Hail Mary play to save convent
For nearly 600 years, Dominican friars in Florence, Italy, have inhabited the Convent of San Marco, one of the city’s great spiritual and cultural hubs, renowned for its frescoes by Fra Angelico and once home to the fiery preacher Girolamo Savonarola.
But this storied occupation might soon end, a victim of the dwindling ranks of the Dominican order. The convent’s only remaining residents — four aging friars — have been told to pack their bags and move across town to the convent of Santa Maria Novella.
“The community of San Marco is no more, it is finished,” said the Rev. Fausto Sbaffoni, one of the four, who arrived here in1979 and was present in June when the regional chief of the Dominicans arrived to read the order suppressing, or closing, the convent. “No friar can remain in a suppressed convent,” he noted.
The Roman Catholic Church is making similar difficult choices around the world. The church is struggling with a shortage of clergy, especially in Europe and North America.
Worldwide, the number of priests is lower than it was in 1970, though the Catholic population has doubled, according to Vatican figures. There are more retired priests and fewer young men are entering seminaries.
Today, there are fewer than 10 Dominican friars living in Florence, so in a general restructuring, the order decided to join them under one roof.
What will become of San Marco is unclear, and some friars there still hold out hope for some form of divine intervention. Perhaps with a bit of a terrestrial hand.
“If there is one man who can stop the convent from closing it is Pope Francis,” said Bash D’Abramo, the secretary of “Beato Angelico for the Renaissance,” a cultural association named for Fra Angelico that holds art exhibits and concerts at San Marco (and that sometimes showcases the talents of two friars, one of whom is a talented organist, the other a drummer).
D’Abramo has been seeking an audience with the pope, to hand him a petition to keep the convent open. Among the 18,000 signatories are a host of intellectuals and Florentine bigwigs.
A recent attempt to deliver the signatures at the pope’s weekly Wednesday audience was stymied when D’Abramo’s tickets were switched at the last minute — somewhat suspiciously, he thought — so that he would not be close enough to Francis to speak with him. “We can hardly throw the petition at him, it’s not a fruit market,” he said, disconsolately.
One cell in the convent is renowned as the home, from1934 to his death in1977, of Giorgio La Pira, twice mayor of Florence and a Dominican lay person. To the joy of Dominicans and many Florentines, Pope Francis conferred the title “venerable” on La Pira in July, a step on the path to sainthood.
“I think there is a strong contradiction here. How can you exalt La Pira and at the same time close the convent that was so fundamental to La Pira?” Sbaffoni asked.
The Convent of San Marco is closing, a victim of the Roman Catholic Church’s dwindling clergy ranks.