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Marist Bulletin - Number 210


Meeting of Poor Clares Taking a Fresh Look at their Life

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Marist Bulletin 210 - auguste 25th, 2005

Meeting of Poor Clares Taking a Fresh Look at their Life

At the end of May, in a inviting house of prayer at Bagnoreggio, near Rome, far away from their monasteries, the abbesses and formators of the Poor Clares came together for a program during which they took a fresh look at their situation. Their readiness to be of assistance made it possible to carry out the interview that follows, and helps us to understand the meaning of the choice that the Poor Clares make of living an integral contemplative life.

How many of you are there at the present time?
In Italy, we number 1,445, with 91 Sisters in temporary vows, 61 novices and 38 postulants. There are about 18,000 Poor Clares across the world.

All religious communities are experiencing a crisis in regard to new vocations. Do you find the same reality among the Poor Clares?
The crisis is there even if in a milder form, perhaps because our identity is well defined and is clearly perceived from the outside. One problem that is occurring quite strongly today is the gap between our way of community living and that of a young woman today. Experiences of family life and of a Christian society that were wont to bridge the gap are no longer present. Another problem which we experience is that of retaining vocations; many young ones leave the convent prior to their solemn profession.

What is your identity and your mission?
Our identity is the same as it has always been: a wholly contemplative life. The actualization of the identity takes on different aspects and different appearances depending upon the culture and the setting in which a monastery is located; but the fundamental characteristic is a clear and perceptible priority given to being, rather than to doing or to having.

Could you explain this idea more clearly?
The world is intent upon action, and nowadays people are often judged more by what they possess or what they do, and less by what they are. In such a context, we emphasize giftedness and relationships. As Saint Claire taught, our charism is that of following the Gospel and of praying. Ours is also a choice of life according to the Franciscan way, and consequently the kinds of people with whom we desire to enter into close relationship are the elderly, those who live on the margins of society, the sick and all those whom our society considers non-efficient.

We know a bit about your modest manner of living. What kind of assistance, then, are you able to provide?
The poor who knock on our door are ever so many, and none has ever gone away with empty hands. We help them with the fruit of our work. Once we have enough for our own survival, that which remains is for the poor. Yet today, there are many kinds of poverty: despair is one of those with which we come in contact in a major way. So many people come to examine how their way of life contrasts with our lives, with our prayer!

Do you receive a lot of gifts?
We receive gifts, and at one time they were sufficient for us to live on. Nowa-days the gifts are no longer sufficient, and for that reason we give more importance to our work, work that changes as times change, as abilities change, and the sensibi-lities of the entering Sisters change. At one time, many Sisters engaged in embroid-dery; today, embroidery is a skill very rarely found among the young.

Is each of your monasteries autonomous?
Yes. From the beginning every monastery had total autonomy. It is an auto-nomy that is rooted in “holy unity” and “strictest poverty” as Saint Clare handed the spirit down to us. It is an autonomy that unites, because the more important decisions are always taken by a full Chapter.

The meeting that you are having was organized by your federation. What is the federation’s role?
The federation has a function that is essentially one of coordinating the various monasteries. It fulfills an important service at the level of information and formation. The federation has even attempted to organize an intercommunity novitiate, but we have progressed very little in that direction.

Who makes the decision to close a monastery?
In questions of this kind no one is allowed to interfere, in theory not even the Holy See. A monastery closes upon the death of the last Sister. If the number of Sisters is too small and the Sisters wish to join themselves to another monastery, they are able to do so, but no one can impose the decision.

What authority does the Mother Abbess have?
In the concrete issues of every day life, the authority exercised by the Abbess does not create a big problem, because there is a continual exchange among the Sisters. We share everything, and the community knows everything, and therefore we have nothing to hide. There is, however, something that we call the “Discretor-io”. Rather than having a governing function, the Discretorio serves to stimulate the life of the community. It is a group that is really at the service of the community.

How long is the Abbess’s term of office?
An Abbess serves a term of three years, but she can be re-elected for four consecutive terms. For an Abbess to serve a third or a fourth term the permission of the Holy See is necessary. Along with the Abbess, the Discretorio is also elected, being composed of one, three or five councilors depending on the number of Sisters in the monastery.

When people speak about a monastery, they often associate it with the idea of a lightning rod against the evils in the Church and in the world. What do you think of such an idea?
The image does not hold much credibility as far as I’m concerned. It is linked to some extent with a mentality that envisions consecrated life as an oasis belonging to a “state of perfection”. Specifically for such a reason the monastery would be con-sidered a lightening rod against the evils of the world. Nowadays we feel ourselves to be sisters in the midst of the men and women of our times. We have been given a different gift, but at the same time we have a shared responsibility. I would say that we seek to live, in a deeper manner, the same values that other Christians are called to live. If we really want to see a difference, I would say that we would like to be a little bit more radical that the others.

At the same time, there are always so many people who depend on your prayers.
Yes, it is true that many people depend on our prayers, and this is also a specific aspect of our radicality. Yet, we would not wish to take responsibility away from others, as if we had been delegated to pray in their place. As far as we are con-cerned we would like only to remind ourselves and others of the priority of one’s relationship with God. This is the point on which our mission is founded.
In this connection I would like to recount an interesting experience. One day a male religious came to the convent, bringing us a lot of materials and a fair amount of money, and asking us to pray for his organization. He was very ill at ease when I answered that what he was asking was not possible. “Why?” he asked me. I told him, “Look, we pray to the Father for the needs of the world, but it is He alone who dis-penses his gifts when, where and to whom he chooses.”

What media of information do you have in your convents?
Some people say that to know what is happening in the world all you have to do is telephone the Poor Clares! Surely, that’s an exaggeration, but normally we read the newspaper, watch the TV news, make use of the internet a little bit . . . . But our lives are so busy that we do not have much time to dedicate to such things.

When someone says the word “cloister”, people often associate it with separation and even at times with a mental imprisonment. Have you not sometimes thought of changing the term?
I need to remind people that we are not Sisters of the cloister, but of a life integrally contemplative. Only in such a perspective can one choose the cloister. We are interested in highlighting what we are and not the means that we use to attain a particular finality. In any case, the cloister in today’s world is certainly not what it was thirty years ago. For us the cloister is an instrument for living our contemplative life in a deeper fashion.

To a young woman who asked you why you became a cloistered Sister what would you answer?
In my case the answer would be very simple: because the Lord has called me. I would not ask a young woman why she fell in love with Tizio rather than Caio. The reasons she could give are all good and all wrong. Each vocation, each form of life depends upon the desire that God has placed in the heart of each one of us. In my case he placed a desire for the contemplative life. I can only rejoice in the fact and thank Him for it.

What advice would you give to a contemporary young man or woman?
Really it is difficult to offer advice to everyone. I can say only that my happi-ness began when, entering into the deepest parts of myself, I discovered to my sur-prise that I was in companionship with God.

The interviewer thanks the Sister whom he interviewed, honors her desire to remain anonymous, and cannot but be amazed at the atmosphere of serenity and peace of which he partook during the few hours when he conducted the interview.

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