Editor’s note: This is the fourth 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. In the second article, “The Parting of the Ways – Reactions and Responses to Cor Orans,” Carmelite Sr. Gabriela Hicks, a member of a cloistered contemplative community, describes how resistance to the reforms by some monasteries led to divisions between communities of nuns, culminating in the sudden departure of twelve nuns from the Philadelphia Carmel. In the third article, “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things?” Sr. Gabriela describes the internet and social media hysteria by radical traditionalists in response to the situation, culminating with an outrageous and sensational open letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.
October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, is a special day for Discalced Carmelites. On that day, in 1582, our Foundress, St. Teresa of Avila, died in Alba de Tormes, Spain. (Incidentally, it was on that date that the calendar jumped ahead 11 days to rectify the discrepancy between the calendar and the solar year.)
Because of this double celebration for us, I decided that October 4 would be a fitting day on which to post my reply to Archbishop Viganò’s Defense of Cloistered Nuns against the Holy Father. It was meaningful that on October 4, a Daughter of St. Teresa should speak out in support of the Successor of St. Peter who bears the name of Francis. So on that day, my Open Letter to Archbishop Viganò appeared on our Flemington Carmel website.
Open Letter to
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò
Concerning Cloistered Contemplative Nuns
Praised be Jesus Christ!
On October 1st, 2021, the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, a Discalced Carmelite Nun and Doctor of the Church, you published a statement denouncing the treatment of cloistered contemplatives by Pope Francis. Your statement has so far appeared on Stilum Curiae, and Non Veni Pacem. In your statement, you inveigh against the visitation of cloistered contemplative nuns ordered by Cardinal João Braz de Aviz and Archbishop José Rodriguez Carballo. The statement appeared on Non Veni Pacem under the heading Fairfield Carmelite Interrogations Concluded, Archbishop Viganò Issues Statement in Defense of Women’s Monasteries of Contemplative Life, and in it your refer to “the Apostolic Visitations that the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life is carrying out in various Convents of contemplative women religious in the United States.” Articles concerning the Fairfield Visitation have appeared on various websites including Non Veni Pacem, LifeSiteNews, Gloria.tv, Fr. Z, FreeRepublic.com and CatholicCulture.org among others.
In your statement, you wrote: “Behind this purging operation, like everything that distinguishes the work of the Bergoglian church, there is a hatred and an iconoclastic fury towards the Communities of Contemplative Life, and in a particular way against those tied to Tradition and the Ancient Rite. This hatred has become commonplace with the infamous Instruction Cor Orans and its cruel and merciless application.” You also write: “I understand well how difficult it is, in the face of the perversion of ecclesiastical authority, to combine one’s solemn Vow of Obedience to one’s Superiors with the evidence of the evil purposes they pursue, and how painful it is to have to resist those who should be exercising authority in the name of Our Lord.”
Monsignore, you are obviously not familiar with the writings of St. Teresa of Jesus, who founded the Order of Discalced Carmelites in 1562. In the “Book of Her Life” she writes: “Some persons came to me with great fear to tell me we were in trouble and that it could happen that others might accuse me of something and report me to the Inquisitors. This amused me and made me laugh, for I never had any fear of such a possibility. If anyone were to see that I went against the slightest ceremony of the Church in a matter of faith, I myself knew well that I would die a thousand deaths for the faith or for any truth of Sacred Scripture. And I said they shouldn’t be afraid about these possible accusations; that it would be pretty bad for my soul if there were something in it of the sort that I should have to fear the Inquisition; that I thought that if I did have something to fear I’d go myself to seek out the Inquisitors; and that if I were accused, the Lord would free me.” (“Life”, 33, 5) If St. Teresa laughed at the thought of being investigated by the Inquisition, who were not known for their respect towards the persons they investigated, then her Daughters can have no reason to fear an investigation by the Church. “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (Jn. 3, 21)
You also denounced Cor Orans, the Instruction issued by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life to establish the norms for applying Pope Francis’s Apostolic Constitution, Vultum Dei quaerere. In the March and July 2021, editions of “Amigas”, the newsletter of the St. Joseph’s Association of American Carmels, there appeared several articles written by various Carmelite Nuns concerning Cor Orans, and especially the norms presently regulating canonical visitations. The opinions expressed by the Carmelite nuns are overwhelmingly positive. You can read these articles on my Community’s website: flemingtoncarmel.org/posts.
On the Home page of that website, you will also find the link to our Statement of Support for Pope Francis: flemingtoncarmel.org.
In your statement, you write, about the persecution of traditional, cloistered nuns. However, as someone wrote, when people speak of “tradition”, they mean how things were 75 years ago. But Tradition goes back millenia! Vatican II said to return to the sources. That is what we have tried to do in my Order, the Discalced Carmelites. We returned to what St. Teresa wrote and how she intended her sons and daughters to live. In my Carmel, we wear the full habit, sandals included, we keep the full enclosure and only go out for doctor’s visits and absolutely necessary business, and we have the full monastic schedule with 2 hours of prayer and 2 hours of recreation. We consider ourselves totally traditional, even if we don’t have the Liturgy in Latin or the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, except when we have a visit from a FSSP priest or a priest of the Institute of Christ the King. We are glad to be fully traditional and fully faithful to the Holy Father and to the prescriptions of Vatican II.
You deplore the treatment meted out to cloistered contemplative nuns by the present Holy Father and his delegates. But there are some 6,000 cloistered contemplative nuns around the world, in various Congregations and Orders. How many of these nuns share your opinions about the way they are treated? I do not know for how many nuns you speak, but here in Flemington, New Jersey, there is one Community which does not share your views. We are all weak and we are all sinners who have been blessed by God’s mercy and grace, but we here in Flemington rejoice to give this witness to our gratitude to God for the blessings and graces we have received through Pope Francis and his delegates.
Reverend Monsignore, though I do not share your opinions, I gladly assure you of the prayers of my Community for you and your ministry. May Our Lord bless you and draw you ever closer to Himself.
In Jesus and Mary,
Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D.
Carmel of Mary Immaculate and St. Mary Magdalen
October 4th, 2021
Feast of St. Francis and Anniversary of the
Death of St. Teresa of Jesus
It wasn’t long before I received various comments. The first one was from a priest whom we know slightly and who regretted “to say that your open letter to Archbishop Viganò is strikingly condescending in tone and texture.” He also reproved me for not “responding to the substantive points made by the archbishop.”[i] I will leave to the readers to decide if the tone of my letter is “strikingly condescending.” As to his reprimand of not responding to the points made by the archbishop, I explained to Father that there is a difference between an apologist and a witness. Some people are called to be both, but I am not. As a religious, I am called to be a witness, to “show to the Church and the world a clear sign” of God’s Kingdom.[ii] That was the purpose of the Open Letter, to show the Church and the world that there are cloistered religious who trust in Our Lord’s promise to Peter, the Rock on whom the Church is built, and who stand with Pope Francis.
Archbishop Viganò claimed to be defending cloistered religious and to speak on their behalf. He may indeed be speaking for the 25 Nuns at the Fairfield Carmel and the 41 Nuns at Valparaiso, but he is not speaking for me, nor for my Community, nor for our Association, nor for the thousands of other cloistered contemplative nuns who have quietly put the norms of Cor Orans into practice and who are reaping the rewards of their obedient trust in God. As the articles on our website show, we have found that Cor Orans is challenging and rewarding. We Carmelites are not the only ones. As Sr. Mary Catharine, O.P. of the Summit Dominicans, wrote, “We see CO as a blessing. It has provided so much of what we felt the lack of in the past 50 years.”[iii]
Nevertheless, I will also respond to some criticisms I frequently read against Cor Orans. On reading these criticisms, I often think of a quip by Woody Allen: “I took a speed-reading course and then I read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia.” Many accusations against Cor Orans seem to be made by people who have taken Woody Allen’s speed-reading course and then skimmed through Cor Orans in a couple of minutes. The most common error is to confuse an “association or federation” with a ”congregation.” The president of a congregation has authority over the monasteries in the congregation. For example, in the Congregation of the Passionist Nuns, “The ordinary governance of the Congregation is entrusted to the President, with the assistance of a Council. In as much as she is a Major Superior, she enjoys ordinary power over all the monasteries within the limits of the faculties foreseen in these present Constitutions, and safeguarding the proper autonomy of each monastery.”[iv]
The president of an association or a federation has no such power. She is not a Major Superior,[v] and she has no power to intervene or interfere in the internal life of any of the monasteries in the association. Yet her role has been misinterpreted and misrepresented by critics of Pope Francis and his reforms.
Here is a practical, very recent example of this confusion. The president of our St. Joseph’s Association recently received an email telling her, “I would ask you to refrain Sister Gabrielle [sic] from writing anything more about” a certain matter. Furthermore, the president was to order me “to remove what she has already posted.”[vi]
This is not the first time the president of our Association has been called upon to rein me in and stop me from writing.[vii] Once before, she was even summoned to “reprimand the prioress” of a monastery in the Association for a perfectly reasonable and legitimate statement of facts which did not happen to please a certain religious.
Writing articles, or answering letters, like most of the actions taken by a contemplative community, is a matter of the internal life of a monastery. If someone is upset by what I write, they will only be able to take up the matter with my Prioress or myself. Writing to the president of our Association is of no use because she has no direct authority over me. I made my vow of obedience to my Prioress, not to the president of the Association. The president can certainly share her thoughts on the matter, but so can anyone else. The president of an association is a servant of communion between the monasteries, not an official of government.
Still, that they have contacted our association president is ironic, since one of the criticisms of Cor Orans is the requirement that communities belong to an association. Why, then, why are some people so upset about this? Additionally, given that the truth is that the association president has no direct authority over the daily lives of the other nuns in the association, why are some nuns so terrified to belong to an association with a president?
While the president of an association has no power over the monasteries, but she does have a duty towards them, and that duty is expressed in her oversight of their well-being. She is called to accompany each monastery as it strives to live out our common vocation, especially as Co-Visitator in a canonical visitation. “The visitation of an external authority, a bishop for communities of diocesan right, or a religious superior in other cases, is called a canonical visitation. It has a double aspect, fraternal and juridical. Its mission is multifaceted: community life, quality of the liturgy, fidelity to the constitutions as well as to the spiritual patrimony of the institute, exercise of government by superiors, formation, temporal goods, etc. The visitators must hear all the members of the community in order to learn about the richness and weaknesses of community life.”[viii]
Unfortunately, due to the spread of false narratives and malicious interpretations about these reforms, the thought of being accompanied in this way is frightening to some religious.
We will see in our next article how very challenging such accompaniment is in some cases.
[i] Email of Oct. 4th, 2021
[ii] Collect of the Votive Mass for Vocations to the Religious Life.
[iii] Email of Nov. 7th, 2021
[iv] Rule and Constitutions of the Congregation of the Nuns of the Passion of Jesus Christ, #168
[v] Cor Orans #100
[vi] Email of Nov. 10th, 2021
[vii] Cf. Letter Dec. 22, 2019
[viii] Lassus, Dysmas de. Risques et dérives de la vie religieuse (French Edition) (p. 347). Editions du Cerf. Kindle Edition.
Image: Meeting of Monastics – Rome, January 2016