Editor’s note: This is the third article in our series about the response to Pope Francis’s reforms of the contemplative life for cloistered nuns and the responses of sisters 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 and 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.

Forest fires can begin with an explosion when a bolt of lightning strikes a dry tree, and they can begin imperceptibly as a forgotten ember in a campfire slowly ignites some dry grass. The firestorm against Pope Francis for his alleged attempt “to destroy contemplative life in the Church” began slowly and then suddenly burst into fury.

After the Carmelite Nuns left their monastery in Philadelphia, there was a silence on the internet about their departure for 3 days. The President of the St. Joseph’s Association, another Association Councilor and I had gone immediately to Philadelphia for a week to help Mother Pia and to assess the situation.

Online discussion of the event suggested that the nuns left because of Cor Orans, and that they were being pressured to have the Novus Ordo Mass. I recently chronicled the events that led to their departure on the Flemington Carmel website, and the reasons for their departure are complex, but it certainly wasn’t because they were pressured to abandon the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. All that was requested of them was to have the Novus Ordo Mass said once a month in their Chapel for the benefit of the people who came to the Carmel.

Now, cloistered nuns don’t just walk out of their monastery for no good reason. When it does happen, it is a sign that something is seriously wrong. It has happened in the past, even during the life of St. Teresa of Avila, our Foundress. The nuns at the Carmel of Pastrana left during the night to escape from the disruptive interference of their capricious and domineering benefactress, the Princess of Eboli. But there were no eccentric benefactors disturbing the Carmel of Philadelphia. In fact, before she left, the Prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, wrote to the President of the St. Joseph’s Association, saying,

Our departure in no way reflects the sentiments of gratitude and love we have for the people of Philadelphia. We will greatly miss the many friends we have made here…The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has loved its Carmelite nuns for over 100 years and we attest to this with our own experience…We are particularly very sorry for any sadness our decision may cause to the other friends of the monastery, especially for those other members of the Saint Joseph Association.[i]

But why did the nuns leave Philadelphia? As I said, when that happens it shows that something is seriously wrong, and in that case, the problem needs to be identified and, if possible, healed.” When the whole body of the institute is called into question, internal visits can no longer remedy the situation. A call for an apostolic visitation becomes necessary, although it is always painful to experience.”[ii] “An apostolic visitation tests the reality of trust in the Church. It will always be a challenge for those who feel challenged. But did we not enter religious life to learn to be converted”[iii]?

Various reasons for the nuns’ departure were given in online comments. Suggestions that the Archdiocese or the Association drove out the Carmelites so they could take over the property are ridiculous. The Philadelphia Carmel, like most Carmels, is a registered Corporation in the State of Pennsylvania. You can’t walk in and take over a corporation; you might as well accuse the Serra Club!

Attacks like these were mosquito bites compared to what appeared after the Fairfield Carmel invited people to their prayer vigil because of the Apostolic Visitation. LifeSiteNews recalled the “negative effects” of the apostolic visitation of another institute. Another website had a cartoon showing the apostolic visitator dressed as a suicide bomber. Another had a painting of Pope Francis holding the Cross upside-down. Some commenters gave advice to the Valparaiso and Elysburg nuns: get police dogs and armed guards to keep out the Visitators, break their vow of obedience, and even leave the Catholic Church!

But all these condemnations of Francis’s interventions in the lives of traditional Carmelites paled beside the Statement by Archbishop Viganò that appeared on October 1 on a number of radical traditionalist websites.

In this letter, he makes many outrageous claims about the nature of the apostolic visitations and hurls unfounded accusations about the motives of the Visitators. He writes:

The manner in which these Apostolic Visitations are conducted, in violation of the canonical norms and the most elementary principles of the law; the intimidation and threats that characterize the interrogations to which the Nuns are subjected; and the psychological violence exercised over the members of these Convents, against the principles of charity and justice that ought to inspire the action of officials of a papal Dicastery – all of these reveal in all of its disturbing evidence the prejudice of the persecutory intentions of the Visitators, who are cynical executors of the orders already given by the Prefect Cardinal João Braz de Aviz and by the Secretary Archbishop José Rodriguez Carballo, following Bergoglio’s precise instructions. No matter which community is targeted, the mobbing or group bullying by the Visitators, with the purpose of dividing the sisters is always the same, as is the attempt to create strong psychological pressure, even to the point of violating their private conscience, and serious disturbance to individuals who are accustomed to living in silence, prayerful recollection, and penance.

Later in the letter, he attacks Pope Francis, charging him with trying to destroy religious life:

The ‘fault’ of these Religious Sisters is that they want to remain faithful to the immutable Magisterium of the Church and her two-thousand-year Tradition, to her venerable Liturgy. In the end, this is the only ‘fault’ of all of the secular and religious communities, both of men and of women, in the face of the ruthless destructive action of Bergoglio.

He also accuses the leadership of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life of having an “aversion to any form of consecrated life, in perfect harmony with the one who has given them their mandate.”

And towards the end of this message, he describes the entire situation in extremely stark terms:

The highest levels of the Vatican, and in particular Jorge Mario Bergoglio, will have to answer to God for these very grave sins of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which are not devoid of disturbing ideological connotations, as well as for the abuse of their authority against the good of the Church and the salvation of souls. May the Lord open the eyes of many who still do not want to recognize the apostasy that afflicts the Catholic Hierarchy.

Now, it is one thing to accuse us of bullying, of harassment, and of disturbing the life of our Sisters in Carmel. It is a very different matter to use us as ammunition in a vitriolic attack on the Supreme Pontiff. These critics claim that they are trying to protect the “traditional way of life” of contemplative nuns, but actually they are destroying our peace of heart and trying to harm our trust in God. By our vow of obedience, we obey the Pope as our highest superior. For anyone to tell us that he is destroying our vocation in the Church is to tempt us against faith. For this reason, I asked my Prioress for permission to reply to Archbishop Viganò’s Statement.

One thing that struck me as I investigated the different websites attacking Pope Francis for his war on contemplatives, was that, with the exception of Archbishop Viganò’s Statement, they were all quoting from each other. The comments at the end of the articles were quite individualistic, but the articles themselves were not. The authors seemed to be writing for each other, as though they were sharing a secret among themselves. These sentiments and opinions were not for outsiders. Indeed, for anyone to express a different opinion was to invite being cancelled, such as when a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia attempted to clarify the situation and when others left internet comments defending the other Carmels in the association. There were also the websites which never allowed different points of view at all.

This sense of dealing with a “secret society” has been repeatedly brought home very strongly throughout this affair. Meanwhile, internet rumors that present untruthful accounts of events have run rampant, and we sisters who support Pope Francis and who are doing our best to implement Cor Orans feel as if our voices have been drowned out.

For myself, when my Prioress gave me permission to join in this whole online discussion, I was determined that I would do all that I could to make my reply available as widely as possible.

To be continued…

Click here for part four, by Carmelite Sister Gabriela Hicks.


[i] Letter from Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, OCD, Prioress of the Philadelphia Carmel, to the President of the St. Joseph’s Association, March 23, 2021

[ii] Lassus, Dysmas de. Risques et dérives de la vie religieuse (French Edition) (p. 348). Editions du Cerf. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Lassus, Dysmas de. Risques et dérives de la vie religieuse (French Edition) (p. 349). Editions du Cerf. Kindle Edition.

Image: Adobe Stock

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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