There is one point on which all the sisters agree when we talk about the pros and cons of our location: living a few hundred miles from Rome is fantastic. Or to put it more precisely: living in the same time zone as the Holy Father. Those of us who lived in America remember the squinted eyes trying to figure out what time it was in Vatican City: did that long-awaited canonization Mass begin one hour ago or two? When will the Holy Father give his Easter blessing? What time does Christmas midnight Mass begin in St. Peter’s according to our clock? No more counting fingers, nor trying to remember if they are on Daylight Savings time yet, nor snuffing the inevitable sigh when calculations say the sisters will be fast asleep when the big moment comes.

Being on this side of the Atlantic during April 2005 was one of the most astounding experiences in our fifteen years as a community. We were already filling the last hours of March and the first day of April with extra visits to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, with prayers for the dying, and a communal waiting joined to the thousands praying outside the window of John Paul II as he prepared for the final journey. The vigil in St. Peter’s square that ended at 8:37 P.M., April 2, continued into the night here, were no radio or television could tell us that our Father had indeed stepped over the threshold of hope.


The next morning the phone rang repeatedly: friends wanting to be sure we knew, had all the details, and many just wanting to console us, knowing how deeply devoted we were to our Holy Father. Even as we gratefully accepted their condolences, our hearts rested in a deep joy: we knew where he was, and the memorial services we held until the conclave began took on the color of small, intimate canonization ceremonies. Each evening, before beginning recreation, we would sing a hymn chosen be one of us and then listen attentively to the prayer offered by that sister. There was no lack of inspiration for our prayer those evenings. We turned the rosary into a more elaborate communal prayer for Pope John Paul II by introducing each decade of the rosary with an excerpt from his writings. During those days the rosary was a trek through history. Each sister had a turn choosing the readings, and they spanned more than two decades, from his first encyclical to the final letter for this year of the Eucharist. No aspect was missed, even as we realized with greater intensity the impossibility of plumbing the riches God shared with us through the vision of Pope John Paul II.

The day of the funeral was one of intense prayer. We went to choir at 7:00 a.m. and stayed there until well past eleven, some remaining until 12:00. That course of action shocked at least one good gentleman. The sister who took his call described with more than a little relish the dazed voice of a reporter from the Eindhoven paper, as she explained to him that it would not be possible to take photos of us watching the funeral Mass, since we would be in prayer at that time. If he wanted to come and take a few photos of our special memorial Office for John Paul II, he could do that. But no, no photos of us watching the television, you see, we don’t have one. At that moment he found himself a new mantra: You don’t have a T.V.? No T.V.? No T.V.? Not at all?

We must confess: being made of mortal flesh we, too, thought, dreamed and prayed for the one we felt should step out onto that balcony as the successor of Peter. The consensus was total. One sister, who had already been praying for more than five years for his election, was not lacking in words when she repeated for us the reasoning that God had heard so often: he has given his whole life for the Church, his greatest desire had to fall by the way, and if You don’t make him Pope, then he will just fall through the cracks of history, and no one will know how great a servant he was. Please, God, even just for a few months…? Well, we wanted a good deal more than a few months, and so the sisters started praying in earnest. It didn’t faze us in the least when our Dutch teacher sputtered after hearing from one of her pupils who the nuns thought the next Pope would be, “Why he isn’t even listed in the polls!” Well, not the Dutch ones. And when a priest we dearly love, one who had spent many years in Rome and knows all the right people, assured us that no curial cardinal would ever be elected, we smiled politely and kept on praying. Neither press nor polls could sway us.

Arrangements were made in advance with two friends of the community: once the doors were sealed, their duty was to call the monastery at the first sign of white smoke. For this special mission they were entrusted with the private phone number of Mother Abbess. We were going to be ready. A television we don’t have and never want, but the Internet has provided us with a safe way to get the news that is appropriate for enclosed nuns living in a land gone pagan and saved us a small fortune in postage. The plan was simple: the call would come on the private line, a bell would sound and all would come running. As we all know, they kept having trouble with that smoke, and when one of the chosen two called the afternoon of April 19, saying the smoke was black again, a groan was heard from the sisters who happened to be in the vicinity. A swift election would be so nice, so confounding for the media.

There are many reasons why we chose and keep choosing our Mother Abbess, and one of them is that uncanny power for reasoning which she possesses. Black smoke didn’t quite jibe with her calculations as regards time needed for two voting sessions. Was it a false call by those in the St. Peter’s square? She decided to turn the computer on…and three minutes later the portress at the other end of the monastery picked up a ringing phone and heard an excited abbess telling her to get everyone up there. What do you do at a moment like that? All decorum went out the window as the portress sped through the monastery, calling through open doors “Habemus papam!”, until she reached the bell rope and joined loud peals to the repeated call of “Habemus!”

Mother Abbess’ workroom is rather small when the last inch is counted, but we have learned how to squeeze eleven into it, and even make it possible for each to see the not so large computer screen. By the time the last sister came panting, the bells of St. Peter’s were ringing. Then began the longest twenty minutes of 2005, and quite a few other years for that matter. Terrified that we might be cut off by overload, or whatever it is they call it when too many people try to access a point in cyberspace, a radio was brought in. A new problem, we really didn’t have the slightest idea how to use it and spent ten minutes trying to find the button to make it work as a radio instead of a tape recorder and then trying to find a station. When the Cardinal appointed to make the announcement finally appeared on the balcony, we were close to bursting, and when he said that one single word, the Latin form of Joseph, the first of many cries went up, but when the name “Ratzinger” sounded, the roof went up. We cried, we jumped, we hugged one another, exclaimed and sighed for longer than we are telling anyone. When one of the chosen two called, she had to use a very loud voice to tell the portress what the sisters already knew. “It sounds like St. Peter’s square there,” the good friend remarked. She was assured that things were quite tame in St. Peter’s compared to what was happening here. We admit, it is really quite wonderful when God and his college of cardinals agree with your choice.


Our life breathes with the sounding of the monastery bell, and it was not unusual for sister portress to be awaken late at night by the tolling bell of a nearby church. They ring every half-hour. She counted the tolls, to determine if it was worth the effort to try and get a little more sleep before rising for the midnight Office. When the number reached fifteen, she threw the cell window open, knowing that there was only one reason why a bell would be tolling like that in the middle of the night: twenty, thirty, thirty-five…she stopped counting and left her cell wondering if she should wake Mother Abbess and the other sisters. Still the belled tolled, and would toll for another fifteen minutes.

Our letter is too long. Also a little late. It can be explained. We also celebrated a jubilee during April, but we are saving that for later. Living with the Church during April consumed us, happily so. Yet it also brings strength, and we would like to close with a glimpse of that strength.

No, we don’t have television, but a year ago, or is it two, a good lady gave us her old screen and video player. It has meant that we could be where we should be at the important moments of the Church’s life: in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and yet later gather like spellbouond children around a screen --one patient and long-suffering friend dared to describe it as ancient after spending considerable time coaxing it to work-- and watch the funeral Mass of John Paul the Great. Later we could really see our new Holy Father step out on that balcony and know five years isn’t too long to pray for such a gift. A week later we sat silently, filled with awe and joy, watching the awesome Mass of Installation; so kindly taped for us since we had scheduled our own Mass to match the one in Rome. That was all very, very new for us: we have never done anything like it before, and so chose to spread the viewing out over a number days. The impact needed constant absorption in prayer. So much so, that Mother Abbess suggested we might want to omit the last twenty or so minutes of the Installation Mass: we had watched it through the Consecration and Holy Communion, and she was concerned for us. Our investment in the Church is total, and she worried we were too fatigued by the sorrow, joy and wonder of the past weeks.

Silence. A few sputters. One small voice, “Oh no, Mother, please, let us see it all.” “Yes, Mother, we can do it.” “We aren’t tired.” “Mother!” Then it began, tens nuns smiling, clapping, stomping their feet as they cried in unison: “Benedicto! Benedicto! Benedicto! Benedicto!” Too bad we cannot send you a photo of Mother Abbess’ face at that moment nor one of ours later as we watched the last twenty minutes. Our man in the Vatican.

Your Poor Clare sisters in Eindhoven

St. Claralaan 1
5654 AS Eindhoven