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.

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