The Papacy of Pius XII was truly a watershed for the Church. There was scarcely an aspect of the life of the Church that this noble Pontiff did not address: Scripture, Doctrine, Liturgy. Many of the authentic changes of Vatican II found a fruitful pre- dawn glow through his leadership.
Religious women were in the Pope’s concern as well. In 1952, Mother Mary Gerald, O.P., Mother General of the Adrian Dominicans was named by Pope Pius XII himself as Executive Chairperson of the first-ever congress for religious women in the United States. She came to ask the prayers of our Community for this venture and for her Congregation’s missions in Santo Domingo.
With all this activity, did the Pope forget his cloistered nuns? By no means. Pius XII addressed cloistered nuns fully four times in the space of eight years with Sponsa Christi, 1950, Inter Praeclara, 1952, Inter Coetera, 1956 and in 1958, the first ever of such an event, Three Radio Talks to Cloistered Nuns of the world, his spiritual daughters. They felt loved and indeed they were. We shall concern ourselves here with the first and fourth presentations.
THE POPE’S TEACHING ON THE CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE
The Apostolic Constitution Sponsa Christi, 1950, was a major document. However we shall present it fairly briefly here. Pius XII first traces the practice and institution of Virgins for Christ. The first quote is from St. Cyprian saluting such Virgins as “the most illustrious portion of the flock of Christ.” (De Habitu Virginum, 3) Other praises follow. The list of writers reads like a roster of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church: Hermas, Origen, Methodius, Ignatius, Clement, Athanasius, Basil, Jerome, Augustine etc. St. Ambrose alone, whose sister, Marcellina received the virgin’s veil from Pope Liberius in the early fourth century, penned four discourses on holy virginity. In this fourth century appeared the Solemn Rite for the Consecration of a Virgin.
The Pope delineated the history and development of Virgins for Christ. In earliest years, the virgins lived in their own families; then, quite early these women began to gather in communities in the broad sense of the term. As the hermits and monastic cenobites appeared, the virgins preferred the cenobitic life although some still chose to live at home. Aware of the need in the life of virginity for rigorous asceticism and the practice of all the virtues, the Church more and more encouraged and later, in the middle ages, required monastic cloister for consecrated virgins. Here the practice of stringent poverty, exact obedience and a clear doctrine of a life of perfection would be found.
The thirteenth century mendicants, Dominicans and Franciscans, incorporated women into their Orders. These lived in monasteries as Cloistered Nuns sharing in the special grace of each Order.
Later the Clerks Regular and congregations of priests associated women to their apostolates. Here we find women dedicated to education or works of charity such as the Ursulines or Visitandines among others. These Nuns followed some form of enclosure, but sometimes coupled with the absence of one or other practice of monastic nuns. The Visitandines for example did not pray the Divine Office. Later years saw other communities related to congregations of men.
For clarity’s sake, it was this situation Pius XII wished to address when he initiated what he termed “Minor Papal Cloister” in which a third part of the monastic building would be marked off and dedicated to the work of education or charity, and only the religious assigned to that work might go there.
For monastic nuns of purely contemplative life Pius proposed no innovation. Rather he preserved the full vigor of the “Major Papal Cloister” with all its traditional elements, such as celebration of the Divine Office in the name of the Church - the ”universal apostolic vocation” as the Pope termed it. This is the form of life, given us by St. Dominic that Cloistered Dominicans gladly observe to this day. Pius XII signed this document on the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The 1952 document gave provisional regulations for minor cloister; that of 1956 laid down final regulations for both Major and Minor Papal Cloister.
In 1958, nuns of the world reminded the Pope that though he often addressed pilgrims in St. Peter’s Basilica and the halls of the Vatican, cloistered nuns could not be present. Would not the Holy Father speak to them too? This Pius XII did in three radio talks to nuns in 1958. No. We did not enjoy the French language talks with our ears but perused them eagerly with our eyes in English translation. Let us share from them: To Know Contemplative Life, To Love it, To Live it.
To Know the Contemplative Life: Some pearls of wisdom must be shared. “Contemplative life is a road leading to God.” The Holy Father draws from the teaching of St. Thomas “Human activity is regulated either by the knowledge of truth, which is the work of the contemplative intelligence, or by external actions which depend on the practical intellect....Contemplative Life, far from isolating itself in lifeless speculation also embraces the activity of the affections--its heart.... Out of love for God one is fired by the desire to contemplate His Beauty.” The love of God which St. Thomas places at the beginning of contemplation is also found at its end. It culminates in the joy and rest which it brings about when it possesses the Beloved Object.” (S.T. I-II 180 Art 1,c.)
Of course all Christians are called to contemplation. The Pope makes clear that he here addresses what he calls “the canonical contemplative life”, “ a way of life which through cloister and pious exercises of prayer and mortification is so directed to interior contemplation that the whole of life and every activity can be easily and effectively penetrated by Him who is sought.” (Sponsa Christi)
Among the regulations guiding this form of religious life the text numbers: “observance of cloister, the Divine Office, exercises of piety, prayer, mortification and manual work in which the Nuns engage.”
“But these specific points are invoked only as a means in the service of an essential reality, interior contemplation. What is first of all demanded is that through prayer, meditation and contemplation the nun unites herself with God, so that all her thoughts and all her actions may be penetrated by His presence and ordered to His service.”
“Undoubtedly, this contemplative life does not consist only in contemplation; it embraces many other elements, but contemplation must occupy the first place .... it is contemplation which gives the life its meaning, its worth and its direction....If your being is not anchored in God, if your mind does not return constantly to Him as toward an irresistible pole of attraction one would have to say. ‘I am nothing.’”
The Pontiff further lays down the need of formation for this life; education in mystical theology is a necessity. After this, would not one await the next radio talk with eagerness! Yes surely, but let us take time to meet two nuns who did know and love and live this life; one who was older and one younger.
THE LIFE LIVED OUT IN PRACTICE
Teresa Barlow was the first postulant received into the Monastery in its initial year, 1906. Born in 1875 she had awaited the advent of a contemplative monastery in Detroit. Entrance was a joy yet tinged with sorrow when her mother declared she would never visit Teresa nor write to her. Yet Teresa, soon to be known as Sister Mary of the Blessed Sacrament, persevered many years, embracing the life of prayer fully and serving with a gifted needle the community’s needs. When in 1930 the community was enabled to take solemn vows with papal enclosure, Sister prayed the Divine Office with renewed fervor, now as a solemnly professed nun aware that she was praying in the name of the whole Church. She treasured that privilege. In advanced age, scarcely able to see except through a pin hole in the cornea, she remained one hour after all the choir nuns had left the choir at 2:00 A.M. Using the organist’s goose-neck lamp, Sister poured over the breviary held close to her face. After this, the dear bent-over old nun would pray with fervent postures for another hour. Thus satisfied she returned to bed. Yes, occasionally the old soldier would doze and at the first sound of the rising bell would rush up to bed before Mother Mary of Jesus caught her in her prolonged prayer vigil. Soon she reappeared for the Office of Prime. This perdured until the opening conference of the first day of the annual retreat in 1951. A sudden weakness and Sister fell back into the arms of the Infirmarian assisting her to bed. It was May 29, 1951. Sister Mary of the Blessed Sacrament was 76.
Sister Mary Cecilia was only 24 when after a very brief illness she died quite unexpectedly on Dec 7, 1952. Barbara Murray entered the cloister at 19. Because she had a heart murmur, Mrs. Murray was concerned that the cloister might be too severe for her. “I think I can do it,” Barbara affirmed. On August 22, 1948, then the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, she received the holy Habit and the name Sister Mary Cecilia of the Blessed Sacrament. She was right at home with a group of eager and high spirited companions who also found the regimen challenging, but happily possible. On the quiet side, Sister Mary Cecilia joined in prayer, work and recreation.
By early December 1952, Sister was looking forward to her solemn profession in February, when she informed Mother Mary of Jesus that she felt unwell. With the flu invading the whole community Mother was not overly alarmed until Sister complained of severe pains in the stomach. In St. John’s Hospital, December 2nd, Sister Mary Cecilia was found to be in serious, then critical, condition. The symptoms were difficult to diagnose. The question arose: was this malnutrition, neglect? When the young patient was told she might indeed die, Sister exclaimed “but I have done nothing for God yet....but His Will be done.” A brokenhearted Mother Mary of Jesus was refused permission to leave the cloister to see her little nun. However, one of our extern sisters, Sr. Mary Louis, along with Barbara’s mother, Mrs. Murray, Mother Aileen, S.S.J. and other Sisters of St. Joseph who administered the hospital were present when the young Nun stretched out her arms in form of a Cross and pronounced her vows “until death.”
Sister Mary Cecilia’s death was an unexpected one but not an unprepared one. God allowed three little warnings, and a great grace. There was an electric shock from an open socket, its burnt out bulb removed but not yet replaced; a near accident at the laundry steam press; and a fright when her clothing became entangled when she tried to turn off the high pressure boiler for the laundry work. At the last mishap, Sister herself remarked with some alarm “you almost lost your little Sister.” More telling was the spiritual gift God gave. Sister had been reading a chapter by Father Edward Leen, C.S.Sp. on the Humility of Our Lord. She was very deeply impressed and spoke of it to the other novices. Jesus chose to become man, to live among sinful human beings in a sinful world. He fully accepted the consequences in suffering. He accepted all, and all for us. Sister Mary Cecilia strove to imitate that example. She was preoccupied with the grace - so fully so that when death approached, she humbly bowed her head as Jesus had bowed His on the Cross.
With the Pope’s eyes on the cloister in love, Cardinal Mooney’s looked with some umbrage upon his Detroit nuns, particularly the Prioress upon learning of Sister’s death. How could this early mysterious death of so young a nun be explained? Orders were delivered to all area cloisters for daily time outdoors, for better diet. The Novices at the Monastery went outdoors daily for a recreation walk. It was then that Mother Mary Magdalen taught her budding contemplatives to truly “see” the trees and flowers and even the bugs showing forth the wonder and beauty of God. She took then also to the burial vault beneath the chapel and related the stories about the early nuns which have enriched this little history. As to the diet, Dr. Bernard Gariepy had attended to it at an earlier date. The food was healthy and substantial, though plain, some protein was served daily although meat was never allowed according to the Rule at the time. What then was the cause of Sister Mary Cecilia’s death? Only 10 years later was the mystery solved when her brother, Father John Murray, C.S.B. came down with the same grave symptoms. This was Barbara’s favorite brother and pal. The girl used to tuck up her hair into Jack’s cap and collect the papers for his newspaper route - a No, No at the distribution center. But the two youngsters looked so much alike that no one ever guessed. Now, comparing the medical records from both cases there was found to be a family blood disorder. Other siblings and their children were affected too. But, thank God, a treatment was found for Fr. John.
Though his conjecture proved unfounded, Cardinal Mooney’s injunctions did benefit the Nuns and especially the Novices at 9704 Oakland. Mother Mary Imelda having taken all the younger Sisters to the Texas foundation, there remained in Detroit somewhat of an age gap among the nuns in the Monastery. On a great Feast such as St. Dominic’s day, the Professed Nuns had enjoyed a smashing game of...croquet! Well! It could be enjoyed..but! Then the younger nuns asked for volleyball! When a lighter ball was procured, like a novice it got its own new name, “Suzy!” Later Novitiate classes put up a basket ball hoop, but Badminton remains the favorite to this day. Table games were enjoyed at recreation too. When Monopoly appeared, enthusiasm soared. Great wheeling and dealing, hassle and haggle followed. There came a time when a new Novice Mistress, shocked by the clamor of her cloistered charges at Monopoly transactions reconfigured the game. The “realtors” became known as the Sacred Heart, Our Lady, St. Joseph and other canonized dealers. “Properties” likewise received pious designations. All was very proper, very polite and, of course, utterly boring! After all, who wants to buy a Marian Shrine from the Little Flower? Monopoly returned to its shelf to await a better day. Chinese Checkers and Scrabble re-emerged. In spite of, or better because of the penances of the life, these Novices were a happy group. Yes, even these, proportionately limited, recreations had their part in the Contemplative Life. The young nuns, the older ones too, knew the Contemplative Life; and loved it well.
But the Radio Talks on these two themes To Love the Contemplative Life, and To Live the Contemplative Life/ must await a future ECHOES. The decade of the 1950’s was quite eventful. We shall have much to share with you, our dear Friends. May Our Loving God be praised and you be thanked.