· Vatican City ·

The silent forest

Sister Daniela, summoned by God

cq5dam.thumbnail.cropped.500.281.jpeg
03 April 2021

She was once a football goalkeeper, then she founded a religious order


“Write that I bless all my friars who are now part of this religion and those who will enter until the end of the world. And since, because of weakness and the suffering from illness, I cannot speak, I briefly manifest my will to my friars in these few words. They are, in sign and memory of my blessing and my testament, always love one another, always love and observe Our Lady Holy Poverty, and always be faithful and submissive to the prelates and all the clerics of Holy Mother Church”. These are the words of the Little Testament or Testament of Siena which was dictated by Francis to Brother Benedict in the spring of 1226, when the future saint was seriously ill. They decided to call themselves the “Sisters of the Little Testament” and to follow three simple rules: brotherly love, love of “holy” poverty and fidelity to “mother” Church. It is said that Francis, unlike other evangelical reformers of his time, never pointed his finger in accusation. Similarly, meeting Sister Daniela Cancilla, the founder together with Sister Francesca of what since 2007 has been a new order recognised by the bishop of Gubbio, one has the feeling that this smiling woman always seeks only to bear humble witness to the Gospel. Despite her radical positions and the Franciscan rule followed literally, there is a great love for the Church in her: “When I say Church, I mean the family of Christ, not just the priests”. Sister Cancilla came to Gubbio in 2003 from Favara, in the province of Agrigento, where she was known as the “soccer nun” because of her passion, and also a certain talent, for football. After enrolling in a course of Communication Sciences, her vocation prevailed and Daniela entered the convent in 1998.  “Women’s football? Well, it was harder for my parents to accept me becoming a nun!”, she says as she makes way for me inside the church of Santa Maria della Vittorina, a Romanesque jewel that is now cared for by the sisters of the order. According to the story told in the Fioretti, it was here, around 1220, that Francis met and tamed “a very large, terrible and ferocious wolf, which not only devoured animals but also men”.

In another life, Sister Daniela was a professional footballer, playing goalkeeper for Fabaria 2000, Favara’s Serie C team. Today her love for football has remained, and she plays with children and her name is mentioned for a future national team of nuns.  “Football saved me from individualism and selfishness. It is a team sport where you have to pass the ball around, you are nobody if you don't care about the rest of your training. It taught me the possibility of doing things together”.

At first she did not want to move to Umbria, she says, but after twenty-four hours in Gubbio she was already in love with the place.  “I trusted it (Gubbio). Now I even prefer it to Assisi. Until 2009, the sisters of the Little Testament lived permanently in the hermitage of Sant’Ambrogio, but now they spend short periods there, as a fixed stay in the ancient hermitage is no longer sustainable. Although it is not even one kilometre from the old town centre, the hermitage, which can only be reached on foot, is one of the most evocative buildings in Umbria and also one of the least known. It is set among rocky crags, resting on almost perpendicular walls above the road that runs through the vertiginous Bottaccione Gorge. Sister Daniela, together with other very young sisters/companions, sometimes retire in prayer to this temple of silence. In Gubbio, however, they live in the convent of San Marziale, where they also have two rooms open to pilgrims and tourists walking the Saint Francis Way.

I ask Sister Daniela what she thinks of Brothers All, Pope Francis' encyclical, and if it really is a chauvinist text, which has been said by those who dispute the choice of title. She replies, “You only have to read a few pages and it is clear that this is not the case. Brothers All is a miracle! In Francis' words, intuition and institution overlap. Of course the Church is chauvinist, but this pope is not,” she says. “The problem is that priests entering the seminary, often as children, have not had a constant engagement with the feminine; they have not had this opportunity. The problem of the Church is clericalism for the Church has always counted on and relied on women religious and lay faithful, but it has excluded them from every task, and denied them any position of responsibility. Things are slowly changing, the number of women is growing in the dioceses and there are women undersecretaries in the Vatican. When Pope Francis says that change is already underway he is not deceiving us, but we must not stop now.  The problem, as I see it, is first of all the way in which the scriptures have been interpreted for centuries. Think of Mary Magdalene, wrongly identified as a prostitute redeemed by Christ. The liturgical feast in her name was only instituted in 2016, by Pope Francis, yet she was the first to announce the Resurrection, later earning the title of apostle among apostles. Nevertheless, do you know why where there is a woman everything works better?  Because motherhood places your feet firmly back on the ground. It teaches you to take care of others, to make things concrete. A woman is not only a physical mother; there are many ways to be a mother. I do not feel that I am not a mother.”

With this woman of the Church, of clear and determined faith, I would not have thought I could talk about motherhood and even abortion. Which proved to be my prejudiced preconceptions. Sister Cancilla is aware of the tormented question of the abortion pill Ru486, triggered by the decision of the centre-right junta of the Umbria Region to prohibit its use. She does not evade my questions, and argues her position.  “Politicians must always avoid instrumentalising public opinion”, she says.  “However, I believe that when we talk about abortion we always start from the wrong assumptions: many women choose to have an abortion for fear of not being free. This is a mistake! Because for a woman, becoming a mother is never an impoverishment.  It is wrong to think that a child takes away her freedom. If we fight for the right to abort, we have lost sight of what it means to be a woman, to be free. Some people choose abortion because they believe they cannot bear a child; but, we really have no idea what poverty, or misery is today. On the contrary, at this moment, we need to learn to welcome once again. 

by Valentina Pigmei