THE CONVENT ‘MATER ECCLESIAE’ – HERMITAGE OF BENEDICT XVI
John Paul II paid a great attention to a prayer, therefore he wanted to bring the community of cloistered nuns into Vatican, who could support his mission of the Bishop of Rome and the activity of the Holy See, in their prayers. It was decided that the old building in the Vatican Gardens would be assigned for the headquarters of the nuns, which had earlier been used by the Vatican police. This building adheres to the fragments of a defensive wall with which Leon IV (847-855) surrounded the Basilica of St. Peter. Today in the Vatican Gardens there remained some elements of the fortification, among the others, two towers remained.
In the highest point of the Vatican Hill a tower of St. John rises, which was a favourite place of pope John XXIII in which also John Paul II lived at the beginning of his pontificate, while the papal apartment was being renovated. Near the hill there is another tower of the Middle Age, called the tower of Leon XIII, from the name of the pope who ordered to rebuild it and made a summer residence from it – a small Castel Gandolfo’, as he used to say. During his pontificate buildings were built next to the tower, for papal servants and guards. In 1931 the tower of Leon XIII became the first headquarter of Vatican Radio. It is worth reminding that the broadcasting station was projected by Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio. A high transmission antennae has been visible on the tower till now, near which big discs of parabolic antennae have been placed in the recent years. It is just the place where the community of cloistered nuns was accommodated. The renovation of the building was started in 1992 but finished not earlier than in 1994, because from the west rooms for a chapel and choir for nuns had to be built next to the old house. The convent was inaugurated on 13 May 1994, on the 13th anniversary of the assassination at John Paul II. The Clarist nuns were the first to fulfill their mission of prayers by the pope and who remained in the Vatican Gardens for five years. They were replaced by the bare Carmelite nuns and after them for the next five years there were Benedictine nuns who left the convent in 2009. The last religious community whose nuns were invited to the Vatican were the Visitation nuns – their stay was shortened to three years and in November 2012 the renovation works were restarted. The main building of the convent ‘Mater Ecclesiae’ has three floors; till now on the ground floor there is a refectory, kitchen, pantry, infirmary, archive room and an office. On the other two floors there were 12 rooms for nuns. In the new wing there is a concierge desk, choir and a modern but very simple chapel – its only decoration is an artistic crucifix, the work of an Italian sculptor Francesco Messiny and stained glass. Beneath the convent there is a big garden with citrus trees, where nuns used to grow vegetables for themselves and for the papal table. The work on the land fulfilled a very important role in the life of the cloistered nuns. Near the convent there is the biggest fountain of the papal gardens – the fountain of the Eagle – built during the pontificate of Paul V. It consists of a few artificial gates from which water flows out abundantly, as well as from a big pool. The fountain is composed of heraldic elements of the pope of the Borghese family, griffin and an eagle which was place on the top of the fountain. The convent complexity is surrounded by a hedge, and the entrance to the convent is guarded by a metal gate. The only place available for guests from outside is the chapel, often visited by priests and bishops working in the Curia.
Benedict XVI decided that on 28 February 2013 at 8pm would leave for the Apostolic Palace in Castel Gandolfo where he would stay for about two months. After return to the Vatican, he is going to live in the convent ‘Mater Ecclesiae’ which is being renovated now. He will be accompanied by female members of the association of consecrated people Memores Domini, originating from the movement Communion and Liberation (Comunione e Liberazione) who serve him in the papal apartment today. Fr. Federico Lombardi SJ, the director of the Vatican Press Office, informed that there would also be archbishop Georg Ganswein with Benedict XVI, his present secretary, who will still have the function of the prefect of the Papal House.
During his last meeting with priests of the Roman diocese on 14 February this year, Benedict XVI admitted that ‘he is withdrawing into a prayer’ and ‘he will remain concealed for the world’. His ‘hermitage’ and ‘closure’ will be the convent ‘Mater Ecclesiae’ on the slope of the Vatican Hill. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, in his reflection inaugurating the retreats of the Lent compared Benedict XVI, who is going to lead life of contemplation, to Moses on a mountain, praying with raised hands for the people of Israel fighting against the Amalekites. – We will remain in a valley – said cardinal Ravasi – where Amalekites are, where dust is, where fright and anxiety are, and also nightmares but also hope, where Your Holiness has been with us for these eight years. Since then we will see that Your Holiness intercedes for us.