Sister Scholastika Häring, osb
Abbey of Dinklage (Germany)
SEEKING THE FACE OF GOD
A Commentary on the Apostolic Constitution
Vultum Dei Quaerere: Contemplative Life
in Religious Orders of Women, by Pope Francis
Vultum Dei quaerere, Seeking the Face of God, is the title of the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Francis, published 22nd July, 2016, on contemplative life in Congregations of Women. Legislation for female contemplative life thus receives a new basis. Hence it is fitting to review the canonical bases given by this document, without disregarding other aspects which show the value of this way of life for the Church. Of course the title of the Apostolic Constitution itself expresses a whole new programme, ‘Seeking the Face of God’. According to the opening words of the first chapter, this search has operated throughout human history, finding its expression particularly in religious life and more precisely in monastic life. The whole document, and notably the new legislation laid down in the normative part, must be read in this perspective: it must be a means and an aid in this Search for the Face of God.
At the very beginning, then, it must be said that an Instruction issued by the Congregation for Institutes of the Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life must complete and follow this Apostolic Constitution. It is only when this publication has occurred – and it is expected in the coming months – that it will be possible to give a definitive picture of the new norms.
We should begin by saying that Vultum Dei Quaerere responds to an urgent need. Current legislation for contemplative orders of women in fact rests upon the Apostolic Constitution Sponsa Christi of Pius XII, and the Instruction Inter Praeclara for religious congregations of 1950. As regards papal enclosure, the norms currently in force and of major importance for the monasteries concerned were given in 1999 in the Instruction Verbi Sponsa. In addition, one may suppose that the Vatican has taken note of a certain retrenchment in the ageing communities of Europe and North America, while it is also concerned with the ‘planting’ of contemplative life in the young Churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The Apostolic Constitution is addressed to monasteries of contemplative sisters, whether wholly devoted to contemplation or not, whether federated or not. Thus it is addressed to more than 43,000 religious sisters, spread over the whole world. Considering sisters who live according to the Rule of St Benedict, this includes 6,627 Benedictines, 1,158 Cistercians and 1,464 Trappistines. These figures are taken from the Annuario Pontificio of 2016.
In the Apostolic Constitution the terms ‘contemplative life’ and ‘monastic life’ are used interchangeably for women’s religious orders. A distinction is made between a ‘contemplative life’ which permits a certain form of apostolate (for example, reception of guests in a monastic guesthouse) and a ‘purely contemplative’ life, that is to say, a life which excludes any apostolic ministry. Nevertheless, the different charisms within which ‘the contemplative spirit’ has developed in the course of the centuries are mentioned; they will surely be mentioned in the future legislation, though this has no influence on the fundamental principles. This is a real gap, which monasteries living according to the Benedictine tradition have regretted for many years. The ‘monastic charism’ shared by men and women who live according to the same Rule of St Benedict still has boundaries too distinct according to whether the canonical arrangements concern men or women. The Trappist Order is precisely the example which shows that this need not be the case.
In preparing Vultum Dei Quaerere the Vatican had sent round a questionnaire about autonomy, formation and enclosure to a large number of female contemplative monasteries. This corresponds precisely to the way of taking decisions and preparing synods or even documents under the pontificate of Pope Francis. It is easy to see here an extended determination to gather the views of the persons concerned. The document is then edited by a small group of people whose identity is not made known. The text is then presented to the Pope, who makes it his own before signing it and promulgating it. It would be of the greatest interest to discover the answers given to the questionnaire, but unfortunately such a publication is not foreseen. The personality of the present Pope is visible also at another point: at every reference to contemplative life it is stressed that the life of contemplative nuns has an impact on the world outside, and that they should be aware of this. For example, in prayer, lectio or work they should not be turned in on themselves, but in contrast they should include the whole world, people with their cares and troubles, and should be at one with them. The Church which Pope Francis is calling to its vows is a Church which lives its life before the eyes of all. The same is true for all its members.
Vultum Dei Quaerere consists of two parts: a first part doctrinal, descriptive, outlining in three paragraphs the essentials of the life of female contemplative orders. Only after this come the norms properly so called. In the middle are found the twelve points (numbers 12 to 35) which – as the title of this second part indicates – require discernment and revision. The Apostolic Constitution thus gives them a central position so that contemplative life can adapt to the future of the communities. These twelve themes are:
3. The central place occupied by the Word of God (lectio divina)
4. The sacraments of Eucharist and reconciliation
5. Fraternal life in community
6. The autonomy of monasteries
11. Means of communication
Apart from no. 11, each of these subjects is taken up again in the final dispositions.
If communities living under the Rule of St Benedict analyse these subjects and the way they are presented they will find many elements already lived out in their midst, and constituting a fundamental fact of their spirituality:
• Prayer as the ‘banner-heading’ of life, according to the command of St Benedict that nothing must be preferred to the divine office (RB 43, 3).
• The Word of God must be central, in accord with the precept of St Benedict to listen eagerly to spiritual conferences (RB 4, 55).
• Common life in the community on the principle, ‘Honour the elders, love the juniors’.
• The importance of work as a contribution to God’s creation, and the search for a true balance between ‘Ora’ and ‘Labora’.
• Silence to give room for listening and ruminating on the Word of God.
• Asceticism, shown already (but not only) in a life attached to a place and/or a community, so a sign of fidelity in this globalised world.
• The Eucharist as the sacrament of the meeting with the person of Jesus and participation in the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ, and the sacrament of reconciliation as an experience of the merciful and forgiving Father whose mercy must be passed on.
The Apostolic Constitution can and must offer the opportunity for us to challenge ourselves, to think over our respective practices. Vultum Dei Quaerere several times invites us to examine our daily way of life. We are invited to ask ourselves whether these activities really have a central place in our lives, whether they are conducted in such a way as to further a real meeting with the Lord and whether they avoid the danger of occupying ourselves with ourselves, leaving other people and the exterior world outside. Prayers of intercession, sharing the Word of God with guests (priests, religious, layfolk) and work in solidarity with all those who have to work to provide for their daily expenses are presented as so many ways of preventing us from concentrating on ourselves. The required ‘times suitable for Eucharistic adoration’ need to be nuanced according to different traditions; details about welcoming local guests are sensibly set out. Besides this, a fresh, intelligent and wise paragraph is formulated on modern methods of communication, though without any norms to follow.
The four paragraphs offered by Vultum Dei Quaerere, on formation, autonomy, federations and enclosure are certainly the most important from the juridical point of view. The corresponding norms must be presented in more detail.
Autonomy is a richly traditional principle for protecting and sustaining the contemplative life. It is stipulated that a real autonomy of life should correspond to juridical autonomy (Art. 8 #1). These are the criteria:
• A (minimum) number of sisters, provided that the majority are not too advanced in years
• The vitality necessary to live and transmit the charism
• The dignity and quality of liturgical, spiritual and fraternal life
• Pertinence to and insertion into the local Church
• Ability to provide for its needs
• Well-adapted monastery buildings
If these requirements are not met (and they should be evaluated as a whole), Art. 8 #2 prescribes that the Vatican (and this always means the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life) should consider the suitability of setting up an ad hoc Commission either to launch a process of accompaniment to re-vitalize the monastery or to introduce and launch the process of closing the community. This Commission would include the local Ordinary (the Bishop or the Immediate Superior, that is, the superior of the masculine branch of the Order), the President of the Federation, the ‘federal assistant’ and the abbess or prioress of the monastery in question. There is also provision, in virtue of Art. 8 #3, for the alternative of affiliation to another monastery, or, in the case of a federated monastery, the direct attachment of the monastery to the President of the Federation and her council. In each case the final decision rests with the Vatican.
The gathering of criteria for ‘real autonomy of life’ presented here is certainly a useful and effective instrument for communities themselves and for outsiders who are wondering about their viability.
The proposed ad hoc Commission obliges a certain number of people to take charge of a community which can no longer get along on its own, or which has been overtaken by events. However, the ad hoc Commission presupposes that the monastery belongs to a Federation. What happens to a monastery which does not belong to a Federation and no longer fulfils the conditions for real autonomy of life? Who will represent the community within the Commission if there is no one capable of directing the community?
Until now Federations have been free associations of juridically independent monasteries. From now on they will be regulated by the present Constitution (Art. 9 #1); exceptions will be granted only on certain conditions. Article 2 of Art. 9 lays down that Federations will be established no longer – as before – because of geographical proximity, but also in view of a certain closeness of spirit and tradition. Art. 9 #3 lays down that Federations should be structured in such a way that the preceding aims (assistance in formation, exchange of nuns, sharing of material goods) may be made possible. In addition the powers of the President and her council should be laid down. Finally, Art. 9 #4 stipulates a preference for association or links, also juridical, with the corresponding masculine order. In any case, to clarify this assertion further details are required. Furthermore, Confederations and the setting up of international Commissions of the different Orders are encouraged.
How should these Confederations be formed, and what juridical powers will the President have? This we will know only when the Instruction of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life is published. It is, however, already clear that:
1. Existing Federations must re-adjust their statutes.
2. Monasteries which at present are not federated have various alternatives:
• Several monasteries can join together to form a new Federation or monastic congregation .
• A monastery can join an existing Federation.
• A monastery can join one of the rare existing female monastic congregations.
• A monastery can join another monastery or group of masculine monasteries in such a way that the superior of these monasteries becomes a superior general in accordance with Canon 620 CIC.
Of monasteries living under the Rule of St Benedict, numerous monasteries are affected and will have to make changes. For Cistercians and Trappistines such links generally already exist.
Vultum Dei Quaerere distinguishes three types of formation: initial formation, permanent formation and the formation of formators. These three types are stressed as essential, at the level both of quality and of quantity. Let us just mention a point which irritates: Art. 3 #5 of the conclusion reckons to reserve ‘ample time’ for formation; in the introductory part, at no. 15 it had noted, ‘It being understood that, for initial formation and formation after temporary profession there should be a sufficient time reserved, if possible between nine and twelve years’. In a Western European perspective this seems difficult, given the age of candidates at their entry to a monastery, their previous formation and their experience of life. By contrast, in countries where the possibilities of formation, particularly for girls and women, are restricted, and where formation begins from before the postulancy at completion of secondary schooling, one can easily add up nine to twelve years before permanent profession. In different commentaries on Vultum Dei Quaerere it has been stressed that Pope Francis is a Jesuit, and consequently the number of years must be made explicit. In the norms, as we have noted, the number of years is not fixed. From the Western and European viewpoint a serious note of the legislator should be noted at Art. 3 #6: on the one hand the legislator underlines with satisfaction the international and multicultural constitution of communities, but on the other hand remarks, ‘The recruitment of candidates from other countries solely to preserve the survival of the monastery should absolutely be avoided.’
To begin with, we should note with satisfaction that the value of enclosure for contemplative nuns has been expressed briefly and succinctly, frankly agreeably and soberly. It is acknowledged as a special expression of separation from the world for those who are following Christ in religious life. Enclosure is – and this is a quotation from the post-Synodal apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata # 59 – ‘a sign of the exclusive union of the spouse, the Church, with her supremely beloved Lord’. Equally it is made precise that enclosure should be considered as an asset rather than an obstacle to communion when within the same Order different forms of enclosure are practised.
Next Vultum Dei Quaerere gives an important modification to the previous rules of enclosure (Canon 667 CIC). For contemplative communities three different types of enclosure are envisaged, quite apart from the general enclosure common to all religious institutes, namely
• Papal enclosure, which ‘according to the rules given by the Holy See excludes any external engagement in the apostolate’
• Constitutional enclosure, as defined by the norms of the particular Constitutions
• Monastic enclosure which on the one hand preserves the character of an especially strict discipline and on the other makes it possible to combine the primary function of divine worship with broader forms of welcome and hospitality. Since this enclosure is also ‘according to the particular Constitutions’, juridically this provides for a special form of constitutional enclosure.
Article 10 of the conclusion decrees that henceforth each monastery has the possibility, after serious discernment and respecting its own Constitutions, of choosing the form of enclosure which it wishes to adopt. If it chooses a form different from what it already has, it must seek authorization from the Holy See. Thus, communities which reckon that the current form of enclosure is no longer adequate to their way of life and/or their obligations may adopt another form. If this is not the case, there is no reason to change.
Vultum Dei Quaerere will therefore have a different impact on different sectors of feminine contemplative communities. It is perhaps at the same time a challenge and an opportunity to be grasped in order to witness to the ‘quest for the face of God’ here and now with regard to women’s communities which live by the Rule of St Benedict.
 To tell the truth, the Apostolic Constitution does not mention it, but as the Vatican has in recent years vigorously encouraged the formation of monastic congregations and the transformation of Federations into congregations, one may imagine that this will be possible.
 The present author knows of four such Congregations in the Benedictine Order, namely the Congregation Regina Apostolorum, the Polish Congregation Immaculatae Conceptionis BVM, the Congregation Vita et Pax and the Congregation Domino Nostrae a Calvario.