For more than seven hundred years, the Franciscan monastery of Santa Chiara has stood overlooking the glorious waters of the Amalfi Coast in the town of Ravello, the “city of music” and the “pearl of the Amalfi.” Poor Clares came to Ravello in 1297, just after the death of St. Francis, and the monastery and town have flourished together for almost a thousand years.
The monastery grounds, church, and manuscript library have been deemed historically significant by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism. The sisters support themselves financially by means of a historic hotel and by producing limoncello.
But the monastery now stands at the brink of suppression and destruction, thanks to recent interventions by Rome, which reached a crescendo just last week when two of its nuns were defrocked for attempting to remain in the cloister in which they had vowed to live out the rest of their lives.
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In March of 2021, the monastery received an order from their monastic federation to close down and for its five nuns to transfer to various other monasteries around Italy. When news spread of this, the town of Ravello mobilized to stop what the mayor, Salvatore Di Martino, described as a loss of one of the city’s most symbolic places, both architecturally and spiritually. Townsfolk organized demonstrations, and the city government convened emergency sessions to pass resolutions calling upon the religious authorities to find a way to spare the monastery.
On their part, the five nuns all initially refused to leave the monastery. Then, two of the nuns reconsidered, agreeing to be transferred elsewhere, leaving three sisters: Sister Massimiliana, Sister Angela, originally from India, and Sister Maria Cristina, who is ninety-seven years old and, reportedly, quite feeble.
The three sisters consulted canon lawyers to find a way to stop the federation from taking the monastery, which has been assessed at 50-60 million euros and is considered prime tourist real estate, situated as it is in one of the most touristic spots of Italy. The sisters, along with the entire city of Ravello, feared that the monastery would be turned into yet another hotel, a rather dubious and corrupt trend concerning which I wrote last year. This would be an especially cruel fate for Santa Chiara, one of the oldest and historic monasteries of the cloistered Poor Clare order.
Armed with the advice of the canon lawyers, in April of last year, the nuns attempted to bypass Cor Orans and the federation’s claims to the monastery and its assets by donating all of it to the pope himself. If accepted, then the federation would lose any control over the monastery and the pope could decide to allow the sisters to carry on their spiritual mission in Ravello. Having taken this step, the three sisters remained in their cloister, against the wishes of the federation, pending the response from Rome.
The acceptance was swift. On June 25, 2022, Pope Francis instructed the substitute for the Secretariat of State to accept the donation and to begin the process of formalizing the transfer of the monastery and its assets. At first, the nuns were overjoyed: they had been saved—the federation could no longer force their closure.
Days after the transfer was complete, however, the Vatican Dicastery for Religious Life inexplicably ordered them gone. Not only were they ordered out of their monastery, but each sister was ordered to go to a different monastery, not allowed even to remain together after spending several decades as a cloistered monastic family.
In response, the three nuns barricaded themselves in their cloister and refused to leave. The city of Ravello overwhelmingly supported them, including several former mayors and local politicians. On February 1 of this year, the Pontifical Commissioner and the police arrived in Ravello, bringing three sisters plucked from other monasteries to care for Sister Maria Cristina, who is now too sick to be moved from her monastic home. They promised Sisters Massimiliana and Angela, along with the mayor of Ravello, that the monastery was not being suppressed or closed.
However, Sisters Massimiliana and Angela are not only being replaced: Pope Francis has defrocked them for disobedience. Since the decree was personally signed by Francis, there is no means of appeal. A local hotel owner offered them shelter after they were removed from their cloister. Italian newspapers report that the two have now made their way to Sister Massimiliana’s family home.
The Vatican’s actions over the past year have been nothing but confusing. If the pope believed that the nuns had no right to refuse their original transfers, then why did he accept the donation of their monastery, which was done as a plea for protection? If he does indeed intend to not suppress Santa Chiara—as his Pontifical Commissioner claims—why did he order the nuns out last year, leading to the current crisis? And why, if he intended to have nuns remain in the monastery to tend to the elderly Sister Maria Cristina in her final years, did he not allow her own monastic sisters to remain with her, instead of sending in strangers?
And finally, why did he consider the two defrocked nuns’ offense so terrible that it merited the all-but-unheard of penalty of laicization? Laicization is a last resort penalty, and while it is a terrible punishment for a priest, friar, or nun in the active orders, it seems absolutely cruel to lay upon two women who have not left their cloister walls in twenty years. It seems especially heartless when their only offense was a great love for their monastic heritage.
The local government has spent the past few days attempting to find ways to preserve the monastery as an active monastery, although it is unclear what they can do to save it. Sadly, it appears that after Sister Maria Cristina dies, the other nuns could very well be recalled to their original monasteries, and the Amalfi Coast could lose one of its greatest spiritual treasures.
[Image: Santa Chiara monastery in Ravello, Italy]