Simferopol, Crimea, Mar 14, 2015 / 15:57 pm
It's been one year since fighting broke out in Ukraine. The death toll has surpassed 6,000. Almost 1 million people have been displaced. And a February ceasefire agreement with Russia has created only a tenuous halt in hostilities, leaving the future uncertain.
But, Bishop Jacek Pyl of the Diocese of Odessa-Simferopol has a plan; he wants to invite a contemplative order of sisters into the heart of the Crimean peninsula.
"I believe in the strength and the power of prayer," Bishop Pyl told CNA. Contemplative nuns "are able to obtain many graces for people who live here; in the first place to ruin the walls of all kind of prejudices and atheistic habits, rooted deeply into people's hearts over the years of communism."
Bishop Pyl's plan to bring nuns into Crimea seems counterintuitive. But it might not be.
While eastern Ukraine remains unstable, Bishop Pyl told CNA life in the Crimean peninsula is "just as safe as other regions of Russia."
Russia annexed Crimea in March of 2014 after a referendum in which more than 95 percent of Crimeans voted in favor of reunification. The Vatican and much of the international community has not officially recognized the annexation, but the Church in Crimea is already working to register with officials in Moscow.
Bishop Pyl believes a contemplative order of nuns will help ensure the future of the Catholic Church in Crimea, where Catholics are a minority.
"We want to save the presence of the Catholic Church in this corner of the world," he said. "The annexation of Crimea has divided some families and brought in anxiety. Certain number of faithful have left Crimea; new ones came. The Church is trying to overcome these divisions and unite people around Christ."
The bishop has the support of at least two U.S. bishops who have seen the effect of contemplative orders in their own dioceses.
"I think the bishop's got the right idea; I concur with him entirely," said Bishop Emeritus Fabian Bruskewitz of the Diocese of Lincoln. Contemplative nuns "bring not only a silent and continuous homily to the people by their lives and by their attitudes…But, they also bring great joy to the diocese."
The Diocese of Lincoln is home to two contemplative communities: the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters (known affectionately by locals as the "Pink Sisters" because of their pink habits) and the Discalced Carmelites of the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
The communities were established in 1973 and 2001, respectively, and local Catholics do not hesitate to admit the nuns' powerful effect on the local Church. The Diocese of Lincoln is experiencing a springtime of vocations, with the highest number of priests and male religious since 1976. Female religious are also steadily recovering from drastic drops in the '70s and '80s.
Vicar General Monsignor Thorburn credits the Diocese of Lincoln's vocation health to the prayers of the contemplative orders.
"Being exposed to religious whose communities have remained faithful to the Church's vision of religious life plants vocational seeds," he reflected. "The prayers of all those religious help those seeds to come alive."
Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix witnessed firsthand the power of contemplative orders when he was a priest in the Diocese of Lincoln. He was ordained a priest in the same year the late Bishop Glennon Patrick Flavin established the "Pink Sisters" and recalls celebrating weekly Benediction with the nuns in his first years as a priest.
"I always saw that as part of God's loving providence," Bishop Olmsted told CNA. His experience in the Diocese of Lincoln moved him to establish new contemplative communities in the dioceses of Wichita and Phoenix.
"It's certainly one of my priorities," he admitted. "The Church needs the support of the contemplative communities; their prayers, their sacrifices and their example of making a total gift of themselves to God for the sake of the larger Church."
"I felt when I arrived in the Diocese of Phoenix that one of the poverties we had is that we did not have a contemplative community," Bishop Olmsted said, adding that the Diocese of Phoenix now hosts the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration. "I think that's what the bishop in Ukraine was saying; that something was missing there, a witness to God and a witness to the power of intercessory prayer and a witness to the goodness of adoration and praise."
Msgr. Thorburn of Lincoln echoed Bishop Olmted's comments and pointed to the example of Saint John Paul II, who had a great appreciation of cloistered women religious. The late Pope even went so far as to establish the Mater Ecclesiae monastery within Vatican City in 1994. The monastery was dedicated solely to prayer for the Pope, his ministry and the cardinals. Mater Ecclesiae now hosts retired Pope Benedict.
"Saint John Paul II knew, loved, appreciated and often sought the support of cloistered women religious," Msgr. Thorburn said. "And we can be certain that they had his back as he presided over the peaceful dismantling of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe."
"Considering this example, I have no doubt that the bishop in Ukraine is spot-on. Jesus said that faith can move mountains. (Contemplative nuns are) that bishop's secret weapon!"