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Vatican magazine decries treatment of nuns as 'indentured servants' to cardinals and bishops

(Reuters/Max Rossi)Pope Francis greets a group of nuns during the general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican December 20, 2017.

An official Vatican publication has denounced the practice of using nuns as a source of cheap or free labor in the Roman Catholic Church, and urged bishops and cardinals to stop treating them like lowly servants.

In the March edition of "Women Church World," nuns have described how they are made to cook and clean for senior Catholic clergy for little or no pay.

The publication, which is the monthly women's magazine of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, noted that some of the nuns are made to serve in the homes of bishops or cardinals, while others work in kitchens of church institutions or teach.

Nuns, who take a vow of poverty, are sent to residences of male Church officials as part of their assignment, but they receive no pay because they are members of female religious orders, Reuters reported.

The article went on to describe how some of the nuns are made to wake before dawn to prepare breakfast and go to sleep only after "dinner is served, the house is in order and the laundry cleaned and ironed."

The author of the article said that she was saddened to hear how the sisters are made to serve clergy but are "rarely invited to sit at the tables they serve" and eat in the kitchen by themselves.

One nun had recounted that she knew other sisters who had obtained PhDs in subjects such as theology, but were ordered to do domestic work or other chores that had "no relationship to their intellectual formation."

The article contended that the experiences of such nuns could be transformed "into a richness for the whole Church, if the male hierarchy sees it as an occasion for a true reflection on power (in the Church)."

In the past, most of the nuns who were assigned to work in male-run residences or institutions, such as seminaries, were local nationals, but in recent years, many have originated from Africa, Asia and other parts of the developing world.

A nun identified only as Sister Marie said that sisters who come from other parts of the world often hail from poor families. She further noted that those nuns feel that they cannot complain about their working conditions because their extended care of their families is often paid for by their congregations.

"This all creates in them a strong interior rebellion. These sisters feel indebted, tied down, and so they keep quiet," Sister Marie said.

Only a few women hold positions in the Vatican hierarchy, including Barbara Jatta, who became the first woman to head the Vatican Museum last year. Several nuns have been appointed to senior roles in departments that oversee religious issues.

The late Pope John Paul II, who reigned from 1978 to 2005, reportedly had a team of five Polish nuns who ran his household in the papal apartments in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, had eight female members of a lay Catholic organization known as Memores Domini to look after his household.

In contrast, Pope Francis resides in a Vatican guest house that is run similarly to a hotel and he eats his meals in the main dining room, which is staffed by paid waiters.

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