· In the Benedictine Convent of Fahr ·
At the end of October a photograph portraying about 15 proud and smiling sisters began to be circulated on social media; they were holding signs which read “Vote for Catholic women». This is a powerful image coming from a remote corner of Switzerland, the women’s Benedictine Convent in Fahr.
Their action follows an international campaign of protesting against the gender disparity evident at the Synod on Young People, which admitted among the voters two non-ordained father superiors, but no mother superiors. This inequality has no doctrinal causes but is merely the fruit of a mentality that is hard to uproot.
Priorin Irene, Prioress of the Convent, gave me a cordial welcome and, in the pauses between the times of prayer and work that punctuate the Benedictine day, gave me her testimony: “We women are part of this Church, and we must therefore be able to make our voices heard and make our contributions”.
“Our action”, she continued, “is the result of a long journey made together on this subject”. The word “journey” could not be more appropriate: in fact, in 2016 the sisters of Fahr were the protagonists of a pilgrimage on foot from St Gall, Switzerland, to Rome, to ask Pope Francis for a Church “with women”, which would truly include and involve women. Taking part in the pilgrimage, on which the documentary Habemus feminas was shot and the book Einweiter Weg published, were more than 1,000 women, men, lay people, consecrated people and bishops. However, when they arrived in Rome it was not possible for them to obtain an audience with the Pope or with his collaborators.
I permitted myself to ask the Prioress whether she had lost hope: “No” she declared with conviction. “Pope Francis has taken important steps, such as, for example, establishing a liturgy for for Mary Magdalene which is the same as that of the Apostles, putting her on an equal footing”. Priorin Irene clasped her hands, her account became a prayer: “Moreover I hope that the Pope will become even more concrete on this subject”.
On its small scale the Convent of Fahr shows how men and women can work side by side. Indeed, this is one of the very rare double convents left in the world: the male congregation is in Einsiedeln and the female one in Fahr, but between the two there is an important collaboration and there is a single Abbot.
At Fahr today 20 sisters are left who face the vocations crisis calmly. “The convent was founded in 1130 and was able to become a reference point for the community”, Piorin Irene recounted. “Perhaps in the future there will no longer be sisters, but a group of women who work and with a house of their own will keep this place going. The convent will continue to exist as a place of spirituality, I’m sure.
“We are ready to change together with society”, Sr Petra added. She is the oldest sister, she is 86 years old, but laughs like a little girl when she tries to remember a few sentences in Italian. Sr Petra was a teacher and I asked her what subject she taught. “Life”, she answered. “I taught the peasant women of the region how to live. My subjects were nutrition, hygiene, the care of the house and of children”. Many of these women subsequently decided to call their own daughters Petra, as a sign of gratitude and affection.
Today the Convent of Fahr is no longer a school, but the satisfaction on the part of the sisters for having lived their spiritual and evangelical vocation to the full continues to make itself felt. “You know”, Sr Petra confessed, “I have been in the convent for 64 years and I have truly had a full life”. I asked her what future she hopes for for the Church: “I would like women once again to feel encouraged and gratified in choosing this way”, she answered, “to pass on God’s glad message. I believe that today we need a change, otherwise I do not know where the Church will end up. And for this to happen, we need women.
St. Peter’s Square
Jan. 20, 2019
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