Vatican shuts down monastery where dancing nuns performed

religion | May 27, 2011 | By Martin Barillas

Pope Benedict XVI ordered the closure of a 500-year-old monastery in Rome following reports of nuns practicing liturgical dancing during Masses celebrated there.  The monastery is attached to the church called Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, which has a chapel dating to the 4th century.  The Cistercian order of male monastics has a tradition of being among the most austere forms of ascetism, heretofore.  The church at the monastery has relics of the Crucifixion of Jesus and draws pilgrims from around the world.  Among them is Madonna Ciccone, the Michigan-born actress and singer, who visited in 2009.  The closing came because of “financial and liturgical irregularities ," according to Vatican sources.  In recent years the monastery established a reputation for publicity-seeking stunts and the courting of wealthy celebrities, including Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan and Madonna.

 One of the most notable dancing nuns is Sister Anna Nobili, a former exotic dancer and strip-tease artist who has performed in much more modest attire at churches and religious conventions in Italy.   Following accusations that 'liturgical abuses' had occured at the monastery, Vatican officials took action.  The monastery had also incurred large debts.  "An inquiry found evidence of liturgical and financial irregularities as well as lifestyles that were probably not in keeping with that of a monk," said Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman. 

Sister Anna, who had spent years performing in Italian nightclubs, claims that she had changed her life after experiencing a conversion while visiting the shrine of St. Francis of Assisi in 2002.  Francis, known worldwide among Christians and non-Christians for his faith and joie-de-vivre, had also led a dissolute life before also experiencing a mystical conversion about 1000 years ago.  As for Sister Anna, she continued her dancing after her conversion but for another purpose.   She performed what she called “The Holy Dance” in front of Catholic bishops and cardinals, including Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican's cultural affairs in 2009.  In that instance, Sister Anna performed by twirling around a crucifix rather than a stripper pole.

The terpsichorean nun and “ballerina for God” became a YouTube sensation for videos of her dancing.  "I was wasting my life dancing for men in clubs. The nights were filled with sex and alcohol.  It was an empty life but I liked it because I was the centre of attention,” she told Italian newspaper La Repubblica.  "But now my life has been transformed. I still dance but now I dance for God and I'm happy.  All my choreography is dedicated to Him. My aim is to pray using my body."

The church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme guards relics of the True Cross, as well as thorns of Christ's Crown as well as one of the nails that pierced his hands and feet. While the church itself will remain open to worshippers and pilgrims, the Cistercian monks are being transferred to other venues.

“It was evident that the order had lapsed in its discipline and an Apostolic Visitation was arranged, which resulted in the decision to close the monastery which was approved by Pope Benedict,” a Vatican source told the Daily Mail of the UK.  The visitation’s findings were sent to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Pope approved a rare decree ordering the monastery to be dissolved.

 Around 20 Cistercian monks will be transferred to other Italian monasteries around Italy, when the visitation found that their “lifestyles” were “not in keeping” with Christian teachings. Thus and end has come to 5 centuries of the Cistercian presence at the holy shrine.  The visitation also uncovered what is reportedly “questionable behaviour and a lack of moral discipline,” which some media have suggested is an allusion to deviant sexual practices among the monks.

The Vatican investigation began following Sister Anna’s performance. Soon afterward, long-serving abbot Simone Fioraso, a  former Milan fashion designer, was dismissed.  The decision to shut down the  monastery showed that Benedict XVI “knows how to be decisive and dramatic when it comes to eliminating 'filth’ in the Church,” wrote Andrea Tornielli.  A  respected expert on Vatican affairs, Tornielli added, “He has established rules that are even more severe than those that he himself suggested 10 years ago to (his predecessor) John Paul II.”  Pope Benedict has used the term 'filth’ to describe paedophile priests found to have abused young people in scandals worldwide.

Liturgical dancing is practiced in a number of Catholic parishes and religious orders.  In 2010, the Sisters of St. Joseph – based in Nazareth, Michigan – celebrated a milestone anniversary with a gathering of nuns which included a Mass and a performance provided by one of the nuns.  Two years ago, at a conference sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, liturgical dancing was in evidence there with Cardinal Roger Mahony observing. The practice has long been debated within the Catholic Church, with critics charging that it detracts from the sacred character of the Mass. 

See dancing nun here: 



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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