Vatican on Tuesday.
The new instruction was prepared by the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and replaces a 1999 document Verbi Sponsa. It will be applied in the communities of the over 37,970 contemplative nuns around the world.
Nearly three years ago, the Vatican issued a questionnaire to monastic nuns worldwide, asking them to express their needs and concerns to better live out their vocation.
The result was Vultum Dei Quaerere (“Seek the Face of God”), released by Pope Francis in July 2016, an apostolic constitution for cloistered and contemplative nuns.
“We copied what arrived from the nuns,” said Carballo, who heads the congregation in charge of drafting the document.
The constitution, however, left some nuns confused about how it should be interpreted and applied, leading to requests for clarification from the Vatican and meetings to address the changes.
Cor Orans serves as a detailed explanation of the novelties introduced in the 2016 constitution. It builds on Sponsa Christi, a 1950 document issued by Pope Pius XII, which essentially opened the door for recognizing female monasteries as autonomous.
“Where Sponsa Christi speaks to the structure, Vultum Dei Quaerere speaks to the content,” said Italian Father Sebastiano Paciolla, Under-Secretary of the Congregation, during a press conference May 15.
The main goal of the instruction is to unite “a desire for renovation with the protection and safeguarding of the pillars of contemplative life,” Carballo added.
In order to ensure that monasteries with a drop in numbers remain “living realities,” Carballo explained that the new document imposes a series of prerequisites for autonomy.
They include the average age of the nuns, the real capacity of government and formation, the lack of new members, the lack of vitality in living and transmitting the order’s charisma, and the overall number of nuns.
The document states that if the number of religious women in a monastery falls below five, then they will not be able to elect their own mother superior.
“The dicastery had to sadly report monasteries that are no longer capable of moving on in a dignified way,” Carballo said.
Empowering Mother Superiors
One of the most significant changes is that mother superiors of autonomous monasteries are considered to be at the same level as the superior general of a religious order.
Among other things, this means they don’t have to refer to a bishop in cases such as giving permission for a nun to leave cloistered life, or to live outside the monastery for less than a year.
According to the document, if a nun asks to live outside the monastery for over one year, permission must be granted by the mother superior and her council.
Identity and Federation
When Francis first suggested that monasteries living in relative isolation near one another create a network of support, some nuns expressed fears that this would come at the cost of their unique charisma and identities.
These federations of monasteries were intended to promote exchanges of formation efforts, and even of sisters themselves.
“While Sponsa Christi speaks of the nuns as if they all have the same charisma, Vultum Dei Quaerere underlines the difference among their identities,” Paciolla said.
In practice, this means that monasteries are not aggregated solely based on geographical proximity, but also in light of “a spiritual and traditional affinity.” All monasteries have to join a federation unless they get a special dispensation from the Vatican.
An interesting addition in the new document is the role of the federation president, a woman contemplative religious, who oversees formation and participation of the monasteries within the federation and answers to the Holy See.
Usually that role was performed by a male official of the Church.
“No one can understand a monastery of contemplative nuns better than a contemplative woman,” Carballo said.
“We men can continue to go visit,” he added, “but this figure was important.”
It’s no secret Francis is a man of action, often praising hustle rather than quiet and reflection.
Federalization of monasteries and elimination of red tape for allowing nuns to go back into the world can be read as a reflection of the pope’s vision of a “Church that goes out.”
Another way in which cloistered nuns could engage with the outside world, beyond prayer, is social media and new communication technologies. The new document offers a green light for the use of new media, but cautions “sobriety and discretion not only with regard to the contents but also to the quantity of information and the type.”
A final concern expressed by contemplative nuns was that the period of formation suggested in Vultum Dei Quaerere was too long, almost nine years, risking a delay in discernment rather than promoting it.
The new document states that the period for simple formation must last at least five years, while underscoring the need and primacy of permanent formation.
Carballo concluded his presentation at the press conference by stating that Cor Orans “wishes to show, once again, the great appreciation that our dicastery has for female contemplative life,” and suggested that another document on formation for religious orders may be in the works.