I was recently approached for advice in connection with a small but vibrant community of sisters. As a consequence, I was required to consider two documents; the significance of which may have slipped under the radar of a number of busy canonists. The first is the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quarere. The second document: Cor Orans.
In the former, Pope Francis waxes lyrically upon the Church's 'esteem, praise and thanksgiving' for the contemplative tradition. He asks:
"6. Dear contemplative sisters, without you what would the Church be like... ?"
The text continues:
"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..."
Is this a subtle prelude to the anthem of anachronism? Seemingly not. Instead, one finds a plea:
"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. Be sentinels of the morning..."
But, by what means? How are the grateful recipients of this mission to discharge their task. Once more, the document provides the solution:
"Do not be afraid to live fully the joy of evangelical life, in accordance with your charism..."
Quite a battle-cry: affirmation, recognition and exhortation. The document confirms "guidance" will be issued of a protective kind (i.e. to cherish the charism of this life and ensure its authentic transmission).
However, in the section headed: "Conclusion and Regulations" one detects a change of mood. The opening paragraph marks a change in tempo. The document (and its message) have been transposed. In this concerto di Francesco one will search in vain for the familiar sequence of exposition, development and recapitulation. Instead, one encounters a new motif. It is played out in the 14 articles which follow. To continue the metaphor, the tonic has been replaced with the dominant. Consistent with the shortest of intervals, one is confronted with the dissonance of Art 8.
Gone is the familiar harmony of juridic autonomy; replaced with the discord of "viability" and "self-sufficiency". It is in this pivotal article that one witnesses the composer settling to his task. His purpose it not to sustain the melody of the contemplative life which has - like the liturgy of the hours- spanned the centuries. Rather, it is to accelerate its termination. Any doubt in this regard is removed when one considers the role of the "Federation" to which all autonomous houses must now belong.
According to the text, the "federation" is to enjoy regulatory and supervisory functions; including those which extend to determine the fate of the autonomous houses which form its membership. Any doubt in this respect is removed when one's attention turns to the text of Cor Orans itself. Initially heralded as serving the needs of those autonomous houses who might be lacking in direction or vocations, the document places beyond doubt that these new laws have as their purpose the de facto removal of the juridic independence previously enjoyed by these houses. These is achieved by a number of measures. Access to membership is rendered more difficult. The time for formation is lengthened. The minimum numbers for viability is increased. In addition, there are norms for attendance at meetings outside of enclosure and for the centralisation of religious formation, detached from the enclosure to which those in formation belong. Further, there is an expectation that there will-to some degree at least- be a community of temporal goods.
The adverse implications of these measures might be thought to be self-evident. It is noteworthy that these norms are directed to female contemplatives only. It is similarly worth stating these norms have retrospective effect; removing (or at least rendering illusory) the previous rights enjoyed not only by the autonomous houses, but the professed members themselves. Given the need for such witness as affirmed by the Apostolic Constitution, one is bound to posit the question: what is the real objective of these norms?
Some may suggest that the ambition is to secure homogeneity in religious life; doing so in a manner which fundamentally and irrevocably alters the character of contemplative life and the unconditional witness which it provides. Others might suggest that the real motivation behind these documents is twofold: a) to accelerate the demise of the contemplative life by stealth; and b) thereafter, to lay claim to the temporal goods to which each autonomous house is otherwise entitled. Wherever the truth lies, the unending praise of the contemplative is placed in jeopardy.
These holy and consecrated women represent a much needed witness; more than ever before they provide light to those in darkness. In the silence of their hearts, their manner of living and their persistence in prayer, they present the needs of all humanity. Whilst Pope Francis refers to the dark night, we do well to keep in mind that these same women have kept watch throughout the day. The dedication to their task is not the product of learning or the education of this world. It is the wisdom which comes from adoration founded upon sacrifice. To paraphrase the words of one Prioress, it is the determination to squander time for God. In the words of another contemplative it is abandonment to "God's pleasure".
The prayer and rhythm of the enclosure enjoys the quality of a fugue. We must jealously protect it from those who would wish to reduce it to the status and form of a popular ballad. Still less to the ringtone of the cash register.
If the Church is to be faithful to Christ's mission, we must ensure that it does not quench out the smouldering wick [Matt. 12:12]. In the words of the hymn:
"The voice of prayer is never silent; nor dies the strain of praise away..."
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom - pray for us