At midday on Friday, 22 July, a briefing was held to present the Holy Father’s Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere, dedicated to women’s contemplative life. Msgr José Rodriguez Carballo, OFM, Secretary of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, participated in the briefing, presenting some of the key points of the new Document, which include the promotion of adequate formation, the centrality of the lectio divina, specific criteria for the autonomy of contemplative communities, and the membership of monasteries. Published below is a translation of a commentary by Msgr Carballo to accompany the presentation of the Document.
Presentation of the Document
Of the many fruits of grace that the recently concluded Year of Consecrated Life has brought to the Church, one might point to the new Apostolic Constitution which Pope Francis has addressed to all those in the Church who profess a contemplative or wholly contemplative life. This “chosen portion of Christ’s flock”, as St Cyprian liked to define it, is always surrounded by particular care and attention on the part of .the Church — of which it forms the beating heart of faith and of love for the Lord and for the whole of humanity — has been been overlooked in recent decades at the legislative level, to the point that it is still regulated by the Apostolic Constitution, Sponsa Christi, which dates back to the Pontificate of Pius XII in 1950. Thus the constitution is far more precious inasmuch as it fills a gap in the post-Conciliar years, a gap whose consequences have begun to be clearly felt.
Hence the solicitude of Pope Francis, attentive Shepherd to the life of his flock, and the decision to give a new Document to all those in the Church, “men and women called by God and in love with Him, who have devoted their lives exclusively to seeking his Face, longing to find and contemplate God in the heart of the world” (Vultum Dei Quaerere, n. 2). The title of the document, Vultum Dei Quaerere, describes what specifically characterizes this form of special consecration: if in fact “seeking the face of God has always been a part of our human history”, and humanity has always “been called to a dialogue of love with the Creator”, then it is also true that contemplative men and women make of it their special mission in the Church, as is repeatedly emphasized in the initial pages of the document. “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 (cf. Is 21:11-12), heralding the dawn (cf. Lk 1:78)” (VDQ, n. 6). The Pope’s opening exhortation underscores the esteem that he nurtures for this form of particular consecration, called to mysteriously bring light to all of humanity from the silence and prayerful atmosphere of the cloister.
The document then goes on to give precise directions with regard to the various essential elements for a life of contemplation: elements which are, in and of themselves, fundamental for every consecrated life, but enumerated by the Pope with particular emphasis, taking into account a life dedicated to contemplation as its fundamental task and mission. Moreover, if it is true that contemplative life is not a prerogative of women alone, it is also true that it has been and is still “made up mainly of women” (n. 5): therefore, in enumerating the essential elements there are explicit references to contemplative women, to whom the icon of Mary is consigned as the summa contemplatrix.
It is no coincidence that the first component to be highlighted is formation, in its two stages of initial and on-going formation, which has been for many years now the focus of particular attention on the part of the Magisterium. In this regard, the Pontiff, while on the one hand, recalls that the usual place for formation for a contemplative community must be the monastery, on the other, he encourages cooperation among many monasteries, through various modalities: the exchange of material goods, the prudent use of digital means of communication, common houses for initial formation, the readiness of the sisters to help the monasteries with fewer resources. It is important that the idea of charity help to tighten the links of mutual help, always respecting the norms which regulate contemplative life (nn. 13-14). The document also contains the recommendation, fruit of the Pope’s constant concern: “the recruitment of candidates from other countries solely for the sake of ensuring the survival of a monastery is to be absolutely avoided” (VDQ, Conclusion and Regulations, Art. 3 § 6).
Considerable space — and it could not be otherwise — is dedicated to the essential element of prayer. If Pope Francis profoundly wishes to have a “Church which goes forth” (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, nn. 20-24), this also applies to those who are called to live within the walls of a cloister: the attention of the heart, in its maternal solicitude, must continually expand the confines of prayer, because it not only rises to contemplate the Holy Face of God, but it also descends to the depths, to encounter the pain of an increasingly lonely and marginalized mankind. In order to nourish the life of prayer, the Pontiff then recommends the centrality of “the Word of God, the first source of all ... spirituality” (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata, John Paul II, n. 94), keeping alive the now widespread custom of the lectio divina in monasteries. In this regard it is hoped that monasteries may become true schools of prayer, where brothers and sisters may be formed to encounter God and to engage with Him in a dialogue that permeates our entire life (VDQ, nn. 17, 21).
The celebration of the Eucharist and of the Sacrament of Reconciliation will continue to be nourished by the life of prayer, as privileged ways to encounter the living and present Lord and to experience his mercy, in order to become instruments of peace and forgiveness throughout the entire Church and the whole of humanity (nn. 22-23). From the forgiveness received from God and given to brothers and sisters the Pontiff passes naturally to the subject of fraternal life as the essential and irrevocable component of a life of contemplation, for ‘‘he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). Here the Pontiff makes a heartfelt appeal to build communities in which brothers and sisters may be the clear and visible reflection of trinitarian love. Pope Francis then turns to two elements that for monasteries of contemplative life are sources of discernment and reflection: autonomy, to which is closely linked the role of federations, and the cloister.
In regard to autonomy, two important aspects are emphasized: ensuring that autonomy does not become synonymous with isolation and self-absorption; ensuring that juridical autonomy corresponds to a genuine autonomy of life, with clearly delineated criteria. Precisely because the topic is sensitive and can be cause for debate, some directions are given for the conduct to be followed by the interested parties should there no longer be autonomy of life, although the final decision is submitted to the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (nn. 28-29).
All monasteries should be federated, except for particular cases as determined by Holy See; interestingly the document considers that federations “can be established not only on a geographic basis but also on an affinity of spirit and traditions” (VDQ, Conclusion and Regulations, Art. 9 § 2). The juridical association of monasteries to the corresponding Order of men, such as the establishment of confederations and international commissions of various orders is also encouraged (cf. n. 30). The document redefines the three types of cloister previously contemplated in Vita Consccrata, n. 59, namely the papal, constitutional and monastic cloister, allowing a careful discernment to individual monasteries, each observing its own rules, and providing for an eventual request to the Holy See to embrace a different form of cloister from that currently in place.