Mater Ecclesiae, built two decades ago by John Paul II, soon to be the home of Benedict XVI
In April a benevolent sun accompanied the final stages of the restoration of a convent, unique in Christendom for its location and charism... unique for what it will be, but also unique in what it has already been in its brief but also ancient history.
The convent of Mater Ecclesiae, modern and regular, is located almost at the very centre of the small Vatican territory. In front of it stands a rare example of an Erythrina crista-galli, the so-called coral tree from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay, with its characteristic bright red blossoms.
"The specific purpose of this community is the ministry of prayer, adoration, praise and reparation, aiming to pray in silence and solitude, in support of the Holy Father and his daily concerns for the whole Church". This is what you find in the Statutes of the convent's foundation, which was desired and established by John Paul II more than 2o years ago. It is located half way up the Vatican Hill, in the area that slopes towards the Basilica, between the new avenue of the Observatory and the ancient Leonine Walls.
It was on 13 May 1994 in the Vatican Gardens that the newly formed women's community of contemplative life took up the task, new in the Vatican but ancient in itself. The Mater Ecclesiae in its new form was inserted into the long tradition of women who, since Calvary, through their prayers have supported the journey of Jesus, later that of the Apostles and of the Successors of Peter.
The first plans for the project began in 1989, while the actual work of converting the building chosen into a cloistered monastery dates back to 1992 - with a new extension. Built at the beginning of the 20th century the small and simple building had been designed for the Corps of Gendarmerie, and was known as the "garden pavilion". Then its purpose changed several times: to house the Jesuit directors
of Vatican Radio and then to the Radio's offices.
The building, which consists of chapel, choir, laboratory, kitchen, refectory, cells, library, small guest house, parlour, dispensary as well as other rooms, hosts female communities in rotation. Religious communities were to change every five years, now it is every three years. The cloistered religious community is selected by the Pope on the recommendation of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
An important feature is the small adjacent vegetable garden, which has been tilled, cared for, and cultivated for eighteen years by the religious to supply the Pope's table and their own. Here vegetables and fruit are grown naturally, jam and preserves are also made. As part of their life of work and prayer, the Sisters have, among other things: worked to restore parchments; tailored mitres and chasubles for the bishops and for the Pope; cared for his wardrobe and done embroidery. They have shown a special love for the cultivation of flowers. Benedict XVI's favourites are their fragrant white roses which they had planted for his Predecessor.
From 1994 to 2012, four of the most well known cloistered orders have lived in the Vatican Convent:
the Poor Glares, the Discalced Carmelites, the Benedictines and the Visitandine Sisters. Each have brought their own spirituality and traditions, while at the same time observing the rules and constitutions which come directly from the Pope. They are under the aegis of the Virgin Mary, who is depicted at the top of the exterior façade of the monastery. This bond with the Virgin Mother of the Church would then be solemnly repeated on two occasions: in the Jubilee Year and in 2006, on the 25th anniversary of the attempt on Wojtyła. In honour of the latter, Mater Ecclesiae welcomed the image of Our Lady of Fatima.
The Poor Clares arrived in the late morning of Friday, 13 May 1994, the anniversary of both the Apparitions to the three shepherd children, and the day the Pope was attacked in St Peter's Square. As a sign of internationality expressly desired by John Paul II, the seven religious came from Nicaragua, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia, Canada and the Philippines. The eighth, a Rwandan, was temporarily prevented from coming by the war raging in her country. Five years later, on 15 October, the liturgical Memorial of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus, nine Discalced Carmelites arrived from Italy, Spain, Poland, Belgium and Israel.
In 2004, it was the turn of the eight Benedictines from the Philippines, Italy, France, and the United States. Their possession of the convent took place on 7 October, the liturgical Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Rosary. Benedict celebrated Mass for them twiceat 7:30 in the morning, each time in an atmosphere of great joy. The Feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary, 7 October, was chosen five years later, in 2009, on the occasion of the most recent passing of the baton, when the Nuns of the Visitation made their entrance in the monastery, where the Pope publicly welcomed them on 24 November. There were seven religious from the Visitation of Holy Mary (founded by Francis de Sales and Jane Frances Frémyot de Chantal): six Spaniards and one Italian. "Your prayer, dear Sisters, is very precious to my ministry", said the Pope that Sunday, after reciting the Marian prayer of the Angelus.
In the 18 years of its existence, the convent has thus shown the richness and variety of the Church. In vocations and in the geographical provenance, she has shown her authentic catholicity. The convent is visited daily by cardinals, bishops, religious and lay people, who over the years have recounted this unsurpassed and profound experience of the Church, the closeness to the Holy Father, and the community of sharing. Prayer, meeting, and seeing the world and Christianity with new eyes lead to the rediscovery of the universal dimension of the Church and her charisma.
When Pope Ratzinger "came to us for the first time", Benedictine Prioress Mother Maria Sofia Cicchetti told L'Osseveratore Romano's Nicola Gori in 2008, "he asked us with great humility and paternal suffering to pray in a particular way for him, because he said, 'the cross of the papacy is sometimes heavy and I cannot bring myself to carry it alone. I need the support and the prayers of the whole Church, but particularly (...) yours, as you have this specific mission".
Five years later, Benedict deXVIcided to take that "specific mission" on his own shoulders. From that very convent, where so many have been praying for him, he will now pray for his Successor and for the entire Church.
In response to Peter who asks (Mt 19:27-29) what will we receive, we who "have left everything and followed you", Jesus says: "everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life".