· The Poor Clares recount their meeting with Francis ·
In the late morning of Sunday, 14 July, we received an unexpected telephone call in the middle of Pope Francis’ visit to Castel Gandolfo. A friendly voice told us to be ready because, before visiting the community of Jesuit Fathers, as planned, the Holy Father would probably come to our monastery to greet us. The news gave rise to amazement, joy and wonder. In a few minutes we realized that the secret hope silently nourished in each sister’s heart during the past few days was about to come true. There was literally no time to do anything except to let that deep sense of gratitude and joy well up within us; a gratitude that became prayer, praise, expectation and the readiness to receive this extremely delicate gesture from a God who constantly surprises us.
It is true that the Lord prepares his gifts, but it is also true that every gift of God is also something unforeseeable, unexpected that catches us off guard and asks only to surprise us. It is this God, “Giver of life and Father of all mercies” — to borrow an expression dear to our holy Mother, St Clare — who was coming to pay us a visit today in the person of Pope Francis.
With deep, ineffable joy, we saw for the first time the figure of the Vicar of Christ crossing the threshold of our garden, walking down the flight of steps, coming towards us; and we went to meet him on the path beneath the wisteria and clustered around him like daughters around their father.
His first words in greeting us expressed his joy at seeing our Fraternity, more numerous and younger than he had expected. In welcoming him, we could not but note his cordial humanity and affable manner, his gestures of tenderness especially for the weakest and most elderly sisters. Later, someone said: “you can see that he wants to meet you, because he looks you straight in the eye”. Then going right to the heart of the matter he began: “I have come here because I know you pray for me!”.
This sentence alone suffices to express the meaning of the whole encounter, taking place under the banner of the bond that unites our life to his: a spiritual bond that is all the deeper the more hidden it is in God, and that finds its most authentic expression in prayer and in the silence of the daily offering. The bond that ties our Fraternity to the pope has ancient origins. Indeed the foundation of our monastery dates back to 1631 and coincided with the arrival of the popes at Castel Gandolfo. In the course of the centuries it has thus enjoyed the special closeness and constant visits of the various pontiffs who have succeeded one another on the Chair of Peter.
In the hallway Pope Francis paused in silent prayer before the stone slab that commemorates a crucial event in the history of our community, which was harshly hit during the Second World War. At the beginning of the war our Fraternity accepted Pius XII’s invitation. He asked all consecrated people in religious life to offer their own life to implore God for peace in the world, overwhelmed by the tragedy of war. Our sisters accepted the Pope’s invitation and, making a vow, offered themselves as victims for peace. On 1 February 1944, a terrible bombardment razed a large part of the monastery to the ground, killing 15 of the youngest sisters. The deaths of another three sisters followed a few days later. Among the surviving sisters was Maria Chiara Damato, now a Venerable Servant of God, the cause of whose beatification is under way. She was sure she would not die on that occasion because, she said, “different forms of sufferings await me”.
After this moment of recollection, on reaching the Chapter Hall Pope Francis entered but did not go and sit down; he stayed standing by the door, awaiting and accompanying each sister with his hand until we had all entered, just like a shepherd with his “small flock”. At this point, with a kind and affectionate gesture which surprised everyone (even us!) he closed the door, leaving his entourage in the corridor, saying that he wished to be alone with the community. An atmosphere of trust and familiarity prevailed, so much so that we felt he had always been here with us. What he gave us at that moment endures in each sister’s heart, for he was truly speaking to us from his own heart. In the intimacy of this small space of brotherhood with the Pope in the Chapter Hall, he first expressed his gratitude to us for all that we do for the Church and his esteem for our contemplative life, “a life of prayer and penance”. Speaking on behalf of all the sisters, Mother assured him: “not only prayer but also the offering of life”, and he said: “the Church needs this, she needs martyrs because the first evangelization is done on our knees”. He imparted to us what he himself has most at heart: the life of the Church, fraternal charity that makes us peacemakers, constant vigilance in spiritual life. He spoke to us as a loving father who nurtures and cares for his children. He did so as if he were on tiptoe. He asked us too, in the silence of these monastic walls, for something he had asked of everyone gathered in St Peter’s Square, four months ago, on 13 March: “Pray for me”.
In addition to all this joy we became aware of the great responsibility for the mission that Pope Francis was giving us, which made us feel like the beating heart of the Church which pulses in unison with the heart of Christ in the person of the Holy Father, making his sentiments our own and enabling us to share in his joy and suffering. When he blessed us, we saw as imparted to our Fraternity the blessing, of that God who, through him, cares for “this little flock which the Lord and Father brought into being in his holy Church precisely in order to imitate the poverty and humility of his beloved Son and of the Glorious Virgin, his Mother” (St Clare).
Our hearts overflowed with the deepest thanksgiving for the gift of Pope Francis, who never ceases to astonish us with God's unannounced events. All glory and honour be to him, and every blessing.
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