Open Letter to Pope John Paul II
from Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C.
The following letter to Pope John Paul II, written by our Mother Mary Francis in 1994, remains a vibrant expression of the Poor Clare vocation to a life of contemplative prayer on behalf of the Church within the silence and solitude of the papal enclosure:
In filial love and happy humility, our community and our federation of monasteries give thanks for your convoking the Synod of Bishops on the Consecrated Life which concluded on October 30, 1994, and from which we now look for continuing understanding and inspiration for our elected enclosed contemplative life.
Deeply appreciative of the fostering and safeguarding of our highly particularized way of religious life by Holy Church and the Supreme Pontiffs through the centuries and expressed anew by some speakers at the recent Synod, we are likewise painfully aware that there are those whose doubtless good intentions are not equaled by their understanding of our ancient and ever-new manner of living. One could wonder at the intensity with which some, even while expressing sincere appreciative love and admiration for contemporary religious life, at the same time wish to give it a bill of divorce from the enclosure known through the centuries as “papal,” and remove from it the very practices and safeguards that insure continuance in its own specific integrity.
That all Christians are called to a degree of contemplative life and prayer, one would trust to be self-evident. The best service of men and women to all mankind must find its depth and endurance in the contemplation of God in prayer. One would expect it to be at least equally self-evident that those called by God to worship Him and serve mankind in an exclusively contemplative expression must needs “come apart.” And stay apart.
It would seem strange indeed that anyone holding particular offices of service in Holy Church, much less certain cloistered religious themselves, would not understand that it is precisely their total stepping back from (and in no way apart from) the sufferings and needs of this world that brings lay folk on unending pilgrimages of faith to the doors of cloisters. It is not the laity who say to us: “Come out!” It is, in fact, they who grieve at the increasing exodus of cloistered nuns from their enclosures. It is that which wounds the laity who often enough understand the enclosed way of contemplative life better than do some contemplatives.
It is now a quarter century and more since Holy Church gave to us cloistered nuns the peerless document, Venite Seorsum, on which I was asked by a religious periodical in our country to write a commentary. In the profound gratitude of my heart for this inspiring instruction, I happily did so, and enclose a copy of it here. Obviously, your Holiness has not the time to read my little commentary, but perhaps one of your secretaries might wish to do so. It still expresses our mind and our gratitude and that of our federation which I have been privileged to serve as federal abbess for sixteen years.
Assuredly it is possible to be a contemplative on the highways and in the marketplace and under the constant pressure of worldly affairs. Your Holiness is alone more than sufficient proof of this! But for those whom God has called to the enclosed contemplative life in the cloister, it is necessary to live that contemplative life in the cloister. When this necessity is forgotten, debated and sometimes even derided and belittled, it needs no folio of proofs to demonstrate what eventuates. This is certainly readily demonstrable in our own country of the United States of America. Where nuns in the contemplative life, as described in Venite Seorsum, have lost awareness of the religious genius of papal enclosure, they no longer attract others to join them. Young girls do not come. Communities decline, decrease, and eventually die.
It is vital that we offer young people a clear and uncompromising modus vivendi as the enclosed contemplative nuns whom we have been called by God to be. From our own humble beginnings in a little white farmhouse which served us as monastery, in this small town unknown even to many Americans (including the foundresses at the time of foundation!), have come two restorations and three foundations of new monasteries, the most recent one in Holland.
What we have to offer the young who seek us out is nothing “active” or “useful” or “modern” as the world might reckon it. It is, rather, the intense interior activity of contemplation which calls us not out of our enclosure but deeply into it from which alone is our religious calling answered. We can reach the whole world in the “activity” of prayer and compassion and sacrificial love. Young people readily understand that the enclosed contemplative life is “useful” to the Church, to your Holiness, and to the world. We desire to preserve the charism of our own calling, ever deepening our understanding of it. These modern young folk, whom your Holiness so particularly loves, find our ancient way of life an inviting mystery which demands the whole of their modernity to fathom.
Our Poor Clare monasteries from the time of our glorious foundress St. Clare, whose eighth centenary of earthly birth your Holiness celebrated with us last year and about which you wrote us a letter, have been autonomous communities, each a distinct family of enclosed contemplatives happily adjoined to one another in federations, each preserving its specific charism and contributing to the larger charism of the whole family of federation. The “central government” which some are urging be imposed has never been the way of our foundress nor of her great daughter, St. Colette, who restored the primitive ideal in so many places in the early fifteenth century where it had fallen into ruins precisely where enclosure and that poverty of “the little ones of the Lord” (as St. Francis and St. Clare loved to describe themselves) were no longer observed.
Our Federation of Mary Immaculate in the United States of America was the first federation to be formed in our country. I have been privileged to serve in it since its beginnings. I know each member community very well, each as a family unit bonded in one shared ideal which needs no central canonical authority to sustain it, save only the authority of the Church herself and of your Holiness and those whom you appoint to assist us. The federation has been and is well served by the diversities of each autonomous monastery which contribute to the riches of the whole. We are indeed without need or desire for “a central government.” Holy Church is the only central government we require and reverence. Your Holiness is quite sufficient for our “major superior.”
To take a different path would be to depart from the genius of St. Clare and St. Colette. Our enclosure has always been called “papal” and we pray that it always will be, for we belong in a very specific way to your Holiness. And we know ourselves well-guarded and well-guided by you for whom we daily offer the witness and the sacrifice of our lives.
As we cherish our consecrated brideship with Christ in the intimacy of our enclosed contemplative lives, we humbly beg for your blessing and your continued guarding of our ancient and proven way of life against those who, doubtless well-intentioned, are laying threat to our life because they do not understand it.
With all my Sisters here, I thank your Holiness for inviting Poor Clares to initiate a papal “on site” contemplative cloister in the Vatican Gardens. In the words of our Mother St. Clare, we are ever “humbly prostrate at the feet of Holy Church,” sharing her happiness in that position, and humbly begging for your blessing,
Most respectfully and lovingly, in Christ,
Mother Mary Francis (Aschmann), P.C.C.,
Abbess, Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Roswell, NM