For some time now, I've been concerned that while Pope Francis was awfully good at improving the tone of the church, he hasn't done much to actually change things. You know, by issuing Papal edicts.
But on July 22, he did issue an "apostolic constitution," a binding document with new rules. And to whom is the document addressed? Contemplative nuns!
These are the sisters we generally don't see. They live in cloistered monasteries, away from daily contact with the world, focused on work and prayer. (We call them monasteries, not convents, because that's the accurate term when referring to the residences of either nuns or priests who lead contemplative lives.)
You would think that the Pope would not have the time to worry about roughly 40,000 nuns whose main occupation is to pray for the rest of us.
After all, there was the mess at the Vatican bank, including continued questions about the bank's possible ties to Nazi collaborators, the ongoing problem of pedophilia scandals in the church, and the efforts by conservative clerics to challenge the Pope's encyclical on marriage and the family.
But no, here's the institutional church meddling with nuns living in small communities all over the world and not making any trouble, at least as far as I know.
In the document, "Seeking the Face of God" on women's contemplative life, the Pope praised these sisters to the sky for their "life of complete self-giving," noting that their contemplative life "produces a rich harvest of grace and mercy."
But then the Vatican went into micro-management mode. The Pope focused on twelve areas of contemplative life, including how the nuns recruit, pray and use the Internet, among other things. The Vatican will be issuing more detailed instructions, and monasteries will have to revise their rules to adapt.
I understand the Pope feels these mandates are important. He writes that contemplatives can succumb to the "subtle temptations" of "listlessness, mere routine, lack of enthusiasm and paralyzing lethargy."
But even if that were true for many sisters, I don't think that listless cloistered nuns are the church's biggest problem these days.
The Pope wants to make sure that the sisters pray, every day, the Divine Office, prayers focused on the Psalms and other readings from the Bible that are recited hourly. (And yes, there now is an app for that.)
He wants them to spend more time adoring the Holy Eucharist, which Catholics believe contains the real presence of Christ.
He orders the nuns not to poach new members from other countries, saying it is to be "absolutely avoided." He requires individual monasteries to form federations with other monasteries in order to collaborate with one another.
The Pope doesn't want a bunch of elderly nuns continuing on in a monastery unless it has enough younger members, and also "self-sufficiency and a suitably appointed monastery building." If any of these elements is missing, an "ad hoc commission" may be formed to determine the monastery's fate. The commission, which will include Vatican representatives and other outsiders, will decide whether to pull the plug and merge with another community, or come up with a revitalization plan. That may make sense, but it could be very traumatic for elderly nuns who likely would find it difficult to change.
Contemplatives in the U.S. have been using social media to preach the Gospel to the world while remaining cloistered, and to help their recruitment efforts. While acknowledging that social media "can prove helpful for formation and communication," the Pope wants the nuns to exercise "prudent discernment," so that that social media does not become "occasions for wasting time or escaping from the demands of fraternal life." No more tracking your twitter followers, Sisters!
One hopes that the sisters do not have to cut back on social media efforts like those of the Visitation Monastery of Minneapolis. They call themselves the "Nunz in the hood" and write thoughtful blogs that are far more informed and topical than many sermons I hear.
Interestingly, these directives to not apply to monks. Changes for the men, a Vatican official said, aren't even being - uh - contemplated.