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Benedictines welcome women to make temporary commitment.

Program invites full participation in prayer, community life

Religious life without a lifetime commitment. It's been floated as an idea.

Now the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pa., have done something about it, welcoming Christian women of all ages and life stages to become temporary members for one to three years.

Almost 150 years ago, 27-year-old Benedictine Sr. Benedicta Riepp arrived in the United States from Germany about to change the only way of being a Benedictine woman at that time -- the life of the cloistered nun.

Riepp developed Benedictines in active ministry.

Now, in a world in which people can expect four and five career changes in a working lifetime, is the moment to offer a new variation on the existing Benedictine theme, said Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, Erie's dean of spirituality. Women will make temporary commitments through the Benedicta Riepp Program.

As the Erie Benedictine community developed it, the program invites temporary members to live in community to acquire the spirit of monastic spirituality that will bolster the rest of their lives. Benedictine monasteries are linked together through a federation but are autonomous entities.

"Today's culture is transitory," said Erie prioress Sr. Christine Vladimiroff. "Yet we have people coming to us all the time who want to touch our lives and be immersed in our spirituality. So we're going to make it possible for them to do it in a more systematic way."

It is a one-year commitment, renewable for up to three years, which would enable Christian women to fully participate in the monastery's prayer life, community life and ministries.

They will be expected to live celibate lives during their monastery stay and, whatever their income level, live at the same $70 a month level as the sisters. Each temporary member will have a mentor on Benedictine spirituality and engage in directed and independent study of Benedictine literature and tradition.

If the members have cars, they may keep them. The Benedictines make clear, said Chittister, that "this is a lifestyle immersion, not a job. We don't pay and nor do they."

Three years ago, said Chittister, she tried to raise the topic of temporary members at a national vocations conference. It got nowhere. She mused on it and earlier this year presented it to the new prioress, Vladimiroff, to the community's council and to its formation team. The plan was presented to the entire Erie community in August.

"This isn't some Chittister thing," she said. "After 1,500 Benedictine years, this is not a leap. We're dealing with the Middle Ages notion of claustral oblates, an old Benedictine term for oblates who live inside the cloister. But we can't call them that, because who is going to understand the term?"

Nor is this the monastic tradition watered down into service only, a Benedictine Peace Corps. They are not "guests" or "observers" but members, "scholastics in the true, though not canonical, sense of the word," she said.

The community's discussion paper states, "Unlike those who intend to make a permanent commitment, they are not voting or vowed members. They are people whose ongoing circumstances as widows, mothers, professionals, may require future commitments. They come knowing they're not going to stay. They are not hung up in canonical categories; divorced people wouldn't need an annulment."

Chittister said, "We have 62 women we're in contact with on a regular basis who come to us, they love us, we like them, they don't stay. Why? I'm completely convinced it's because this culture no longer supports the concept of perpetuity. We are the one institution left in Western culture that implies stay forever even before you walk in the door."

Such innovative programs are essential, Chittister said, because the old sources of persons attracted to religious life -- parish schools and parish-based spirituality -- "are at best weakened or smaller. We no longer have consistent networks. Yet I am convinced that people are as interested as ever in religious life."

The community could accept up to perhaps a dozen temporary members.

"It will have a cost on us in human terms and financial terms," said Vladimiroff, "and if we were business people we'd do a cost-benefit analysis. But that's foreign to us. We feel we have something precious to give in terms of charism, the gift of Benedictinism."

Since the recent announcement, she said, serious conversations have already begun with two women. There are 140 Erie Benedictines, median age 62, active in ministries that include art, social work, retreat centers and inner-city ministries with the poor.

Those are some of the ministries in which the temporary members would be engaged. If it were an outside, salaried activity, the women would be expected to bank that income and live as do the sisters, until she left the monastery.

Admission is by interview, personal biographical essay and thorough discernment. There is a three-month probationary contract, followed by an extended contract.

The Benedicta Riepp Program will provide instruction in the Liturgy of the Hours and the psalms, in the Benedictine Rule, monastic spirituality and literature; in the lectio and guided book discussions; insertion into the community, immersion in the history of spirituality and spiritual direction.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Dec 3, 1999
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