· Vatican City ·

Theme of the Month

Of their own hands and intelligence

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02 October 2021

This is how religious women live. The rest is left to Providence  


Last summer, the sisters of the Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem launched a fundraising campaign.  They followed the modern rules of crowdfunding in their attempt to restore the road that leads to the Gamogna hermitage, in the Florentine region, where they have lived since 1998. In little more than a month, they received the 30,000 euros needed to carry out the work.

It is not, however, always as straightforward. As the earthquake-affected nuns in Sant’Angelo in Pontano, in the Marche region, who were forced by the double earthquake of August 24 and October 30, 2016 to move to the Foresteria di Passo Sant’Angelo, know all too well. The Foresteria was supposed to be temporary accommodation, in theory, yet the twenty-one Benedictine women have been residing there for more than five years now, waiting for the monastery, Santa Maria delle Rose, to be restored. So, in 2019, they launched a bottom-up funding campaign to construct a building capable of housing the refectory, a church and rooms to accommodate new vocations next to the cottage. The journey to raise the planned 300 thousand euros, however, is still in its infancy.

It is not unusual in recent times for the religious to resort to crowdfunding in order to sustain themselves and their activities (see Ivana Pais, p. 20).  However, it is just one of the many ways in which they try to keep going (see Laura Eduati, p. 16).

Today, the problem of women religious’ sustenance - considered in all the various canonical distinctions - is, indeed, a problem. The great history of women’s consecrated life teaches us that they live off the work of their own hands and their own intelligence. When they just cannot make it, they rely on Providence. A daily challenge.

The model of sharing

Today, when economic difficulties are real, the evangelical criterion of making the little they have accessible to all is the strength and specificity of this form of life. This model, if it is articulated well, could also be exported to civil society so that everyone has less, but everyone has something. In these times, when the great divide between the few rich and the many poor -this scandal and wound to all humanity-, is worsening, yet the organization and life choices of consecrated women offer useful testimony. The poverty to which women religious are accustomed is a “model” of sobriety, where the dependence of the individual on the community and of the community on each individual with the sharing of material (as well as spiritual) goods is a “model” of enterprise. The habit of not wasting is a social “model”. Working together is a culture of solidarity.

There is no inequality among the sisters of a congregation.  Whether they live in a rich Country or a poor one, the sisters of the same congregation all have the same support.

Less aid during the pandemic

The pandemic has aggravated the crisis which was already being felt by interrupting the traditional activities of monasteries, abbeys and convents which historically, in addition to being places of prayer and help for others, have been cultural, social and economic centers.  For centuries, the monastery was a small town, generally self-sufficient, helped by the fact that the nuns were often of noble origin and brought a dowry of land and goods (see Francesco Grignetti on page 34) when they joined. It was in this way that they resisted until the end of the 19th century when progressive economic impoverishment began.

Lastly, lockdowns and restrictions on mobility - first and foremost, the cancellation of religious tourism - sent them into crisis, just like other “secular” businesses. The general recession unleashed by Covid has also affected solidarity and have seen requests for assistance increase exponentially.

Are there fewer benefactors?

“Donations haven’t dropped, they’re just not there. The situation was already very critical before. The virus has taken it to the extreme. The head of a community of about forty sisters, all elderly, confided in me that she had lost fifteen sisters in a few weeks during the first wave of Covid 19. To be able to pay for the funerals, she had to ask for help outside the community. In addition, the community was suddenly left with fifteen fewer pensions. It’s just one case, but it’s indicative of the enormous difficulties faced by the women religious”, says Sister Claudia Grenga, a Sister of Charity of Saint Jeanne Antida and bursar of the Union of Major Superiors of Italy. The USMI was founded in 1950 to give a voice to the more than six hundred women religious institutes that adhere to the Union.   

No external funding

How do women religious live? A generalization on this question is impossible. In fact, the statistics show that there are about 650,000 women religious scattered over the five continents.  The situation varies depending on the Country, the congregation, the religious family, and institute. It also depends on the individual charism, whether active or contemplative, Sisters or nuns.

However, there is a factor that they all have in common: the religious do not have any form of external financing and must support themselves with their own - nowadays very few - forces available. In contrast, however, in Italy there is the Institute for the sustenance of the Clergy that pays the salary of priests, which is approximately1000 euros per month.

Those who can work do so as teachers, educators, nurses, midwives, and there are doctors, caregivers, workers, maids, maids, engineers, and architects too. Others are engaged in the pastoral work of the dioceses or in the service of the Holy See and are paid by it. There are those who earn enough and those who have nothing or only a social pension. “Until about twenty years ago, one could speak roughly of four forms of livelihood: employment, donations, productive activities and old age pension. Now, with the increase in the average age of the religious, the latter is the main resource”, continues Sister Claudia. This is a fixed monthly income - the so-called social allowance - for those who have reached 65 years of age and is independent of any contribution payments. The amount, however, is low -between 450 and 600 euros-, which the recipients make common and at the service of the community. “In theory, since it is something that pertains to the person, it should arrive in a private account. This, however, would be incompatible with the vow of poverty. There are, therefore, agreements with the National Institute for Social Security (INPS) and other social security agencies so that the cheque can be credited to the community’s single account where the nun resides. In any case, if this is not possible, the latter withdraws the money and gives it personally to the community leader so that it can be shared. Generally speaking, inheritances received from the nun’s family are also pooled. This is only an obligation for active life sisters – it is for nuns - and is done when the person deems it appropriate. It is certainly difficult to administer goods on one’s own”.

Communion of goods

The vow of poverty of course does not imply a life of misery. It means having no money of one's own. To provide for her own specific needs, however, the individual sister obtains what she needs from the community leader or the bursar. Sharing also affects the salary of those in salaried employment, paid according to the national collective bargaining agreement.

“Those with regular employment, however, are fewer and fewer because of the rise in the average age of religious. Which implies a drastic decrease in monthly resources. As for donations, these belong to another era and another worldview. The donations, then, were for the mission, for the realization of works and often tied to them. There are still some foundations that can be turned to in emergencies, but these are small donations. One way of obtaining aid is to prepare projects and propose them to the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) or to the European Union or other bodies. The procedures required to access these funds are, however, complex and detailed, and only the most organized institutes manage to untangle themselves”, stresses the USMI bursar. Production activities are reduced to a minimum, for example, the paritarian institutions (schools), which were already accumulating debts, and the effect of the pandemic on vacation structures, has produced a real financial collapse. “Only the professional courses financed by the Region are holding out. There are a few affiliated clinics and, due to a lack of resources, they are mostly managed by external cooperatives. The work previously carried out by the nuns - as a form of contribution to the life of their religious family - is now carried out by regularly employed employees, which further impoverishes the coffers of the institutes. The family homes, where children of families in difficulty are welcomed remain. Municipalities and Regions, however, have difficulty in honoring their commitments on time, and the religious are forced to jump through hoops to ensure that they do not lack the necessary funds, at the cost of getting into debt. In order to deal with this situation, efforts are being made to formalize a form of remuneration, however minimal, for the pastoral activities carried out by women religious in dioceses and parishes. At the moment, this does not exist in a systematic way, although some bishops or parish priests do provide a little compensation. We would like, however, that this not only be an act of good will but a norm and we are working to establish agreements between dioceses and religious congregations”.

Employed in dioceses and parishes

The work of sisters for the Church, which is often unpaid, provokes debate and reflection. Two years ago, during a workshop organized by the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), on burnout prevention and resilience in religious life, speaker Maryanne Loughry drew attention to the schedules of nuns within church structures. Today, Sister Maryanne reiterates that “agreements with the various partner ministries on salaries, schedules, duties, and contact persons would be helpful” (see Federica Re David on page 18).

Certainly, it is taken for granted that those who belong to a religious order receive board and lodging, but the problem is not how the individual nun lives, what she eats and where she sleeps. The problem is the sustenance of the religious family, which today is struggling with another serious problem, namely the upkeep of property, which means custody and maintenance. In some cases, fortunately, they are still substantial, but often they are real estate assets that are no longer profitable and in need of an intervention, repair or consolidation.  The institutes' assets are ecclesiastical assets and the institutes must concern themselves with their management, keeping in mind that the use of economic resources must always be at the service of the goals of their charism.

In fact, each institute is self-sufficient

Each monastery is sui iuris, therefore enjoys juridical autonomy.  Nevertheless, if this on one hand is a sign and a guarantee of independence and therefore of freedom, the drawback is that sometimes it is more difficult to receive an intervention and help from outside.

Thus, with fewer nuns and too many management expenses, many convents close.  Last May, the three remaining nuns at the Santa Croce monastery in Sabiona, South Tyrol, had to leave after more than three centuries. “When a community can no longer secure its economic future on its own, a farewell is a necessary step even if it is a drastic one. Today, doing so does not mean failure, but it is a sign of responsibility. Everything that a monastery has experienced and achieved during its existence remains valuable and fruitful”, explained the head of the Benedictine congregation of Beuron, Abbot Albert Schmidt.

This situation is well known to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. A year ago, more than three hundred cloistered nuns, all of whom were superiors or economists, from all over Italy, gathered in Rome at the Auditorium Antonianum to participate in the conference Economics at the Service of Forms of Contemplative Life, organized by CIVCSVA to pass on to the religious some guidelines to administer the patrimony of their communities more efficiently.

On the website of the Monasteries Foundation, Sister Monica della Volpe, Abbess of Valserena, the Tuscan Trappist monastery, writes that the sisters emphasized that the patrimony is aimed at the mission (or end) of the charism, and must be maintained. Second,  that accounting and budgets are important; third, that transparency is a form of witness; forth, that transparency, responsibility and trust are also essential for the efficient functioning of an activity; fifth, that managing assets is not something that is separate from the religious vocation for it is part of the vocation itself, of its witness, and of its mission. In addition, the bursar of the community of consecrated life does not have to be an expert in everything; for many matters, experts and technicians can be consulted. That the task of the bursar is to “think”: to understand what is wanted and to plan, program and manage accordingly. In addition, that a strong mission needs a strong economy, and that a strong economy will be thought of as serious, competent, and committed, to sustainable work above all. This sustainability is appropriate for the strengths of the community and also creates the possibility of sales and income. In short, this is not a game or an ascetic pastime, but a true instrument for earning one’s daily bread. “And so, even if the community were to live in a splendid twelfth century monastery, its evangelical poverty will have a strong sense, and the beauty and splendor will all be for the edification of souls and the glory of God”.

Assistance for cloistered nuns

Given the very special situation of contemplatives. which consist of less than 40 thousand throughout the world (a little more than six percent of all religious), there is a Secretariat for the assistance of nuns in support of those in cloistered facilities. This entity is related to the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life the Societies of Apostolic Life (Tiziana Campisi on page 28 ).

The new rules of the instruction Cor Orans (2018), provide for the recognition of the autonomy of a monastery, “economic conditions such as to guarantee the community to provide for itself the necessities of daily life”. This task is fulfilled by cloistered women by carrying out the most diverse activities. From the traditional commitment in the garden and in the kitchen to the preparation of jams and cakes, clothing and cosmetic lines, renting accommodation, and bed & breakfast. Sleeping at the nuns’ or sisters’ accommodation is inexpensive and a healthier option, where the breakfasts consist of local products in excellent houses

The reconversion and diversification of activities is another sign of awareness of the times they find themselves, and farsightedness.  With boldness, the sisters combine the charism that animated the founders and foundresses with today’s history. With great determination they refine their marketing strategies, intelligently using the media and TV. A year ago, the then Superior General of the Oblates of the Child Jesus, Sister Maria Daniela Faraone, made the vacation home “La Culla” [The Cradle] in Sorrento available as the set of the reality show Ti spedisco in convento [I’m Sending You to the Convent]. For the production, she and her sisters were co-protagonists, together with a group of girls in search of television glory.   

Training and expertise

It is not easy, however, to disentangle the administrative and financial management; hence, the need for adequate training. “The latter is the responsibility of the individual orders and congregations. Depending on the needs and possibilities, they support the studies in Economics and Law of some sisters - says Sister Claudia -. For some years, moreover, the Claretian Institute of the Theology of the Consecrated Life has a diploma for religious in charge of administration in management of ecclesiastical entities, articulated over three semesters.

After all, some religious families still have very large numbers and offices on five continents, akin to multinational “companies”. The Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul - the most numerous - number about 15,000, the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians 12,000, the Discalced Carmelites 10,000, the Franciscan Poor Clares 7,000 and 6,500.

Apart from the numbers, however, “the real secret” concludes Sister Claudia Grenga – “for a good leadership remains that of the Gospel. To make what we have available in common as the Church of the origins and to work all for the one cause that is the realization of an evangelical form of life in fullness, according to our own charism, at the service of our brothers”. To be yeast: this, after all, is the authentic - and most difficult - core business.

by Lucia Capuzzi
A Journalist with the Italian national newspaper “Avvenire”