ROME — For centuries, monasteries that have contained women seeking to live the contemplative life have represented a protected oasis of peace and prayer in the middle of the commotion of cities, standing the test of time despite wars and large-scale disasters. However, these treasures of Christian civilization are more than ever threatened with extinction.
One of the most tangible symptoms of the ongoing trend affecting contemplative life is the sudden closure of female cloisters in many parts of Europe, especially in Italy, which contains many of the most emblematic and historic Christian sites of the world.
According to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life’s most recent figures, there are currently 37,970 cloistered nuns in the whole world, half of whom live in Europe. Italy gathers 5,000 cloistered nuns, divided among 523 monasteries. These figures are in steady decline, however, as Europe has the world’s biggest average drop in religious sisters every year (declining there by 7,960 from 2016 to 2017).
But beyond the lack of vocations, a recent wave of closures of female monasteries in Italy that were still provided with sisters suggested the issue may have more complex roots. Although it is difficult to accurately assess the exact extent of the phenomenon because of the lack of figures and media coverage, a few Catholic journalists and bloggers are struggling to draw the attention of civil society to the factors contributing to the destruction of contemplative life in Italy.
For instance, Vaticanist Aldo Maria Valli, in his recent book Claustrofobia (a pun that refers to a phobia of cloistered life), states that this specific form of religious life is clearly under attack. These attacks, which for the past two centuries used to come primarily from secularized anti-clerical societies, are in his opinion coming more and more today from the Church hierarchy, which tends to increasingly favor social commitment over silent contemplative life.
Published by the Vatican in July 2016, Vultum Dei Quaerere (Seeking the Face of God) establishes, among other things, new rules to favor federations of contemplative communities. Almost two years later, in April 2018, its implementing instruction Cor Orans specified the obligation for every monastery to enter a federation in order to “overcome the isolation of monasteries” (93). Furthermore, it provides that a monastery with fewer than five nuns will lose its autonomy and be placed under the supervision an administrator superior (45). The Holy See will then decide on its affiliation, transfer or suppression (64-73).
These specific points quickly raised concern among the Catholic faithful because of a few high-profile cases, such as the controversy between the sisters of the contemplative Dominican Monastery of the Most Holy Annunciation in Marradi in Tuscany and their ecclesial hierarchy. Reduced to five nuns after the death of their Mother Superior Maria Paola Borgo a few years ago, they lost the right to elect a new mother prioress and were assigned an apostolic commissioner. After more than four centuries of existence, the monastery is currently threatened with closure.
“We can understand that empty structures with elderly sisters are unable to maintain their rule of life, but these affiliations and apostolic commissions give rise to injustices and to situations that can be really brutal,” Barbara Betti, a laywoman in charge of defending and publicly representing the cloistered community of Marradi, told the Register, saying that the two eldest sisters are likely to be sent to a home for the elderly.
According to Betti, the monastery of Marradi still has the means to remain economically autonomous — thanks to the material assets the sisters have been taking care of over time — and has received various recent requests from nuns willing to enter the monastery, from other regions of Italy as well as from France and Spain. “The ecclesial authorities tried not to accept new postulants; there was a clear desire to close the monastery — so the sisters asked for my help,” she said.
Betti, whose family lives in Marradi, has been publishing various columns in local newspapers over the past two years to raise awareness about these cloistered nuns’ situation. They have lost the right to autonomously withdraw money from their bank and to freely use the monastery’s money for their day-to-day expenses.
“This loss of economic autonomy is unfair, and one cannot force a woman that has been living 40 or 50 years in the same place to leave against her will; this is the worst thing that can happen to a woman that chose to dedicate herself to a contemplative life, as the monastery is her home and family,” Betti said, adding that while such situations might have happened before the publication of Vultum Dei Quaerere, things have definitely gotten worse since its publication.
Since she started reporting on the monastery of Marradi, Betti has received phone calls and letters from cloistered sisters elsewhere who may be faced with the same situation.
“It is difficult to explain what is really going on in general with many orders, but so many monasteries have been closing lately,” she said. “In all Italy, cloistered nuns are wondering what will happen to them.”
Betti told the Register in mid-January that, on Dec. 10, a newly appointed administrator came to the monastery without notice, with an executive order to close the monastery. The nuns have barricaded themselves inside the monastery since then and won’t let anyone in. Betti added that TV channels like Rai 1, Rai 3, Rete4 and Canale 5 are actively monitoring the situation, waiting for the next move.
Nevertheless, several other historic monasteries have officially closed lately, in virtue of the ongoing policies.
In 2017, the 300-year-old Monastery of the Visitation in Milan shut its doors, followed by the Monastery of the Visitation in Pistoia and the Cenacle of Montauto in Anghiari (both in Tuscany), and more recently the Poor Clares convent of Montalto (in Marche), in October 2019.
The most recent case is the 17th-century Benedictine convent in Sansepolcro, Tuscany, which had reopened in 2015 after years of abandonment. There were three sisters left after their mother superior was asked to leave because of a love affair she reportedly had with a local man, in November 2019. “There was an intervention of the Holy See and everything ended there,” Bishop Riccardo Fontana of Arezzo told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “This is a very painful situation for all involved.”
However, not all of the cloistered nuns see the new measures in an unfavorable light, and some of them even took the initiative of seeking grouping with other regional monasteries. That was the case, for instance, for a majority of the sisters living in the contemplative monasteries of Pistoia and Montalto. “Nowadays, many monasteries — just like the one in Montalto — have big buildings with few members,” Mother Francesca Cocci, abbess of the convent of Montalto until its recent closure, told the Register.
Although there were more than five sisters in the structure, she initiated the federation process with the convent of the Poor Clares in Filottrano, located about 60 miles away from Montalto. “The Montalto monastery was very uncomfortable for the elderly sisters, as we had to go up and down all the time, while the Filottrano convent is far more functional,” she said. Furthermore, “putting economical resources together allowed us to hire staff to help us daily, which enables us to focus more deeply on our life of prayer.”
‘A Huge Void’
For the inhabitants of Montalto, though, the announcement of this 17th-monastery’s closure came as a thunderclap. Neither the 500 signatures collected for their petition nor the demonstration they organized on Oct. 24 in front of the monastery could stop the process.
“This news shocked all the neighborhood, and it leaves a huge void in the city, as they were part of the community,” Patrizio Paci, director of the choir of Montalto, told the Register. “I grew up with this presence, and the sisters often asked me to play the organ for them.”
Not only did the sisters produce hosts for the entire Diocese of San Benedetto del Tronto-Ripatransone-Montalto, but they were also the regional depositaries of Gregorian chant and used to host Eucharistic adoration every Thursday. Moreover, the convent had been restored several times over the past years.
“What puzzled us as a Christian community is that we never really understood the motivations of such a fusion, and we don’t really know who made it possible,” Father Lorenzo Bruni, parish priest of Montalto, told the Register. “We felt pretty powerless in the face of this decision, and the population’s reaction showed that the silent presence of these nuns was considered the heart of their community.”
And their dismay is all the more profound as they already lost their historic Montalto episcopal see when it was transferred by the Church authorities to the nearby city of San Benedetto del Tronto back in 1982. “The citizens of Montalto are shocked by the ecclesial hierarchy’s behavior, as they already took the diocese away from them, and, now, they let their precious monastery shut its doors,” Paci said, denouncing the negative impact of centralization on life in small towns.
Competing Visions on Contemplative Life
In a letter sent to the Institutes of Consecrated Life in March 2015, a year before the publication of Vultum Dei Quaerere, Cardinal Joāo Braz De Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, already outlined what would be the road map of the congregation for the following years — according to what he believes to be the current main emergency, that is “taking in the refugees and the poor.”
“Therefore, I wish the streamlining of our structures, the reuse of the big houses in favor of works that satisfy more the current requirements of evangelization and charity, the adaptation of the works to these new requirements,” he wrote.
A few months ago, in an interview granted to Spanish newspaper Ultima Hora about the new policies regarding the institutes of contemplative life (an interview widely shared and commented on Italian websites), Cardinal Braz De Aviz said that “many things of the tradition, that belong to the culture of a certain period of time, no longer work.” He then mentioned “forms of life linked to their founders that are not essential,” such as “a certain way of praying, a clothing, or the tendency to give importance to certain things that are not so important, giving little importance to other things that really matter.”
These comments seem to suggest that this issue is crystalizing two visions of contemplative life and the priorities for the Church, transcending religious categories and orders. More evidence of this is the talk Archbishop José Rodriguez Carballo, secretary of the Congregation for Consecrated Life, gave during a November 2018 conference at the Pontifical Lateran University that gathered around 300 cloistered nuns to discuss Vultum Dei Quaerere.
While alluding to the criticism the congregation received after the publication of the apostolic constitution, he severely admonished the sisters that are resistant to change.
“A while ago, a monastery wrote to us, asking for dispensation from being in a federation because, they said, ‘We are the poorest, we are the most observing, we are the most this and the most that and the most.’ This is spiritual pride which in front of God I shall not tell you what it shall provoke! Take care of preserving yourself from the malady of self-reference. This is a sickness!” he said.
Then, after warning them against the persons “who want to manipulate [them], even if [these persons] may be bishops, cardinals, friars or other persons,” Archbishop Carballo invited them not to “separate [themselves] totally from the world,” as “the link to the world is important.”
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.
The photos for this story were updated on Jan. 16.