Editor’s note: This is the first article in “Combat For Contemplative Life,” a series about the responses — inside and outside the cloister — to Pope Francis’s reforms of the contemplative life for women in various communities. In the first article, “A Praying Heart: How Pope Francis intends to save the cloistered life,” Mike Lewis provides an overview of the reforms, with responses and reactions from sisters around the world. The second article in the series is, “The Parting of the Ways – Reactions and Responses to Cor Orans,” by Discalced Carmelite Sister Gabriela Hicks, a cloistered nun in Flemington, New Jersey.
In 2018, the Vatican released Cor Orans (“Praying Heart”), a document that lays out instructions on the implementation of Pope Francis’s 2016 Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere (“Seek the Face of God”). Cor Orans is addressed to contemplative communities of women religious, those who we might colloquially refer to as “cloistered nuns.” There are around 38,000 contemplative nuns in the world today (making up a little over six percent of all women religious), with perhaps 200 such communities in the US. a number that has been decreasing. As with other women religious, the number of contemplative nuns has been in steep decline, with the average age steadily increasing. The reforms of Cor Orans are intended to affirm the Church’s esteem for and appreciation of the contemplative monastic life, to protect its authenticity, and to allow it to flourish.
In Vultum Dei Quaerere, Pope Francis describes how by their particular vocation, the lives of contemplative women religious “are a living sign and witness of the fidelity with which God, amid the events of history, continues to sustain his people” (VDQ 3). He also reminds us that contemplative sisters, through “their lives, ‘hidden with Christ in God’, become an image of the unconditional love of the Lord, Himself the first contemplative” (VDQ 3).
The contemplative life is a radical calling, but the Church recognizes that cloistered religious play an essential role in the work of evangelization through their prayer and witness. Perhaps there is no more striking sign of this esteem than when Pope Pius XI proclaimed St. Thérèse of Lisieux, along with the great Jesuit Missionary St. Francis Xavier as the Universal Patrons of the Missions on December 14, 1927. On October 1, 2019, in his homily at Vespers for the opening of World Missionary Month, Pope Francis explained that St. Thérèse, a Carmelite nun who never left the cloister, “shows us the way: she made prayer the fuel for missionary activity in the world.”
In Vultum Dei Quaerere, Pope Francis once again takes up this theme. Addressing the sisters and recognizing how their lives of sacrifice and prayer benefit the whole Church, he writes, “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 evangelization? The Church greatly esteems your life of complete self-giving.”
The greater part of the apostolic constitution, however, is where Pope Francis lays out areas that require reconsideration in light of changes in the world and in the communities. In the section entitled “Matters calling for discernment and renewed norms,” the document lists twelve areas that needed review and were subject to potential changes in the lives and communities of contemplative nuns:
- The centrality of the word of God
- The sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation
- Fraternal life in community
- The autonomy of monasteries
- The cloister
- The communications media
After calling for a deeper commitment in each of these areas, he once again thanks the nuns for their witness and sacrifice. He also stresses the importance of remaining in unity with the Church during the implementation of the new constitution and the instructions that would follow. He implores them, “Persevere, then, in profound communion with the Church so that in her midst you may become a living continuation of the mystery of Mary, Virgin, Bride and Mother, who welcomes and treasures the Word in order to give it back to the world. Thus you will help to bring Christ to birth and increase in the hearts of men and women who, often unconsciously, are thirsting for the One who is the ‘way, the truth, and the life.’”
Two years later, in May 2018, the instruction was finally promulgated. Cor Orans describes the specific changes in the life of contemplative women religious. These touch on everything from how to start a new monastery to its transfer or dissolution. It lays out new guidelines and timeframes for the formation process of nuns, prayer, spiritual reading, community life, and even the use of social media. The document discusses the autonomy of the monasteries, delineates the authority structures, relationships with other monasteries, and the monastery’s relationship with the local bishop.
Generally speaking, the response by nuns around the world to both documents has been positive, if in some cases, a bit apprehensive about how the reforms would play out.
Benedictine Sr. Nancy Bauer of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota, a former prioress and a professor of canon law who specializes in consecrated life, led a workshop last week on the challenges of implementing Cor Orans for the Resource Center for Religious Institutes’ annual conference. According to Dan Stockman of the Global Sisters Report, she commented that many communities were facing challenges implementing the reforms, and that some nuns had told her, “Vultum Dei Quaerere was a wake-up call, Cor Orans was like electric shock treatment.”
For the most part, however, the nuns have embraced the instruction and recognize the need for it. For example, in her commentary on the new apostolic constitution, Benedictine Sister Scholastika Häring, of the Abbey of Dinklage in Germany wrote, “We should begin by saying that Vultum Dei Quaerere responds to an urgent need.” She points out that, “Current legislation for contemplative orders of women in fact rests upon the Apostolic Constitution Sponsa Christi of Pius XII, and the Instruction Inter Praeclara for religious congregations of 1950.” In other words, it had been a long time since the last reform.
Upon the release of Vultum Dei Quaerere, a member of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, a community in Knoxville dedicated to praying for priests, posted on the community’s blog, “if anyone asks us, as cloistered nuns, we would like to clarify we are thrilled with the new Constitution.” Later in the post, she added, “We were reading it the day it was released, not reacting in horror as if this was some correction or infringement. As we went through the norms listed at the end, we found we were already living many of them, as have most cloisters around the world. I can hardly fathom any cloister in the world not welcoming this.”
Soon after, the Handmaids began to study the document as a community, incorporating the new constitution into their routine of prayer and study. The sister explained, “Under our Mother Prioress’ direction we plan to move through each point together. After preliminary individual study, all the Sisters gather over a period of days and delve deeper into each point.”
Since the release of the Instruction Cor Orans, many of the congregations have worked diligently to incorporate the reforms into their way of life. A few months after the May 2018 release of Cor Orans, the Vatican hosted a gathering in Rome with over 300 cloistered nuns in attendance. It took place in the great hall of the Pontifical Lateran University on November 21 for a conference to celebrate the 65th Pro Orantibus Day (also known as the World Day for Cloistered Life).
Claire Giangravè of Crux interviewed several of the attendees to ask them about their progress in implementing Cor Orans. Some were very happy with the instruction, including Sister Margherita of the Figlie del Cuore di Gesù (the Daughters of the Heart of Jesus, a contemplative order with monasteries in Rome and Venice). Sister Margherita said she was not intimidated or worried about the new instruction, because many of the innovations were already being implemented by her congregation. “This isn’t an earthquake for us,” she said.
Others found the change intimidating and challenging, including Poor Clare Sister Chiara Amata. One encouraging sign for her was how both documents reflected the feedback and questions of the nuns themselves, who filled out a Vatican questionnaire before the two documents were promulgated. Sister Chiara Amata said, “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.”
Over in London, the Carmelites of Notting Hill also indicated receptivity to Cor Orans and Vultum Dei Quaerere, posting on their website, “we can see the Church’s high regard for the life of contemplative nuns and concern that it should be supported and helped to flourish healthily.” In the documents, they found a call “to renewal in every aspect of our lives and we ask your prayer that we respond generously and responsibly.”
Archbishop José Rodriguez Carballo, the Secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), presented Cor Orans at a May 15, 2018 press conference in the Vatican. Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service reported on the presentation and described some of the key reforms spelled out in the document. These include a requirement for every monastery to be part of a federation, which will allow them to work together to facilitate formation and to share resources; Wooden notes, that monasteries may receive exceptions from the Vatican. Another change is to the length of the formation period before a nun professes final vows. Cor Orans stipulates a period of 9 to 12 years, whereas many monasteries previously had much shorter processes.
Superiors are granted more authority under Cor Orans. For example, the superior may now grant a nun a leave of absence of up to one year. Previously, only the Vatican could grant it. Sr. Mary Catharine of Jesus Perry, a Dominican nun from the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, New Jersey, wrote about how this reform is necessitated by a changing society and culture. In the past, women would typically join a monastery near their hometown, whereas today they often move hundreds or thousands of miles away. She explains, “It is not unusual for nuns to go home to visit their parents who can no longer travel. Or perhaps they need to help in their care or see to their needs. This is especially so with nuns who do not have brothers or sisters.” She tells the story of a fellow sister who needed to be away from the monastery for four months because she needed to sell her mother’s house and arrange for her mother to move into assisted living. She recounts, “Sister kept in regular contact with us and we all counted the days when she could be back home in the monastery.”
Another significant reform, and perhaps the most obvious to those of us outside the monastery walls, has been the encouragement to use modern means of social communication.
In Vultum Dei Quaerere, Pope Francis showed openness towards the utilization of communication tools, such as the internet and mobile phones. But he also issued some words of caution: “I urge a prudent discernment aimed at ensuring that they remain truly at the service of formation to contemplative life and necessary communication, and do not become occasions for wasting time or escaping from the demands of fraternal life in community.”
In line with this development, a large number of contemplative communities have created websites. These feature everything from the history of their community, information for those interested in visiting or discerning a vocation, background on the life, prayer, and work of the sisters, spiritual writing, and blog posts. In addition, the Institute on Religious Life has a recently-designed vocations website for contemplative communities, CloisteredLife.com.
Besides the obvious uses, such as to help fundraising and promote new vocations, an internet presence also allows cloistered nuns to evangelize and witness to the wider world in a way that was impossible in years past. As the website of the Carmelite sisters of Flemington, New Jersey, explains, “Yes, we live a hidden life, a silent life, a life of prayer and communion with God and with one another. That is our vocation. And as religious, we are called to witness to the world that this life has the power to radiate God’s grace into the lives of other people.”
Perhaps the area of Cor Orans that has caused the greatest amount of controversy has been the new and expanded process for the canonical visit. Before Cor Orans, it was typical that about every 3 years, a visitator, usually a priest, would come and meet with each sister privately, listen to them and ask questions, and check the financial books, then write a report to the bishop or the religious superior.
Under Cor Orans, these canonical visitations also involve a co-visitator (the sister who serves as president of the association to which the monastery belongs) and the treasurer of the association (who checks the financial records of the monastery). During the visitation, the president and treasurer, who are also nuns, come into the enclosure and stay with the community, taking part in (and observing) their liturgy, work, prayer, and recreation. The president also meets individually with each nun and sends a report to CICLSAL. This of course means that there is more oversight of each community, but also that women now play major roles in these visitations.
Cor Orans went into effect immediately, and the communities were given one year to comply unless they received a dispensation. It seems that most communities have embraced the challenges and opportunities presented by the new apostolic constitution and instruction. For some communities, it was an affirmation from the Vatican of many of the things they had already been doing. For others, it presented an enormous challenge requiring changes and tough decisions.
And unfortunately, just as in so many other areas of the Church today, not even cloistered nuns have been unaffected by the culture war in the Church. In the next few days, we’ll take a look at some of the communities and media figures who have claimed that Cor Orans and Vultum Dei Quaerere are part of Pope Francis’s plot to destroy women’s contemplative life as we know it.
Click here for part two, by Carmelite Sister Gabriela Hicks.
Image: Nuns of the Carmelite Monastery, Kirk Edge, Catholic Church England and Wales, catholicrelics.co.uk. Source: https://flic.kr/p/758RcL. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.