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Benedictine nuns aim for pro-life witness in letter-writing campaign

Thousands of American Catholics will descend this week upon Washington, DC, for the annual March for Life. 

Of course, not all Catholics will be there — and some of them, like the Benedictine nuns at St. Scholastica Priory in Petersham, Massachusetts, with good reason — the nuns live almost entirely within the enclosure of their monastery, and mostly in silence. 

St. Scholastica Priory. Courtesy photo.

But within their cloister, the nuns of St. Scholastica say they will aim this week to share in the mission of the March for Life, by writing letters to pharmaceutical companies, asking them to eliminate the use of fetal cell line testing and all connection to abortion, in the development of vaccines and other medications.

The letter-writing campaign comes in response to encouragement from the U.S. bishops’ conference and the Holy See, which have urged Catholics to “protest the use of abortion-derived cell lines and advocate for the development of vaccines with no connection to abortion.”

Mother Mary Elizabeth Kloss, St. Scholastica’s prioress, talked with The Pillar about the monastery’s plans, for a pro-life witness behind the enclosure walls.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Mother, your Benedictine monastery plans to write to pharmaceutical companies this week, asking them to discontinue fetal cell line testing. Why is this an important issue?

God has blessed those who have dedicated themselves to healing, either one-to-one or in research and discovery. This blessing has been part of our world since the beginning. Our modern age has many more tools than our ancestors but essentially the same goal. 

The use of fetal cell lines is a source that places a moral dilemma in the hearts of many, because of their faith. Ethical concerns becomes an unnecessary barrier to the goal of restoring health, fighting a pandemic and helping to restore the world  — to being able to join together in the many ways we do as humans. 

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You mentioned that your monastery, which lives a cloistered, contemplative life, is not able to attend the March for Life. Is your letter-writing campaign a kind of intentional participation in the aims of the March for Life?

We, of course, join with this huge endeavor with our praying the seven hours of the Divine Office and Mass, along with each one's own private prayer. 

But by sending these letters out, we have a concrete way of joining in the heroic perseverance of those who are attending the March for Life in DC, or the many other places: people gathering together to witness, and to become a visible sign of the vast numbers who support the end of abortion and all other actions that end life unnaturally. 

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A nun in prayer at St. Scholastica Priory. Courtesy photo.

What does it mean for you, as contemplative religious, to be in solidarity with events happening outside the monastery, like the March for Life? 

You're making a kind of tangible act of solidarity, but there must be a spiritual element to that as well?

Every morning at Vigils, and through the entire day of those seven periods of the opus Dei —  the Liturgy of the Hours — we embrace the world and its needs, and offer them to God's mercy, guidance, healing and providence. 

There is an event recounted in the book of Exodus that is an icon, of sorts, for us. The Israelites were in a battle against Amalek. Moses went with Aaron and Hur to the top of a hill. There Moses held up his hands in prayer but they grew weary and fell to his sides. The battle would turn against the Israelites then. 

So, the book of Exodus says, “Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the one on the other side, so his hands were steady until the sun set. And Joshua defeated Amalek.” 

Although there are, in a sense, just a few, up on a nearby hill, doing what seems useless — it is not [useless]. We are “one body,” in Christ’s Mystical Body.

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How can people who are not cloistered religious, but are not able to travel, or maybe not even able to leave their homes, participate in the Church's pro-life work?

Geography and mobility are not limitations in God. Those of us who can not put our feet on the ground at the rallies can, in a sense, put our “knees on the ground.” 

Now, I don’t mean one needs to kneel to pray!  Just that we can devote some time to joining and supporting all those who are [gathering]. 

And there are also those who spend their life’s work to this cause through writing, speaking, fighting in the courts and the myriad other parts of this sacred effort.


Can you explain the day-to-day life of your monastery? Why is it important?

Our day begins 20 minutes before Vigils, when we gather together to pray.  

From that point on, the rest of the day is pierced every two or three hours with our prayer, made up of the psalms, scripture and specific prayers. 

The central daily gathering is, of course, the Mass. 

We pray most of these things using the ancient chant of the Church, Gregorian chant. This is the skeleton that holds our day together.  

We also do all things anyone needs to do in a family: cook, teach the newer members, do laundry, clean, write letters, pay bills and, happily, welcome guests in the tradition of the Benedictine hospitality to our monastic guest house. 

An unusual element of our lives here, but not unknown, is that we share the church and praying our daily liturgy with a house of monks. Our lives are lived totally independent of one another, except for this prayer, some classes and caring for the guests. 

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Mother, it is often said that contemplative nuns and monks, like the members of your monastery, are at the center of the Church’s most important apostolates — that your mystical life and intercessory prayer animate the external apostolates of the Church. 

When you're living day-to-day as a contemplative religious, do you have a sense of that spiritual reality?

There are times when I may have a sensible connection to someone or something that I am praying about. But most of our prayer is offered in faith, joined and given to the Lord to use in his redemptive work. 

I think it is part of the prayer offered to you persevere in this daily work, which is called the opus Dei, the work of God, offered in union with the One who loves each of us infinitely.

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Editor’s note: For guidance from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith on the moral issues connected to vaccines, read here and here. For an explainer on the coronavirus vaccine, read here.

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