The Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei quaerere signed by Pope Francis, that comes 66 years after the publication of Pius XII’s Constitution Sponsa Christi, is dedicated to women’s contemplative life. Contemplatives, “are set in the heart of the Church and the world”: “It is not easy for the world, or at least that large part of it dominated by the mindset of power, wealth and consumerism, to understand your particular vocation and your hidden mission; and yet it needs them immensely. The world needs you every bit as much as a sailor on the high seas needs a beacon to guide him to a safe haven.” In fact, the Pope continues, “without you what would the Church be like, or those living on the fringes of humanity and ministering in the outposts of evangelisation?”
Cloister religious in the world. The Constitution reflects on the journey of the Church in recent decades in the light of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, and the changed social and cultural condition. “In these past decades, we have seen rapid historical changes that call for dialogue. At the same time, the foundational values of contemplative life need to be maintained. Through these values – silence, attentive listening, the call to an interior life, stability – contemplative life can and must challenge the contemporary mindset.”
Some 40 thousand religious worldwide lead a contemplative life.
More than half of them live in Europe, where are also located the majority of 4thousand monasteries at global level. South and North America register the second largest presence, followed by Asia, Africa, with smaller numbers in Oceania. The past decade was marked by a 15% drop, while the global decrease in women religious worldwide in 2014 amounts to 6%. Franciscan and Carmelite nuns are the most numerous orders, while Carthusian and Baptistine orders register the lowest numbers. Presence in monasteries is one of the themes addressed within the Constitution. Juridical autonomy, the Pope declares, “needs to be matched by a genuine autonomy of life” whose criteria entail, inter alia, “a certain, even minimal, number of sisters, provided that the majority are not elderly.” If lacking, it is possible “to initiate a process of guidance for the revitalisation of the monastery, or to effect its closure.”
Formation and prayer. After having guarded against the “midday devil”, which is the temptation to listlessness and paralysing lethargy, Francis invites to undertake a reflection on the twelve themes of consecrated life, starting from formation. In fact, individual monasteries “are to give special attention to ongoing formation, which is the foundation for every stage of formation, beginning with initial formation.” The role of prayer acts as the counterbalance of the central role of formation: “Never forget that your life of prayer and contemplation must not be lived as a form of self-absorption; it must enlarge your heart to embrace all humanity, especially those who suffer.” Then the Constitution delves into the centrality of the Word of God, devoting special attention to the practice of the lectio divina “whereby we can bridge the gap between spirituality and daily life, between faith and life.” As regards the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation, the Pope praises them “for having always kept the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharistic celebration at the centre of their daily life.”
Fraternal life inside the community is a distinguishing trait of monastic life, to the extent that “today’s men and women expect you to bear witness to an authentic fraternal communion that, in a society marked by divisions and inequality, clearly demonstrates that life in common is both possible and fulfilling, despite differences of age, education and even culture.”
Autonomy within the federation. In the directives, Francis calls upon monasteries not to live autonomy as “independence or isolation”, fleeing from “the disease of self-absorption.” Furthermore, he provides for each monastery to be part of a federation, which can be established “not only on a geographical basis but also on an affinity of spirit and traditions.” As regards the cloister, the Pope refers to the three forms typical of contemplative life – papal, constitutional and monastic – provides for individual monasteries to ask the Holy See what form of cloister it wishes to embrace, whenever a different form of cloister from the present one is called for. Furthermore, Francis specifies,
“The variety of ways in which the cloister is observed within the same Order should be seen as an enrichment and not an obstacle to communion.”
Your labour “shows your solidarity with the poor who cannot live without work” while silence should never be “barren” and “empty” but rather “rich” and “overflowing.” Francis points the finger against the risks linked to the means of communication, notably personal ones, calling for “a prudent discernment aimed at ensuring that they remain truly at the service of formation to contemplative life and necessary communication, and do not become occasions for wasting time or escaping from the demands of fraternal life in community. Nor should they prove harmful for your vocation or become an obstacle to your life wholly dedicated to contemplation.” Finally, the value of asceticism: “You set a helpful example to the People of God and to today’s world, so often rent by conflict and division, to share in the lot of our many brothers and sisters throughout the world, and as a silent and fruitful offering for their needs.”
No escaping from the world. The choice of contemplative life, concludes the Pope, “is not to flee the world out of fear, as some might think, but to remain in the world, while not being of the world.” “Although you live apart from the world, through the signs of your belonging to Christ, you tirelessly intercede for mankind.” For this reason, “the world and the Church need you to be beacons of light for the journey of the men and women of our time.” Among the 14 directives that close the document, Francis affirms:
“The recruitment of candidates from other countries solely for the sake of ensuring the survival of a monastery is to be absolutely avoided.”
The Apostolic Constitution, that ends with 14 directives, will be followed by a new Instruction to be drawn up by the competent Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.