Pope Francis Issues New Apostolic Constitution on Women's Contemplative Life

Pope Francis with women religious at the Jubilee Audience in St. Peter's Square on June 30, 2016.
Pope Francis with women religious at the Jubilee Audience in St. Peter's Square on June 30, 2016. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

The Vatican today published Pope Francis’ new apostolic constitution on women’s contemplative life, Vultum Dei quaerere (Seeking the Face of God).

The document, signed on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29 and released on the new liturgical feast of St. Mary Magdalene, eloquently praises the contemplative vocation and begins by explaining its essential nature, one which offers the world a prophetic sign and is devoted to “exclusively seeking” the face of God.

The apostolic constitution has a chapter devoted to esteem, praise and thanksgiving for contemplative life, and says that women contemplatives in particular have produced “a rich harvest of grace and mercy.”

But the Pope says that 50 years after the Second Vatican Council, and after “due consultation and careful discernment,” he believes it is necessary to “reaffirm” his “personal esteem, together with the gratitude of the entire Church” for the lives of contemplative nuns, whom he calls “a priceless and indispensable gift which the Holy Spirit continues to raise up in the Church.”

The Holy Father ends the document by establishing a new set of rules for contemplative women, many of which emphasize the importance of God being at the center of monastic life.

Twelve Aspects

The Pope expands on the essential elements and great qualities of contemplatives, noting the “subtle temptations” they can face, and offers 12 aspects to assist contemplative women to attain the goal of their specific vocation.

He lists these as: formation, prayer, the word of God, the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, fraternal life in community, federations, the cloister, work, silence, the communications media and asceticism.

The Pope praises the structure of federations as important and encourages them to “increase in number”, and says communications media can “prove helpful for formation and communication” but he also urges a “prudent discernment” so it can remain “truly at the service of formation to contemplative life.”

He also underlines how the challenges of asceticism and fraternal relationships in community can help contemplatives set a “helpful example” to today’s world, “so often rent by conflict and division.”

Francis concludes by stressing that the “world and the Church” need nuns to be “beacons of light for the journey of the men and women of our time”.

The apostolic constitution then goes on to list new regulations that the Pope has established.  

Among them, he makes clear that any part of canon law that is not accordance with the document are partially repealed, and cites in particular the repealing of a number of other unspecified norms found in Pius XII’s apostolic constitution Sponsa Christias well as two later Instructions: Inter Praeclara (1950), and Verbi Sponsa (1999). 

Also of particular note, the Pope asks that each monastery review its “daily horarium to see if it is centred on the Lord”; that community celebrations should “constitute an authentic and vital encounter with the Lord;” and that each monastery should set aside time for Eucharistic adoration, also inviting local lay faithful to take part.

He further places an emphasis on the importance of federations, and says that the Vatican dicastery for religious will issue a new instruction related to the Pope’s 12 aspects to assist women contemplatives fulfill their vocation.

The full text can be read here

A Vatican summary of the document. 

A Vatican summary of today's briefing:

Vultum Dei quaerere: a post-Conciliar Apostolic Constitution, 22.07.2016

This morning in the Holy See Press Office Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, O.F.M., secretary of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life presented the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei quaerere, on women's contemplative life, recalling first that this "illustrious portion of Christ's flock", as St. Cyprian described it, constitutes the beating heart of faith and of the love of the Church for the Lord and for humanity. Nonetheless, in recent decades it has been somewhat neglected at a legislative level, and has been regulated until now by an Apostolic Constitution, the Sponsa Christi, which dates from 1950, during the papacy of Pius XII. Vultum Dei quaerere is therefore valuable inasmuch as it fills the gap of the post-conciliar years, the consequences of which were starting to become evident.

"This gave rise to the concern of Pope Francis, a pastor attentive to the life of his flock, and his decision to give a new document to all those who in the Church, 'men and women called by God and in love with Him, [who] have devoted their lives exclusively to seeking His face, longing to find and contemplate God in the heart of the world'", continued the prelate.

The Holy Father, to underline his esteem for this particular form of consecration, called mysteriously to give light to all humanity from silence and from the cloister, gives precise indications regarding the fundamental elements of a life of contemplation that, while not the exclusive prerogative of women, is mostly female. "Therefore, in outlining the essential elements there is no lack of explicit references to contemplative women, to whom there is presented the icon of Mary as summa contemplatrix, "Mary, Virgin, Bride and Mother, who welcomes and treasures the Word in order to give it back to the world … to help to bring Christ to birth and increase in the hearts of men and women".

The archbishop focused on the key points of the new Apostolic Constitution, emphasising that not by chance the first of these is formation, a theme which has for many years been of special interest for the Magisterium. "In this regard, the Holy Father on the one hand recalls that the usual place for formation for a contemplative community is the monastery, yet on the other expresses his hope for collaboration between more than one monastery, in various ways: the exchange of materials, the prudent use of digital media, common houses of initial formation, and the willingness of some sisters prepared to help monasteries with fewer resources".

With reference to the ample space that the document dedicates to prayer, he indicated the Pope's important clarification that prayer and contemplative life cannot be lived as a form of self-absorption, but must instead enlarge the heart to embrace all humanity, especially those who suffer. "If it is a profound desire in the heart of Pope Francis to have an outbound Church", he affirmed, "this is also applicable to those who are called to live out their lives within the walls of the cloister: the attention of the heart, in its maternal care, must continually extend the boundaries of prayer, so that it not only looks upward, to contemplate the holy face of God, but also descends to the depths, to encounter the suffering of man at his loneliest and most marginalised".

Archbishop Rodríguez Carballo also referred to another two elements that are currently a subject of discernment and reflection for monasteries of contemplative life: autonomy, linked to the role of federations, and cloisters. All monasteries, except in special cases, judged by the Holy See, are to be grouped in federations, and there is the interesting possibility for membership of federations to be based not only on geographical criteria but also on the basis of affinities of spirit and traditions. Likewise it is hoped that this will lead to the association, also juridical, of corresponding monasteries of men's Orders, comparable to the formation of the international Confederations and Commissions of the different Orders. With regard to cloisters, the three types of cloistered life already considered in Vita Consacrata are redefined: that is, the papal, constitutional and monastic cloisters, enabling individual monasteries to carry out careful discernment, respecting their own right to eventually ask the Holy See for permission to embrace a form of cloistered life different from their current one.

Archbishop Rodríguez Carballo concluded by reiterating that in Vultum Dei Quaerere, the Pope has considered all areas of contemplative life. "With this Apostolic Constitution, his thought is translated into clear guidelines, that will be presented to the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life, who will have the task of drafting a new document to substitute the existing one, Verbi sponsa, which contains the legislation regulating the formation, autonomy and cloistered life of monasteries of contemplative or wholly contemplative life".