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Roberta Vinerba, the nun who comments on the Gospel on TV

A story of conversion

 Una storia  di conversione  DCM-002
03 February 2024

Roberta Vinerba is a woman of character, with a sunny and decisive, yet deep and free disposition. She is a nun, and a theologian, who teaches at the Theological Institute of Assisi, which she also directs. In a previous life, she was a piano-bar singer, the voice of a jazz band, but at the same time she was a soprano in a polyphonic choir, and gave concerts in half of Europe. She could not stand the Church, after all, her origins, which are steeped in a Franciscan atmosphere, also have a strong anticlerical and antagonistic tradition. In high school she studied at the Technical Biological Institute, because she adored the sciences that cure men and women, and as a consequence she loved literature too.

While waiting to enroll in the Chemistry faculty in university, she was admitted to the Conservatory. To support herself she worked at the regional newspaper Corriere dell'Umbria, selling subscriptions for her publishing company. At 23, she became head of sales, and opened offices throughout central Italy. Such a restless fighter, she never gave up, and that's where God intruded into her imagination. This bright girl who succeeded in everything dressed in black, sought help with psychotherapy, and vented her anger in feminist collectives, in extra-parliamentary circles. These are the times of “We will not die democrats”, according to the expression in vogue in Italy in the 1980s, “the body is mine”, the system to be changed. But it is the subject of death that questions her, and reason offers no answers. 

In 1987 her older, patient sister introduced her to a priest, who was her simple pastor. At the encounter, she burst into tears because she felt ashamed, “as if I were a little woman!” At that moment she believed the Holy Spirit had touched her heart, and unleashed the struggle. This was followed by two years hand-to-hand with Jesus, and with the Church, that one and the other always seemed inseparable. That too is grace.

She resigned from her job, left Florence and returned to her parents, to accept a spiritual retreat and a stark proposal. “With both eyes wide open we must fall in love”. And she fell in love, with Jesus, a person, to love, to marry, in the most human dynamic of love. In 1992, she was consecrated. Actually, there had been some warning this would come to pass during her turbulent adolescence. Today, the nun, who is 59 and knows how to interpret the signs, remembers hearing a voice, back when she was only 13, that told her clearly “you will become a nun, and a Franciscan”. But we all know, little girls hear voices!

Not least because Roberta, the new convert, was convinced that seclusion was required of her. It was her bishop, Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, at the time titular of the See of Perugia-Città della Pieve, who scrutinized her and intuited what was to made of that woman’s energy and total self-giving. His conclusion: a Franciscan consecration at the service of the evangelization of the Diocese, through religious vows. St Francis -because she is Umbrian-, but especially because of her obedience to the Church. It is the most difficult thing, “and yet he, poor and naked, is embraced by the bishop, and this is the icon of my life”. Then his travail in the Order, which was so misunderstood and yet always faithful.  Because “everything that does not pass through the Church does not flourish, and this is my freedom”. Therefore, obedience then becomes an adventure: what is asked of me? Where will I be taken? Here I am.

What does it mean to be a Franciscan nun, yet without a convent? There are other women who live by his Rule, in the early Church there were women who obeyed the bishops, living not in communities, but embedded in the reality of the diocese, and the parishes.

But Franciscan nuns, without a convent...? There are other women who live by his Rule, in the early Church there were women who obeyed the bishops, living not in communities, but embedded in the reality of the diocese, the parishes.

Vinerba studied theology, and found many consonances in the literature she had always loved, the answer to the cry of man throughout her history. She was a social worker, with AIDS patients. “The first boy who died of AIDS/HIV in Perugia passed away next to me”.

However, what is even stranger is that this girl, then this woman, this nun, who is so rational, cultured, and accustomed as a chemist and as a restless person to dissect, chisel, fathom every bit of reality, attached herself to one of the movements considered most irrational, at first glance, the Renewal in the Spirit. “For two years I went to their prayer times saying, ‘Never like them’. They were the ones who were there, in her parish. Then, while studying St Paul, she read about the charismatic assembly. Because reason is one thing, rationalism is another. Reason must stop, and open itself to the freedom of the Spirit”. And then RNS is not a movement to join, to subscribe to, it is an experience that is offered, a proposal of grace at the service of the Church”. “In communal prayers, called prayers of healing, there is real healing: you see beautiful stories, marriages rebuilt, lives changed, hardened men and women returning to the sacraments”. As happened to her. Who hated the Church and her pope so much that she burst into tears, over Ali Agca’s missed shot at John Paul II. She hoped he had killed him! Then, through her studies, there was a visceral love for Ratzinger, for his thinking, and his vision, “I drank every word of his from the beginning”, and thanks to Ratzinger back to John Paul II, she immersed herself in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, “a watershed in my theological journey. I, who was looking for freedom at all costs, found there the Christian freedom that is obedience to what I was looking for, the true answer to the question of meaning”. Then the old pope in the choir of young people at the World Youth Day at Tor Vergata, a call within the call that appeal of the Pontiff in the Jubilee of 2000 who said: “I see in you the sentinels of the morning”.  And her slow agony, which was both heartbreaking and admirable, definitely won her over. “I was among the first to enter the basilica at the exposition of his body. I asked his forgiveness. It was a kairotic moment”.

Today the parish in Perugia where Sister Roberta is incardinated is dedicated to St John Paul II. This is a new, bright, vibrant church, where many children are accompanied on the journey of faith. In this pastoral ministry, evangelizing, study and teaching are her vocation.

Her students are candidates for the priesthood and religious life, but also many lay people, who are preparing to become RE teachers, or men and women who are seekers of meaning, of a foundation for their faith, “Because every person is interested in the religious sciences, if they want to enter into dialogue with the most serious and profound questions”. More lay people, and less religious. The vocation crisis is being felt, and when remembering that it follows the dramatic population decline in Italy is not enough. “But where there is a true and constant proclamation of God’s word, vocations come. Christ is always alive and therefore it is impossible for him not to call again. Perhaps there is little proclamation and preaching that does not open the heavens”. Indeed. Yes. Why become a priest, or a nun? To do good works? “To have the answer to the ultimate question, death. Christ conquered it, and that is why it is worth following him. I converted for that, I think because there is heaven. Why behave well if not there is something to account for the good?” I ask if the proclamation of Christ can also really pass via social media, since she uses them to propose and welcome prayers, speaks about and offers meetings, lends herself by writing books, articles, reflecting on reality on radio and TV. On television, on TV2000’s Sulla Strada [On the Road] program, she has been commenting on the Sunday Gospel this year. This is a first for a woman on the Italian Bishops’ Conference broadcaster, another first in which Sister Roberta Vinerba is featured.  So social media are also needed, as are all media, since we need to communicate the Gospel. And the Church has been a pioneer in media, ever since Pope Leo XIII first had his voice heard through a microphone. “Of course, you have to choose the way, not all stages are suitable. Also because faith, from the first friends of Jesus, both Andrew, and John, is communicated by attraction, by contagion. We are convinced by someone who has joy in living”.

And this nun has so much joy and passion for life . She knows how to be contagious.

by Monica Mondo