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Support to help cloistered nuns

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02 October 2021

The Secretariat of Assistance created on the initiative of Pius XII


It was the year 1950 and Pius XII chose November 21, feast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary at the Temple, to sign the Apostolic Constitution Sponsa Christi on women’s monastic life, designed to reorganize and update “the institute of nuns”. In the aftermath of the two world wars, many monasteries were reduced to rubble, where the nuns lived in uncomfortable conditions and in others they had tried to make do with handicrafts but with little return. Pope Pacelli, who had the monastic communities particularly at heart, wanted a redevelopment of women's monastic life. So,  he asked the monastic communities to host Jews persecuted by the Nazi regime, as the chronicles of 1943 and 1944 of the Roman monasteries of Santi Quattro Coronati and Santa Susanna seem to show. His concern and solicitude for the communities of contemplative life also stemmed from the “accurate information” that had reached him “from all parts of the world”, following a series of investigations he had ordered into monastic realities. “There are numerous monasteries that unfortunately suffer from hunger, misery and starvation; and many lead, because of domestic difficulties, a hard life that is no longer tolerable”, the Pontiff wrote.

The Sacred Congregation for Religious took care of this and on January 12, 1953 the Secretariat for the Assistance of Nuns and Infirm Religious was born, with the aim of spreading the spiritual values of contemplative life, making its essential elements known, supporting the monasteries in their daily needs, and contributing to the medical expenses of the religious. Promoter, founder and first president was the Discalced Carmelite Father Isidoro di Sant'Elia, born Dante Giannoni, in service to the Congregation of Religious, who dedicated himself with passion and without reserve to the promotion of various initiatives and fundraising. In that same year, the first Pro Orantibus Day was celebrated and the first issue of “Pro Orantibus”, the periodical of the Secretariat, was printed in June. Today it is a six-monthly magazine with a circulation of about ten thousand copies and contains in-depth studies on consecrated life, reflections on the Magisterium of the Church, and “voices” from the monasteries.

Sixty-eight years later, the Nuns’ Assistance Secretariat (SAM), a body established by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CIVSVA) with headquarters in Rome at Via della Conciliazione 34, still provides for the needs of cloistered monasteries, responding to requests that come from all over the world and from Italy in particular. For the past 18 years, Sr. Giuseppina Fragasso, a religious of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, has been its vice-president, while the role of president falls to the secretary of the CIVSVA, Monsignor José Rodríguez Carballo. The Nuns Assistance Secretariat also has a building in Rome, structured as a small monastery, with a garden and a vegetable garden. This is Villa Nostra Signora della Meditazione, inaugurated on March 25, 1961 by Cardinal Valerio Valeri, which is a house that hosts nuns passing through the capital for medical treatment and periods of convalescence or rest. Father Isidoro wanted consecrated women to govern it and chose those women who, in volunteer work, eager to give themselves to others, had been doing their best for the nuns for years in the Secretariat. He gathered them in a Pious Union that began on February 8, 1974, then the Secular Institute of the Sisters of St. Teresa Margaret of the Heart of Jesus (Redi), active until 2009. Now it is the Aliadas Carmelitas Descalzas de la Santisima Trinidad who welcome the nuns in SAM’s house, which was moved last year to the Monastery of the Sacred Heart of the Urbanist Poor Clares of Italy to offer the nuns more space.

Currently, SAM is on hand to help many Italian monasteries and several abroad, and which receive support in various ways. “The requests are varied and are carefully evaluated. In e-mails or letters, they ask us, for example, for economic contributions to pay bills, to carry out projects necessary for the subsistence of the community, to meet the costs of health care or training activities. Even to buy work tools, such as sewing machines, accessories for embroidery which are essential for the craft activities with which many nuns support themselves, or ovens for the production of sacramental bread.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a strong impact on monasteries.  Sales of artifacts and income from hospitality in guest quarters have dropped, so other monastic communities have been turning to SAM, especially for daily sustenance”. The Nuns Assistance Secretariat is able to help the monasteries thanks to donations that arrive from lay people, dioceses, congregations and religious orders, nunciatures, bishops or cardinals - explains Sister Giuseppina - On the occasion of Christmas and Easter, then, we make greeting cards that we offer to the free charity of those who want to support us”.

In addition, there is the Pro Orantibus Day that is celebrated every year on November 21, the day of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The liturgical memorial recalls the episode of the consecration to the service of the Temple of Jerusalem, where, according to the apocryphal gospels, Mary was accompanied by her parents Anne and Joachim and remained until she was 12 years old. In her radical offering to God we recognize the ideal of consecrated life and cloistered life in particular, and for this reason the universal Church prays for all contemplatives on November 21, while the Nuns’ Assistance Secretariat promotes initiatives for women's monasteries.

In recent years, conferences, spaces for reflection, moments of prayer and Eucharistic celebrations have been organized in Rome. A beautiful page in its history is the conference held at the Pontifical Lateran University in 2018 - which was attended by about 300 nuns from different parts of the world. The conference received Francis special dispensation: “Approfondimenti su Vultum Dei Quaerere  e Cor Orans”, [Insights on Vultum Dei Quaerere and Cor Orans], the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Francis of June 29, 2016 and its Implementing Instruction of April 1, 2018 drafted by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. This is the most recent Church document on female contemplative life. On the other hand, in 2019, SAM dedicated Pro Orantibus Day to the presentation -once again at the Lateran-, to the Guidelines for the formation of contemplatives L’arte della ricerca del volto di Dio [The Art of Seeking the Holy Face of God], dated August 15 of the same year, by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Last year, however, the Covid-19 pandemic forced everyone to meet virtually for on the theme “Fratelli tutti  e la vita contemplative” [Fratelli tutti  and the Contemplative Life] in which many monasteries took part.

by Tiziana Campisi