The Mater Ecclesiae Monastery.

The Mater Ecclesiae Monastery.

John Paul II attached great importance to prayer, hence his decision to establish in the Vatican a monastic group of nuns to support his papal ministry and the work of the Roman Curia with their prayers. A building once used by the Vatican police was chosen as the nuns’ residence. It is close to the remains of the defensive walls which Leo IV (847-855) had built around St. Peter’s Basilica. Nowadays, the remains of the walls are found between two towers in the Vatican Gardens. St. John’s Tower, located on the highest point of the Vatican Hill, was John XXIII’s favorite resting place; John Paul II too lived there before his apartment was renovated. Perched on a hill is also a second medieval tower, called Leo XIII’s Tower after the Pope who had it renovated and used it as his summer residence, calling it “the little Castel Gandolfo.”

Other buildings for the pontifical guard and retinue were erected near the tower during his pontificate.

Leo XIII’s Tower became Vatican Radio’s first seat in 1931; the broadcasting station was designed by Gug­lielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio. An aerial, next to which dish aerials have been installed, is visible on top of the tower.

This is where the residence of the monastic group of nuns was established. The renovation of the building started in 1992, but it was not completed before 1994 because a chapel with a choir for the nuns had to be built beside the ancient palace. The Mater Ecclesiae Monastery was inaugurated on May 13, 1994, the 12th anniversary of the attempt on John Paul II’s life. In the 18 years since then, the monastery has played host to four orders: (1) the Poor Clares, who stayed there for five years; (2) the Discalced Carmelites, from 1999; (3) the Benedictines, from 2004 to 2009; and (4) the Visitandine Nuns, who stayed in the monastery over the last three years, from 2009 until last November.

After their departure, restoration work began; it is still going on and for this reason, Benedict XVI might not be able to move there before May.

The main building of the monastery is a four-story block: on the ground floor was a refectory, a kitchen, a pantry, an infirmary and an office. On the upper floors were 12 cells for the nuns. In the new, lower building there is a library and a modern chapel with a choir. The chapel is very simple, the only decorations being a crucifix by the Italian sculptor Francesco Messina and stained glass windows.

A large orchard with citrus trees extends under the monastery; in this orchard the nuns grew fruit and vegetables for the papal court’s table. Work in the orchard played a major role in the life of the enclosed nuns.

Close to the monastery is the largest fountain in the Vatican Gardens, the Fountain of the Eagle, built during Paul V’s pontificate. It is made up of several artificial grottoes out of which the water pours into a large pool. The fountain is decorated with the armorial figures featured in the coat of arms of the Borghese, the Pope’s family: a dragon and an eagle placed on top of it.

The monastery is guarded by a massive iron gate. The only place open to visitors is the chapel, which is often visited by priests and bishops working in the Curia.

Benedict XVI decided to go to the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo at 5 p.m on February 28; there he will stay until the end of the conclave or maybe even after that.

Then he will return to the Vatican to live in the quietness of the Mater Ecclesiæ Monastery.

He will be looked after by some Memores Domini, consecrated women members of Comunione e Liberazione (Communion and Liberation) now in charge of the pontifical apartments.

The head of the Vatican press office, Father Federico Lombardi, said that Benedict XVI’s present personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, will stay with him even though he will keep his office of prefect of the papal household.

During his last meeting with the priests of the diocese of Rome, the Holy Father in February said that he “will live a life of prayer… hidden away from the world”: the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery on the Vatican Hill.

His choice of the monastic life recalls St. Benedict’s rule, which fascinates him so much. Also, we must bear in mind that Cardinal Ratzinger chose the name of the founder of Western monasticism and patron saint of Europe when he became Pope: was it a sign?

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