ROME – Even in the Eternal City, it’s not often you see cloistered nuns outside the confines of their monasteries. Yet the black veils of over 300 women religious who have chosen a life of prayer and solitude filled the great hall of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome Nov. 21 for a conference celebrating the 65th Pro Orantibus Day.
The date is aimed at honoring female cloistered life, which of late has experienced a considerable overhaul. In July 2016, Pope Francis released the apostolic constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere (“Seek the Face of God”) in an effort to address a crisis in formation and community life that many cloistered or contemplative congregations were experiencing.
The document created some confusion regarding its application, and was followed by the instruction Cor Orans (“Praying Heart”) in May 2018, which replaced the 1999 document Verbi Sponsa and attempted to bring forward the ideas regarding contemplative life born during the Second Vatican Council.
On one hand, the documents empowered mother superiors, cut a lot of red-tape and opened the digital doors of the monasteries by allowing cloistered nuns to access social media and the internet. On the other, it applied firmer rules on the minimum number of religious sisters, longer formation periods and the mandatory creation of federations of monasteries.
While some cloistered communities found themselves more prepared to implement the new regulations, others continue to struggle to keep up not only with the Church but also with a world that moves at light-speed compared to the slow pace of contemplative life.
In his message to the participants at the conference, Francis emphasized the importance of formation – among the most disputed points in the documents – which has been extended to nine years instead of the regular five.
“In order for your contemplative life to be meaningful for the Church and the world today, it’s necessary to aim toward a formation that is adequate to the needs of the present moment: an integral, personalized and well-accompanied formation,” the pope wrote.
Francis praised contemplative life for being “everything for this world,” by providing guidance, prayer and sustaining the weak and the poor.
“I invite you to take seriously the challenge of formation,” he added. “It’s necessary to accept with responsibility that formation is a slow process, for which it’s important not to be in a hurry.”
Speaking at the conference was Spanish Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, Secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which drafted the documents.
The archbishop went through the innovations ushered in by the constitution and instruction and, when he reached the issue of formation, the nun-packed hall released a sigh of anticipation, confusion and excitement.
“I know that this has caused some of you to lose sleep,” Carballo said. “The times are changing, and this requires formation and responsibility.”
“Don’t be in a hurry to put on the black veil. The tailor in heaven will be very happy if someone dies with the white veil, because in heaven we will all have a white veil!” he quipped.
The joke, which refers to the white veils usually worn by novices and the black veil of professed sisters, was met with laughter and seemed to release the tension in the room as the archbishop continued his presentation.
“We are in the era of the network, we must collaborate, open ourselves,” Corbello said, encouraging the sisters “to not entirely separate themselves from the world” through the use of the internet and social media.
But the pope’s top official on religious life also warned the sisters “to not become prey to these instruments,” calling social media a “portable grate” that opens the possibility of being manipulated.
He also addressed the new role of the “Federal President,” a woman contemplative religious who oversees formation and engagement with the federation and answers to the Holy See, a role that used to be performed by a male official.
“You asked that the president have more authority, yet now you are scared!” Corbello joked.
“A woman will put her finger on the wound much more than a man,” adding, “Open up to a sister! She’s not a man who won’t understand you.”
The archbishop concluded by stating that “the reflection does not end with these two documents” and that in ten years’ time monastic life might change drastically. He spoke of the creation of an international commission dedicated to updating cloistered life, and encouraged the sisters to start adopting the changes immediately.
In a brief interview with Crux, Noemi Paola Riccardi, who belongs to the Franciscan Secular and lay order and represented the mother superior of the Canonichesse Regolari Lateranensi order at the Holy Spirit in Rome, broke down some of the most important points of the conference.
She said that formation, federations and creating a network of independent monasteries were the “least understood points emerging from the documents” and that certain parts appeared contradictory at times.
She was also negatively struck by the continued reference to “being grown women” – a repeated motto from the speakers at the conference – which in her view, “treated sisters as if they were people who until now did not act in a way that is adult and mature, which isn’t the case.”
She described this as a “a mentality typical of men” and expressed her concern with passages of the documents that encourage female religious orders to create partnerships with male religious counterparts.
“In my experience in the Franciscan family, very often the male part places its troubles on the female component,” Riccardi said. “Especially when there is a cloistered life – so beautiful as it is delicate and fragile – which must be protected in all aspects, this association could create an element of definitive and total submission to the male part instead of an element of growth.”
She added that while most cloistered congregations welcomed the novelties introduced by the documents “with joy,” others find that “there is need for clarification on how to put it into practice.”
Sister Margherita of the Figlie del Cuore di Gesù falls in the first category, since her congregation was already prepared to adapt to the innovations. Her congregation already had eight years of formation and many of the figures introduced by the papal documents.
“This isn’t an earthquake for us,” she told Crux.
For the contemplative order of the Poor Clares, things may not be as easy. Yet a representative, Sister Chiara Amata told Crux that the changes bring an “ampler breath” to their way of life and how it engages with the world.
“Change is never easy,” she said. “It can be sustained by having a stable existence. Only those who are stable can change, as Don Milani said. In the stability of life with God and in fraternal life we can find that push to go beyond ourselves and listen to what the Church and the Lord are asking us right now, and to listen also to the world, which right now is asking questions and helping us to ask ourselves questions.”
Chiara Amata added that life today moves at an accelerated speed compared to the past and admitted that perhaps cloistered religious “experienced it a little from the back seat.” She praised the Vatican and the Church for urging contemplative orders to keep up with the times.
“I feel that the Church is listening a lot concerning our life and religious life in general, so I’m sure that if there will be modifications or new dispositions we will see them together and surely enact them,” she added.
No matter where cloistered religious sisters stand on the new regulations, Brazilian Cardinal João Braz De Aviz, Prefect of the Congregation for consecrated life, made it clear that opposing the papal documents is a fruitless endeavor.
“Pope Francis is an indispensable gift, because with clarity, transparency and simplicity, he is giving us lines to follow in a difficult moment for the Church, characterized by many problems,” he said during his keynote speech.
Braz added that there was no argument during the conclave and that they “all agreed on Bergoglio,” which he said explained why he was elected in only one day and a half.
“The name of the pope doesn’t matter; in this moment Peter is Francis,” he concluded. “All forms of nostalgia that put us outside of time are not okay.”