Roman Catholics: Renewal for the Cloister

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To the secular mind, the vision of monks and nuns living silently and praying ceaselessly behind cloister walls has always seemed, at best, a kind of regrettable eccentricity—harmless enough, but useless too. Yet the Roman Catholic Church, and such Protestant sympathizers as the Monks of Taizé in France, have insisted that the contemplative life is a special and noble vocation. The fathers of Vatican II declared in a 1965 decree that "communities that are entirely dedicated to contemplation are a glory of the church and a wellspring of heavenly graces." While some adaptation to modern life might be in order, they affirmed, the contemplative life itself "should be preserved with the utmost care." A new document governing the lives of cloistered nuns—67,380 throughout the world—has now made it clear that the Vatican intends to do just that.

As issued by the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes, the document reaffirms the role of the contemplative as a witness to Christ. The cloister is both to be retained and encouraged, but "it should be modified according to conditions of time and place, and outdated customs done away with." Rather than having such changes ordered from the Vatican —which before Vatican II held tight control over cloister rules—the orders themselves will make them; even the individual convent will be allowed some latitude.

What the Vatican has established are primarily guidelines. A nun, for instance, may now be allowed to leave the cloister for up to three months if her presence is necessary to her family, for higher education or for a specific teaching or missionary task; she may be away for up to five months for reasons of health. Nuns who want to leave permanently will likely be granted a dispensation more easily than before.

Greater Fervor. The "local control" granted individual orders and convents will probably mean far greater future variety among orders that still basically think of themselves as "contemplative." But most convents will probably now be more alert to the world around them, said Redemptoristine Sister Gertrude Wilkinson last week in Woodstock, Md., where representatives from 57 women's contemplative communities in the U.S. and Canada were meeting to discuss mutual problems. "We are becoming more conscious of the sufferings, problems and joys of the world," she explained. "If you know what you are praying for, you pray with greater fervor."

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