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Dominican Nuns in Tuscany vs. the Vatican, with Help from the Locals

by Hilary White

a village on the edge of Tuscany that yet another religious house with the wrong sort of mindset was facing the now dreaded prospect of a Vatican “visitator.” The contemplative Dominican monastery of Marradi, the spiritual heart of the little mountain town for over four centuries, is threatened with forced closure by the Vatican, ostensibly because their numbers recently dropped below the Vatican’s prescribed minimum for “alive and vital autonomy.”

Local people, however, believe that this is a pretext, and the real reason is that the community has long withstood the general “liberal” trends that so dominate religious life in Italy and are now being aggressively imposed from Rome. A report from the ground says the superior elected by the community, Sister Maria Domenica, has already been removed from office by the Vatican’s visitators, who are currently trying to find a way to “take charge of the assets and business of the convent” and have demanded the handing over of documents detailing the monastery’s real estate assets.

The Dominican Monastery of the Holy Annunciation — occupying prime Tuscan real estate in the quaint medieval town — was built at local expense and has never been reliant either on the diocese or the Dominican Order for its maintenance.

Barbara Betti, a classical musician, friend of the nuns, and longtime resident of the town, wrote in an open letter addressed to the Vatican that Marradi was not going to sit still for the summary closure of its beloved monastery. Her letter appeared in the local Marradi newspaper and was picked up by the Italian traditional Mass website, Messa in Latino. She wrote: “Yesterday the ‘coadjutors’ arrived to take charge of the assets of the convent: and to forcibly remove the old nuns from their home and throw them in a nursing home — is this Christian?”

Betti described the Dominican Monastery of the Holy Annunciation as “the last bastion left in defense of our historical identity, of our Christian roots and of our morals.” The monastery was built at the expense of local people, she wrote, “for the perpetual spiritual protection of this community.”

Referring to the mass suppression of monastic life by Freemasonic governments through the whole of the 19th century, Betti warns that what these “failed to accomplish is now being done through recent Vatican decrees.”

Prior attempts to affiliate with a sympathetic community in another town have been nixed by Rome, and now “everything is moving with extreme speed to reach the closure of this convent.” But the Roman congregation — and their lawyers — may have bitten off a bigger mouthful than they can chew this time, with local residents making ready to fight Rome for their nuns.

Of great concern is the possible fate of two of the five nuns who are elderly and would have no choice but to be sent to a nursing home to be cared for by strangers, after a lifetime of religious devotion. “To take away the house, in the name of a vow of obedience to which the church itself no longer bears respect, is it moral? In a world where old means useless, are we still or are we no longer the defenders of the sacredness of the family?”

Betti writes, “Our silent sisters reside legally [1] in the municipality of Marradi; this is their residence and will be until the day they are recalled to the Father’s house. The commitment [establishing the monastery as a legal entity in the town] signed in 1898 states that only when the last of the sisters are gone will the building move to another owner.” In order to be able legally to seize the property, therefore, the Vatican officials must force the nuns to leave.

“Those who decided that this real estate should no longer belong to them took it for granted that nobody here, in Marradi, cared about them,” Betti adds.

She points out that the attempt by the Francis Vatican to evict the nuns from their legal home can succeed only if the nuns themselves cooperate with it. The dicastery pursuing such actions so far has expected — and in many cases has been getting — docile, nunny compliance in the destruction of their own religious life. But Betti writes that resistance, in this case, is not futile: “They cannot take them away against their will, which would be kidnapping, but they can scare them with the weight of failing in the obligation of obedience.”

She asks why the Romans are in “such a hurry.” Perhaps, she says, it is because the community has recently received two requests from Australia from potential candidates, meaning the pretext of the community being too small or not “viable” will soon not be applicable.

“Our monastery is not an empty shell spreading over the remains of a tradition and a historical identity this society wants to destroy. It is a living and active body.”

The Marradi convent is financially self-supporting with revenue from rents of properties acquired over the centuries as gifts and donations. Betti states, therefore, that the people of Marradi have a right to know what will happen to their monastery and “why the planimetric maps of this monastery have been requested and for what purpose.”

In 2015, the community celebrated its 440th anniversary with the public presentation to “a large crowd” of a book chronicling its history. Far from displaying a moribund resignation to their imminent extinction, the nuns recently launched a new website to appeal for vocations. Built at the expense of a local noble family, the monastery was started in 1575 by two Dominican nuns who came from Pratovecchio, Arezzo, a grassroots initiative that would be impossible today under the Vatican’s new rules.

The community has a history of considerable staying-power. Astonishingly, though the nuns were forced for a time to return to their families during the French invasions of Italy in the Revolutionary period, the community weathered the Napoleonic suppressions and those of his ideological successors in the Kingdom of Italy. After the monastic suppressions of 1866, the anti-Catholic, Freemasonic government of Italy seized part of their monastery, forcing the nuns to live in small quarters. The community avoided suppression – that was at first applied only to “useless” contemplatives — by teaching in the elementary school the government forcibly built on their property. The nuns endured and the community survived world wars, earthquakes, and other setbacks through the first half of the 20th century.

There are few left on any side of our Catholic debates who would maintain that the structures of the Church as we have known them are not under direct assault in the current pontificate. But while many are rightly worried about the coming attack on the priesthood at the Amazon Synod, little attention has been paid to the ongoing assault on female contemplative religious life.

These started immediately after the election of Pope Francis with the attack on the Franciscans of the Immaculate, and have culminated in the duo of documents by the pope and the Congregation for Religious [2]Vultus dei quaerere (July 2016) and its legislative sidekick Cor orans (April 2018). The situation in Marradi is another demonstration of the power granted to the Roman Curia by these two documents to either force compliance with the Bergoglian “New Paradigm” or dissolve any community that resists.

Aimed specifically at contemplative nuns, the two documents represent a significant rewriting of the basic premises behind the contemplative life, particularly in the areas of autonomy and self-governance, control of their own finances and assets, formation of novices and enclosure. It allows summary deposing of superiors, forcible imposition of new external governance who can forbid a community under its power to receive new candidates.

As Vultus dei quaerere itself puts it, those houses of contemplative nuns that survived the devastation of the post-Vatican II period, are to follow “the intense and fruitful path taken by the Church in the last decades, in the light of the teachings of [Vatican II] and considering the changed socio-cultural conditions.” And Cor orans is the muscle that will force the stragglers to do it.

At the end of July, a traditionalist Italian Catholic, “C” (whose name cannot, for the moment, be shared), who promotes traditional religious life, contacted the Marradi nuns about their situation. The sisters, C said, having seen what is going on, are not ready to lie down and accept the demise of their community and are open to receiving assistance from traditionalist friends and supporters.

C spoke to one local Marradesi who said there was openness in the monastery to the traditional rites of the Mass and Divine Office and that the bishop would likely not place any obstacles. “La Signora made very clear that the people of Marradi want the monastery to continue for centuries more as a place of prayer and nothing else.” Thus, despite the imminent threat from Rome, women — those with a little fighting courage — interested in contemplative religious life, including those attached to the “extraordinary form” of the liturgy, are indeed still encouraged to contact the sisters [3].

The publicity of Barbara Betti’s letter, C says, has “stirred up hornet’s nest of ecclesiatics,” but the community’s friends are “very ready to wage war to keep them not only off their own monastery but all the monasteries because they are destroying the Church.”

“La Signora” confirmed to C that the axe has fallen on the Marradi Dominicans not randomly, but comes directly from the upper leadership of the Dominican Order who delated the community to the Vatican, knowing the results. Like that of the French community of sisters recently dissolved by Rome, it confirms that Cor orans, as critics have predicted, is being used as a weapon by ecclesiastics in power machinations and to gain control of monastic assets.

In the case of the Little Sisters of Marie, Mother of the Redeemer, based in Toulouse, the bishop started the assault as retaliation when the sisters resisted his efforts to gain control over their nursing homes. Using the pretext of an “authoritarian” superior and the sisters’ restoration of a more “classical” form of habit, the bishop contacted the Congregation for Religious in Rome.

The un-habited religious imposed by Rome on the Little Sisters as superior — an academic and author of the book “Migrants, Francis, and us” — accused the sisters of “praying too much” and generally being too attached to previous forms of religious life. After two years of struggle, 34 of the order’s 39 sisters requested exclaustration — to be released from their vows and return to lay life.

In Marradi, having watched the assaults by Rome on the Franciscans of the Immaculate; the Little Sisters of Marie, Mother of the Redeemer; and a number of others, the local people are ready to fight. C writes, “The nuns are being well defended by the community. They have a lawyer and two good, hefty priests that have no qualms, it seems, about giving a dusting up to meanly intentioned persons.”

C particularly wanted the story of the community’s “defense committee” to be told to the world outside Italy. “It would be a very great service to all Christendom to add to this story how a community is defending their nuns! Catholic communities around the world need to know that they can and must help the poor religious that are getting dragged off by jackals and hyenas.”

The fight for the Marradi monastery might soon go international. C relates that, though no further details can be made public at the moment, we can report that a solution may be coming from “a contemplative order, based solely on the Latin Mass, (no Novus Ordo), which is presently in a neighboring E.U. nation but which seeks to have a base in Italy.”

“The nuns and their faithful defenders of Marradi would have no problem at all accommodating the Latin Mass. It has been re-iterated to me multiple times now that they (nuns and faithful) want one thing only: that their monastery remain a place full of holy praying,” C concluded.


[1] “Residenza” is an Italian legal concept that doesn’t really exist in the Anglo nations, but once established, it means that a person has an uncontestable legal right of abode in a particular municipality.

[2] Full name: Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

[3] N.B.: The sisters do not at this time have any upper age limit.


Image: Zebra48bo via Wikimedia Commons.

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Hilary White

After two dream-like years living in Norcia, the cradle of Western Monasticism, Hilary moved unexpectedly with her three cats to the area near Perugia, where she gardens a great deal and tries not to worry too much.

 

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