The (almost) free work of nuns.
Sister Maria – the names of the nuns are not their real names – came to Rome from sub-Saharan Africa about twenty years ago. Since then she has been receiving religious from all over the world and not long ago has decided to witness what she sees and hears under the seal of confidence.
“I often receive nuns in a situation of domestic service that is definitely not properly rewarded. Some of them serve in the homes of bishops or cardinals, others work in the kitchen in Church institutions or perform catechetical and teaching duties. Some of them, employed in the service of the clergy, get up at dawn to prepare breakfast and go to sleep once the dinner has been served, the house tidied up, the laundry washed and ironed …. In this kind of “service” the sisters do not have a precise and regulated time, like the laity, and their payment is uncertain, often very modest ».
But what saddens Sister Marie more is that those nuns are rarely invited to sit at the table they serve. Then she asks: “Does a clergyman think he can have a meal served by his nun and then letting her eat alone in the kitchen once it has been served? Is it normal for a consecrated person to be served in this way by another consecrated one? Consecrated persons called upon for domestic duties are almost always women, religious. Is our consecration not the same as theirs? ” A Roman journalist who deals with religious information has even nicknamed them “pizza nuns”, referring precisely to the work assigned to them.
Sr. Marie continues: «All of this arouses in some of them strong feelings of anger and internal rebellion. They are deeply frustrated but they are afraid to speak because behind everything there can be very complex stories. In the case of foreign nuns from Africa, Asia and Latin America, there is sometimes a sick mother whose care was paid for by the congregation of her religious daughter, an elder brother who was able to carry out his studies in Europe thanks to the superior … If one of these religious returns to her country, her family does not understand. They tells her: but how capricious you are! These sisters feel in debt, bound, and so they keep quiet. Among other things, they often come from very poor families where the parents themselves were domestics. Some say they are happy, they do not see the problem, but they still feel a strong inner tension. Such mechanisms are not healthy and certain nuns arrive, in some cases, to take tranquilizers to endure this situation of frustration “.
It is difficult to assess the extent of the problem of free or low paid labour by religious women. First of all it is necessary to establish what is meant by this. “It often means that the sisters do not have a contract or an agreement with the bishops or parishes they work with,” says Sister Paule, a religious with an important positions in the Church. So they get paid little or nothing. This happens in schools or in clinics, and more often in pastoral work or when dealing with cooking and housework in a bishop’s house or in a parish. It is an injustice that also occurs in Italy, not only in distant lands “.
Beyond the issue of personal and professional recognition, this situation poses concrete and urgent problems for nuns and communities. “The biggest problem is simply how to live and make a community live,” says Sister Paule. “How to provide the necessary funds for the religious and professional formation of the members, who pays and how to pay bills when the nuns are sick or need treatment because they have been invalidated by age. How to find resources to carry out the mission according to the proper charism ». The responsibility for this situation does not lie only with the men, it is often shared. “I spoke with a university dean who told me that he was impressed by the intellectual abilities of a nun who had a license in theology,” recalls Sister Marie. “He wanted her to continue her studies but her superior was opposed. Often the reason given is that the sisters should not become proud”. Sister Paule insists on this point: “I believe that responsibility is above all historical. The nun has long lived only as a member of a community, without having her own needs taken into consideration. As if the congregation could take care of all its members without everyone making their contribution through their work. It is also common knowledge that religious women do not work under contract, stay forever, that conditions should not be stipulated. All this creates ambiguity and often great injustice. It is also true that without contracts the religious are freer to leave a job without too much forewarning. All this plays on two fronts, for and against the religious “.
But it’s not just about money. The question of economic remuneration is rather the tree that hides the forest of a much larger problem: that of recognition. Many religious have the feeling that much is done to give value to the male vocations but very little for the female ones. “Behind all this, there is unfortunately still the idea that the woman is worth less than a man, above all that the priest is all while the nun is nothing in the Church.
“Clericalism kills the Church, “says Sister Paule. “I met some nuns who had served in a church institution for thirty years and told me that when they were ill, none of the priests they served went to visit them. From one day to the next they were sent away without a word. Sometimes this still happens: a congregation makes a nun available upon request and when that nun gets sick she is sent back to her congregation … And they send another one, as if we were interchangeable. I met some nuns in possession of a doctorate in theology who have been sent to cook or wash the dishes the following day, a task totally unrelated to their intellectual formation and without a real explanation. I met a nun who had taught for many years in Rome and from one day to another, at fifty, she was told that from that moment on her mission was to open and close the parish church, with no other explanation”.
Sister Cécile, a teacher, has been experiencing this lack of consideration for many years. In her opinion, the active sisters are victims of a confusion about the concepts of service and gratuity. “We are heirs of a long history, that of St. Vincent de Paul, and of all those who founded congregations for the poor in a spirit of service and gift. We are religious to serve to the full and this is precisely what causes a shift in the subconscious of many people in the Church, creating the belief that remuneration does not fall into the natural order of things, whatever the service we offer. The sisters are seen as volunteers who can be changed around at will, which gives rise to real abuses of power. Behind all this there is the question of the professionalism and competence that many people find hard to recognize to religious “.
Sister Cécile then adds: “At the moment I work in a center without a contract, contrary to my lay sisters. Ten years ago, as part of my collaboration with the media, I was asked if I really wanted to be paid. One of my sisters animates the songs in the parish next door and gives lectures without receiving a penny … While when a priest comes to say Mass, he asks us 15 euros. Sometimes people criticize the religious, their face is closed, their character …. But behind all this there are many wounds “.
For Sister Marie, it is symbolic violence: “It is tacitly accepted by everyone. Some nuns who come to me are anguished, but they cannot speak. Then I tell them: “You have the right to tell the truth about what you are feeling. To tell your superior general what you live and how you live it “. Sometimes the general superior is also responsible for this situation. Far from questioning the system, she validates it and actively participates in it by accepting shameful agreements for the sisters “. Sister Cécile also believes that the religious should speak up: “For my part, when I am invited to give a lecture, I no longer hesitate to say that I wish to be paid and what is the fee I expect. But, it is clear, I adapt to the availability of those who ask me. My sisters and I live very poorly and we do not aim at wealth, but only to live simply in decent and just conditions. It is a question of survival for our communities “. The recognition of their work also constitutes, for many, a spiritual challenge. «Jesus came to free us and in his eyes we are all children of God» says Sister Marie. «But in their concrete life certain nuns do not live this and they feel a great confusion and a deep discomfort». Finally, some religious believe that their experiences of poverty and submission, sometimes suffered and sometimes chosen, could become a treasure for the whole Church, if the male hierarchies considered them an opportunity for a true reflection on power.
Source: Osservatore Romano – Women Church World