On Feb. 2, the Church marks the World Day for Consecrated Life. St. John Paul II established this celebration in 1997 to ask the whole Church to pray for women and men in consecrated life and for those who have received vocations to these more intense forms of baptismal consecration. He also wanted the Church to become more aware of the needs, both practical and spiritual, of those in consecrated life.
God continues to call women and men to various forms of the contemplative life. But there is also a worldwide crisis, particularly in Europe, concerning female monastic life. Many large monasteries occupied by a handful of elderly nuns who are unable to care for themselves or live contemplative life in its fullness. At times, they are even taken advantage of by unscrupulous laypersons who exploit these fragile monasteries for their own gain.
Although Vatican II’s document on the religious life, Perfectae Caritatis, alluded to the problem of dying monasteries, there was no instrument in which the major superior of a religious order or the diocesan bishop could initiate assistance to these monasteries except by directly appealing to the Holy See for suppression. Today especially, as we defend the right and dignity of life of all persons, we have the obligation to care for our sick and elderly nuns who have devoted their lives to prayer and penance.
In 2016 my Dominican contemplative community welcomed the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quarere: On Women’s Contemplative Life promulgated by Pope Francis, which supplanted Pope Pius XII’s Sponsa Christi (1950). A year later, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life issued the Instruction Cor Orans, which is a practical application of Vultum Dei.
Despite how it may have been framed by some in the Catholic media, this new legislation of Pope Francis does not represent a radical departure from that of previous popes. Following the aftermath of World War II, which left many European monasteries in crisis, Pope Pius XII in Sponsa Christi sought to strengthen monastic communities by the formation of federations.
“Federations of Monasteries,” he wrote, “although they are not prescribed by any general rule, are nevertheless highly recommended by the Holy See, not only as a safeguard against the evils and inconveniences which can arise from complete separation, but also as a means of promoting regular observance and the life of contemplation.” Perfectae Caritatis reaffirmed this recommendation.
After a lapse of seven decades, this new legislation addresses the challenges facing cloistered contemplative communities of women in the 21st century. These documents are a direct result of the input of cloistered nuns who responded to a detailed questionnaire sent to nearly all monasteries in 2015. Asking the input of the nuns was truly a revolutionary gesture, allowing us to collaborate with the Church in the flourishing of our life.
As a member of the council of the North American Association of Dominican Monasteries since 2008, I was intensely aware of the need for updated legislation for cloistered monasteries, especially when confronted with communities struggling with internal difficulties and a lack of numbers. Now, nearly three years later, I am grateful to the Church for this new legislation, which gives us the concrete means to help each other in strengthening our contemplative vocation.
Cor Orans helps religious communities by now requiring all monasteries to belong to an association or federation, thus ensuring the mutual support to address such situations with sensitivity and competence.
Key to the new legislation for cloistered nuns is the recognition of not only juridical autonomy but a real autonomy of life. Vultum Dei Quaerere defines the criteria:
Juridical autonomy needs to be matched by a genuine autonomy of life. This entails a certain, even minimal, number of sisters, provided that the majority are not elderly, the vitality needed to practice and spread the charism, a real capacity to provide for formation and governance, dignity and quality of liturgical, fraternal and spiritual life, sign value and participation in life of the local Church, self-sufficiency and a suitably appointed monastery building. These criteria ought to be considered comprehensively and in an overall perspective.
Both Vultum Dei Quaerere and Cor Orans are a clarion call by the Church, to those of us who have embraced this radical way of following Christ, to follow him with extraordinary generosity and courage. The Church and the world need us to live the cloistered life with the same passion and love for Christ as did the first monks and nuns who fled to the desert to become “white martyrs” for Christ. With this new legislation, the Church dares us to be consecrated women responsible for the life we have chosen.
As a contemplative Dominican nun whose charism is to intercede for the preaching of the Gospel and the salvation of souls, I am grateful to our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and to the Church for challenging me and my sisters of all charisms to embrace the way of life we have professed with maturity and authenticity.
I will be thanking God for these interventions on Feb. 2.
Dominican Sister Mary Catharine of Jesus Perry is a member of the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, New Jersey. Professed in 1993, she has served her community in various capacities, in particular as novice mistress for 12 years. She has served on the council of the North American Association of Dominican Monasteries as head of the Formation Committee, coordinator of the annual novice mistresses’ meeting and currently is vice president of the Association.