Francis mandates changes for contemplative women religious, requests revision of constitutions

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has issued a new wide-ranging set of guidelines for how the tens of thousands of Catholic women religious living in contemplative communities around the world should regulate their lifestyles, calling on them to implement changes in 12 diverse areas from prayer life to work habits.

The pontiff has also mandated that each of the global communities of contemplative women religious will need to adapt their various governing constitutions or rules to the new changes and send new versions of their documents to the Vatican for approval.

Francis makes the changes in a new apostolic constitution released Friday titled Vultum Dei Quaerere ("Seek the Face of God.")  The document is addressed only to Catholic women religious in contemplative communities, such as those that live in cloisters or whose lives are marked by a lifestyle devoted mainly to prayer instead of evangelical outreach or work.

While the pontiff uses the new document to issue effusive praise for such women -- especially lauding their ability to serve as an example of stability in a contemporary world often marked by temporary commitments -- he also calls for them to begin to institute changes particularly in their prayer lives.

In one example, the pope mandates that all contemplative women religious communities should practice Eucharistic adoration. He also stresses the use of Lectio divina, the traditional Benedictine practice of scripture reading, meditation, and prayer.

Addressing his reason for writing to the women with the new norms at this time, Francis states: "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," the pope continues.

The pontiff then calls on the women religious worldwide to implement changes after reflecting upon 12 aspects of the monastic tradition: Formation, prayer, the word of God, the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation, fraternal life in community, autonomy, federations, the cloister, work, silence, the communications media and asceticism.

The pope ends the document with 14 articles establishing new canonical norms for how contemplative women religious should live, saying he is setting aside any canons from the Code of Canon Law that "directly contradict any article of the present Constitution."

Among the most direct changes are orders that every contemplative community:

  • Review its prayer life "to see if it is centered on the Lord" and "set aside appropriate times for Eucharistic adoration, also inviting the faithful of the local Church to take part;"
  • Be a part of some sort of federation with other communities, unless obtaining Vatican permission to not do so;
  • Request Vatican approval "whenever a different form of cloister from the present one is called for;"
  • Disallow "recruitment of candidates from other countries solely for the sake of ensuring the survival of a monastery," stating it should be "absolutely avoided;"
  • Wait for further instruction from the Vatican's Congregation for Religious Life on how to implement changes in the 12 specified areas of life and "once they have been adapted to the new regulations, the articles of the constitutions or rules of individual institutes are to be submitted for approval by the Holy See."

Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo‚Äč, secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, said at a press conference presenting the new document Friday that his office would now be working on drafting a new instruction to specify how communities are to make the changes in their lifestyles.

The new document will replace the congregation's 1999 instruction Verbi sponsa and will regulate the "formation, autonomy and seclusion" of contemplative communities, Rodriguez said.

The archbishop also said that contemplative men's communities had not been considered in such a manner by the pope or the religious congregation at the moment, adding that the types of religious life lived by Catholic men and women are different.

Related: "A powerful silence: The somewhat hidden witness of American contemplative orders" (Global Sisters Report, Oct. 5, 2015)

Concerns over how individual contemplative women's communities are handling diminishment in numbers over past decades -- which analysts have attributed to an ahistorical increase in women joining orders in the early 20th century -- appear to be a main reason for the Vatican's request for wide changes.

One of the articles in the 14 new norms tells the nuns that their "juridical autonomy," or relative independence in church law to govern themselves, "needs to be matched by a genuine autonomy of life."

If requirements for "genuine autonomy" in any community should be lacking, the norm states that the religious congregation "will study the possibility of establishing an ad hoc commission made up of the ordinary [bishop], the president of the federation, a representative of the federation and the abbess or prioress of the monastery."

"In every case, the purpose of this intervention is to initiate a process of guidance for the revitalization of the monastery, or to effect its closure," states the norm.

"This process may also envisage affiliation to another monastery or entrustment, if the monastery belongs to a federation, to the federation president and her council," it continues. "In every case, the ultimate decision always rests with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life."

The International Union of Superiors General (UISG), the Rome-based umbrella group of women religious community leaders worldwide, said in an email Friday that they are still studying the new document.

Francis begins his constitution with praise for the contemplative communities, stating: "The Church greatly esteems your life of complete self-giving."

"The Church counts on your prayers and on your self-sacrifice to bring today's men and women to the good news of the Gospel," the pope states. "The Church needs you!"

"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," he continues. "Be beacons to those near to you and, above all, to those far away. Be torches to guide men and women along their journey through the dark night of time."

The pontiff then addresses each of the 12 aspects the communities are to reflect on in order, focusing especially on formation for younger nuns and the role of prayer in the nuns' daily lives.

On formation, Francis states that communities "need to pay great attention to vocational and spiritual discernment, without yielding to the temptation to think in terms of numbers and efficiency."

For prayer, the pope uses an evocative image of Moses raising his arms in prayer to God to implore help for his people.

"It strikes me that this is a most eloquent image of the power and efficacy of your own prayer on behalf of all humanity and the Church, especially of the vulnerable and those in need," states the pontiff. "Now, as then, we can conclude that the fate of humanity is decided by the prayerful hearts and uplifted hands of contemplative women."

Francis then asks the contemplative communities to see their cloisters or convents as places to show the wider world how people can live together in community and fellowship.

"You who have embraced the monastic life must never forget 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," states the pope.

"Your communities ought to be credible signs that these differences, far from being an obstacle to fraternal life, actually enrich it," he continues. "Remember that unity and communion are not the same as uniformity, and are nourished by dialogue, sharing, mutual assistance and profound compassion, especially towards the most frail and needy."

But Francis also warns the contemplatives from becoming too isolated in their own autonomy from others.

"Autonomy favors the stability of life and internal unity of each community, ensuring the best conditions for contemplation," states the pope. "But autonomy ought not to mean independence or isolation, especially from the other monasteries of the same Order or the same charismatic family."

"Take care to avoid 'the disease of self-absorption' and to preserve the value of communion between different monasteries as a path of openness towards the future and a means of updating and giving expression to the enduring and codified values of your autonomy," he exhorts.

Francis ends that portion of the document with a call for the contemplatives "to be beacons of light for the journey of the men and women of our time."

"This should be your prophetic witness," states the pontiff. "You have chosen not to flee the world out of fear, as some might think, but to remain in the world, while not being of the world."

Citing the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et spes, he continues: "Although you live apart from the world, through the signs of your belonging to Christ, you tirelessly intercede for mankind, presenting to the Lord its fears and hopes, its joys and sufferings."

Concluding with a citation of his own apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the pope calls on the contemplatives to "hear the cry of your brothers and sisters who are victims of the throwaway culture" and to "practice the art of listening 'which is more than simply hearing.'"

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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