(Vatican Radio) When Pope Francis stepped past the heavy iron gates of the Camaldolese
Monastery of Sant’Antonio Abate at the foot of Rome's Aventine hill on the evening
of Thursday November 21st, he did so following in the footsteps of two
of his predecessors to the See of Peter : Paul VI and Blessed John Paul II.
He went there on the day the Catholic Church marks the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Temple. A day which Pius XII, back in 1953, dedicated to prayer for all cloistered communities. To give thanks to the Lord for all the men and women across the world who have responded to the call of contemplative life.
Sixty years on from that date, as the Year of Faith comes to a close, the contemplative ‘monache’ as they like to be called latching on to the word ‘monastery’, Pope Francis skirted past the walled garden with the little orange grove to enter the little chapel there and preside over vespers as well as join in Eucharistic Adoration in the very place where each day the members of this community gather to pray.
To find out more about this community, which belongs to the Benedictine family, Veronica Scarisbrick went to this place hidden away behind great red brick walls, to meet with Sister Marta, a musicologist turned contemplative at 42.
She welcomed Veronica in the monastery parlor, where a cream coloured 'turn', which once provided the only point of contact with the world beyond the monastery walls, still stands as a symbolic legacy of contemplative life.
But despite the fact that 'turns' and grates are now lost in the mists of time, Sister Marta assured Veronica Scarisbrick that contemplative life is still very much alive with, in her case, its Camaldolese multiple charism.
Contemplative life, she explained in a nutshell is: 'about being in the temple, looking out into the world with the eyes of the temple, so with they eyes of God'. It's about a life, she added, which follows the ‘Ora et Labora’, pray and work Benedictine legacy. Wherein dedicated moments of prayer are coupled with work conceived as prayer. Be it by feeding the poor, roughly a hundred of them each day,or by earning a living with the running of a guest house, the proceeds of which also help support other sister communities across the world, in Asia, Africa and Brazil.
In the course of this conversation Veronica noticed how Sister Marta often pronounced the word 'freedom'. In particular when she took her upstairs and showed her the cell of a fellow sister who died in 1990. She’s American born Julia Crotta who lived in seclusion for forty five years in this tiny space, sleeping on a wooden bed with a cross carved into it, participating in the monastery liturgies by peeking through a tiny window above the chapel, receiving communion through a cloth flap placed on the door and like the other sisters taking part in their production of little crosses made out of palm leaves for the Vatican. A charismatic figure, who took the name of Sister Nazarena, with reference to the reserved life of Jesus of Nazareth. And one whose reputation reached the ears of many, among them Thomas Merton. On Thursday Pope Francis entered this cell.
Veronica Scarisbrick asked Sister Marta, how Sister Nazarena could possibly have encountered a sense of freedom secluded in a cell. She replied with conviction: “God was looking for her and so this was for her a way of living her life in freedom”...
It seems this Camaldolese community gave Pope Francis one of Sister Nazarena’s letters when he met privately with them in their Chapter Room on Thursday evening. Perhaps too on this occasion he confided in them as to why he chose to visit their particular community to mark the 2013 day for contemplative life …