This week I am in Nairobi teaching monastic art as part of “Twendeni Peke Yetu,” an annual theological program organized for the contemplative nuns of Kenya. Started in 2015 for the Year of Consecrated Life, the program has continued and expanded with funding support from Porticus, the Alliance for International Monasticism, and the Holy See. I recently was able to talk with one of the major organizers of the program, Xaverian Br. Reginald Cruz.
As the episcopal delegate for Nairobi, Br. Cruz has worked closely with João Cardinal Bráz de Aviz, Prefect of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and the real instigator of the educational program. Besides providing access to theological formation, with support from a pope in consecrated life, Cardinal Bráz quietly has been paving the way for cloistered nuns to create their own statutes for national conferences. While Kenya has 218 women’s communities in total, and the apostolic communities have had their own national conference in the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya, until recently, the 21 communities of cloistered nuns have not had any national conference. Now, since the gathering of Kenyan nuns for this educational program, they have been invited to consider forming their own conference, coming together to draft and approve their own statutes. Superiors recently gathered to study Vultum Dei Querere and Cor Orans, and have been pondering the prospects of more autonomy, and less isolation, than in the past. While the contemplative nuns of Scandinavia and England had 5-year ad experimentum conferences before the time of Pope Francis, the Kenyan nuns recently saw their proposed conference statutes taken to Rome and approved within two weeks, the first fully sanctioned conference for contemplative nuns in the world. Superiors from other African countries and the Philippines were present to observe through most of these proceedings, and we likely can anticipate other national conferences emerging soon.
What does this mean for contemplative communities? It means nuns can leave the cloister to participate in educational programs or other shared formation opportunities. It means communities can more easily collaborate in negotiating shared challenges, like training business managers and coordinating planning. It means monasteries can share ideas as they continue to figure out what authentic inculturation of the Gospel looks like within their own feminine, non-clericalized space. They are being encouraged to live the contemplative life authentically, being truly themselves. As the prayerful beating heart of the local Church, these communities can offer us a distinctive glimpse of what it means to seek God today. The spirit of the Church is alive and well in these growing African communities, and the rest of the world would do well to take note.