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November 11, 2009
Always praying for the pontiff
By Roxanne King
Two Benedictine nuns who spent the last five years at the Vatican praying for the pope and his ministry, have returned to their abbey in Virginia Dale, Colo., with a deeper understanding of prayer and of the Church.
The nuns, members of the Abbey of St. Walburga, returned Oct. 12 after having served since 2004 at Mater Ecclesiae, a monastery established by Pope John Paul II in 1994 to ensure the presence of a continuously praying community at the Vatican. The mission of the community is “to support the Holy Father in his daily care for the whole Church” through prayer and sacrifice.
While the tradition of praying nuns is a long one in the Church, unique to Mater Ecclesiae is that the community was designed to change every five years to reflect the variety of contemplative orders of women religious in the Church.
“The Holy Father had a high regard for and esteem of the contemplative branch of religious life in the Church and wished its presence to be a part of the reality of Vatican City,” explained Benedictine Sister M. Ancilla Armijo, 53, a native of Tucumcari, N.M., who entered Walburga Abbey at age 16 when the monastery was located in Boulder.
“The Holy Father had a specific scope and an ideal vision for (Mater Ecclesiae),” she said. “It was to reflect the universality and unity of the Church and its ability to live in peace and harmony as one and, therefore, he desired that it be a multicultural community, composed of members coming from different countries and nationalities.”
The first order called to serve at Mater Ecclesiae were the Poor Clares, followed by Discalced Carmelites and then the Benedictines. Now, Visitation nuns from just two countries, Italy and Spain, are ensconced at Mater Ecclesiae and the constitution of the monastery has been changed to reduce the apostolate to a three-year mission.
“There were seven of us Benedictines who came from three different monasteries from three countries—three Italians, two French and two Americans,” said Sister Maria Gabriel Pitpit, 59, a transplant from the Philippines who entered the Walburga Abbey in 1990 after having taught elementary school in her homeland and working in Hong Kong and Canada as a nanny.
The two Colorado nuns said they faced new challenges and reaped special blessings through the experience as they sought to live out the Benedictine motto “Ora et Labora” (Prayer and Work) in their temporary home.
“Some of the sisters worked in the Holy Father’s vegetable garden and orchard where they grew fresh vegetables for the papal household as well as for our community,” Sister Ancilla said. “We tended the orange and lemon trees and became known for our homemade marmalade complete with ‘Mater Ecclesiae’ logos.”
Cooking, cleaning, repairing the pontiff’s white cassock, creating beautiful hand-embroidered vestments and calligraphy, and tending to sacristy work and the monastery’s flower beds provided other opportunities for manual labor.
The nuns agreed on one of the primary challenges.
“Having to deal with two foreign languages at the same time,” declared Sister Maria Gabriel. “Latin for the holy Mass and the Divine Office and Italian for communication.”
Having two of the 23 nuns gone from the Walburga Abbey meant difficulties for the home community as well, noted Mother Maria Michael Newe, the abbess.
“It was a special and unexpected gift to be called to serve in Mater Ecclesiae in loaning two of our sisters to help form a contemplative Benedictine community in the heart of the Church,” the abbess said. “We all know that when ‘Peter’ calls it is really God requesting our aid and who would not want to do their best to answer with a resounding yes?
“In this I must truly commend each member of our community, for in sending two sisters to Rome it meant that all those at home had to take on the extra burden of work to an already ample load of tasks that keep the abbey running smoothly,” she added. “There was never a word of complaint or unwillingness to help where needed. I was in awe of the spirit with which the sisters here at the abbey joined themselves to the cause.”
Among the special blessings the two Mater Ecclesiae nuns received was the privilege of being at the Vatican and praying for the Church during the history-making events of John Paul II’s death and the election of Benedict XVI.
They count among their joys the honor of meeting with Pope Benedict five times: at three Masses followed by private meetings, and during a procession and a blessing.
“All of these encounters we treasure as unique and grace-filled moments in our five-year residence in Vatican City,” Sister Ancilla said.
Although Sister Ancilla has been a contemplative for 37 years and Sister Maria Gabriel for 19, they said the Mater Ecclesiae experience enriched their faith lives and gave them insight.
“This special prayer apostolate mission made me realize even more and in a deeper way the power of prayer,” said Sister Maria Gabriel. “Being a late vocation, I believe it was God’s means for emphasizing his message to me that he has the great plan for my life’s journey and that he is always with me—despite difficulties—as long as I keep a consistent connection with him.”
Sister Ancilla said she was surprised by a revelation she had.
“There was a time during those five years when the Vatican received a lot of threats and security was high, it was a scary time…what if a terrorist’s attack struck Vatican City? Destroyed St. Peter’s? Harmed the pope?” she recalled. “One day it dawned on me like a flash: even if all or any of these things would happen it would not destroy the ‘Church’! Wherever the cardinals would gather to elect the successor of Peter there would be the Church. Wherever the People of God are, there is the Church.
“I suppose this is what people who seek to harm the Church do not understand: the Church is God’s and it is awesome. The idea really struck me. I would say that I return now, from this experience, with a whole different understanding and concept of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, with a greater love and respect, as well as a deep attachment to the Vicar of Christ, the Holy Father, and with a deeper confirmation and greater commitment to live out my own monastic vocation as a Benedictine nun for the Church’s greater good and for the glory of God.”