Networking nuns: Italian monasteries seek to better understand community needs
By Salvatore Cernuzio
While waiting for help to come from “above”—not from heaven but from the Italian government that “excludes” them from any bonuses, incentives, and tax subsidies, or from the Church institutions with which they sometimes struggle to find a more “constructive and creative” dialogue—nuns throughout Italy have decided to roll up their sleeves and do it on their own.
Or rather, they have been doing this for years. But now, with winter around the corner and the energy crisis, with buildings that are even over 10 thousand square metres in size and risk being left in the cold and with difficulties in buying hygiene and food products, there is a need to create a “network” in order to give a louder voice to this slice of the population, which, despite the vocational crisis, still remains very large.
Sharing best practices
From Sicily to Trent, almost 80 Poor Clares and Cistercians, Benedictines and Carmelites, and many others from different Orders, met in Rome at the beginning of November to “better understand their needs in terms of economic, administrative, and fiscal management for monastic communities”, and to share the best practices on how to generate revenue.
“We are juridically a canonical body recognized by the Apostolic See and by the Prefectures. For the purposes of tax relief or the possibility of obtaining contributions, etc., we are nothing,” says Franciscan Sister Chiara Lacchetti, promoter of the meeting held in Rome now in its second year.
With a voice that resembles that of a radio speaker, the nun does not wish to complain nor raise a controversy as she speaks on the telephone, during a break.
She is simply noting a reality: that of entire Orders who have to provide for themselves on their own and work.
“Let’s clarify,” he says. “The need to work arises from the need for ‘mental health’ because work helps to keep strengths in balance, to channel energy, to develop a creativity that each of us nurtures as God’s gift.”
Ora et labora
Naturally, work is also a necessity: “that of earning”, the Franciscan explains. “Our life is made up of prayer, yes, but also of bills to pay, medical needs, training, houses to manage. And our houses are not 90 square metres, but 2,000 or even 10,000 square metres. Therefore, it is very important for us to have incomes”.
And if we now think about the issue of heating with the increase in energy prices, it is quite a problem.
“Just like everyone else, we saw our energy bills triple, even during the summer months and we still have not turned on all our heating! Some are trying to go on as long as possible [without] or to ration. But let us think about our sisters in the mountains or of communities with elderly or sick sisters.”
The idea is to build a “cartel” in which all the communities join to negotiate with a provider to control energy prices: “Let’s hope for the best, otherwise we will be cold for a while.”
Maintaining costly buildings
The nuns in Rome spoke about this topic and many others.
“We met above all to share practices of fundraising and communication. Together, we tried to understand if our communities and above all our properties have access to Pnrr funds”; properties with significant historical and architectural value, which “these days, are almost empty and have high maintenance costs. Many communities can no longer maintain them. The need to understand how fundraising works arises chiefly from this.”
Working women religious
In the same light, the sisters pooled together their various work experiences.
The Trappists of Vitorchiana Serena, for example, spoke about a cosmetic workshop and of farming businesses with which they produce products for sale.
Meanwhile, from the monastery in Potenza came the experience of a cooperative for bread making, inherited by one of the sisters.
And the Benedictines of Saint Ann in Bastia Umbra explained that they had recently started to use the land on their property or around the monastery to harvest olives and to grow malt, wheat and other cereals.
“They were able to locate businesses that buy the grown product and place it on the market,” Sister Chiara explained. “We work a lot but when we go to sell; we have no VAT number. We cannot access shops. We always have to ask for a donation which often does not correspond to the product or the time to market.”
In the case of the Benedictine nuns, a brand was also created, Bottega delle Monache (Workshop of the Nuns).
“They do not specify which nuns. The idea is that others, who also have the possibility of making similar products, can also join under the same brand. It is no longer my thing but ours.”
For the Franciscan this is the key for consecrated life itself: “Making synergy! Until a few years ago, we continued to be self-referential among the various Orders. We have understood that we have charismatic differences, but on a practical level, we experience the same problems. Therefore, it is important to join together, also because others before may have found other solutions that can become a common heritage. In addition, at least in Italy, our numbers are rapidly dropping and therefore as we slowly become fewer, being together is a great help.”
Correcting assumptions on State aid
As strong, united, and capable as the religious are, they still need support.
They thus appeal to the Italian government. “We have realized that we are on the outside of any canon of taxation incentives or bonuses. We ask that perhaps they can establish norms that include experiences such as ours, so that not everything is just the result of donations.”
The nuns ask the Church for constructive dialogue: “Many live in the myth: ‘But don’t you receive the 8xmille’ (part of Italy’s annual income tax return)’? No, we do not receive direct support. Certainly, aid from CEI (Italian Bishops’ Conference) is not lacking, neither is the interest of individual bishops, but let’s say that sometimes there is a wider awareness, other times, somewhat less.”