- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

Mother Virginia Marie will make a rare exception to her solemn ritual of rising every morning before the sun to pray in her hut inside the quietmonastery in which she lives.

On Thursday, she and 11 other Discalced Carmelite nuns who live in the Carmel of Port Tobacco monastery in La Plata will board a charter bus with excited parishioners to Nationals Park to celebrate Mass with Pope Benedict XVI and 45,000 others.

“We’re apprehensive about being way up in the stadium and not being able to see him except for a little white speck on the field,” said Mother Virginia Marie, 73. “But it’s the Holy Father’s first visit to America, and we’re really excited to be a part of it.”

Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said, however, “Every seat is a great seat at the stadium. … You’ll be able to see the Capitol over the Holy Father’s shoulder.”

She also said the archdiocese wanted to include as many people as possible in the Mass but also wanted to give “special attention to the religious clergy because they do so much for so little.”

The cloistered nuns in the Carmelite Order, like the group at Carmel of Port Tobacco, center their lives on prayer for others.

Catholics often go to these secluded nunsfor prayer, but for the women to leave their monastery to attend a Mass is rare. The group’s list of recent excursions includes seeing Pope John Paul II in Baltimore in 1995 and celebrating Mass in 2000 in what is now the Verizon Center.

“We spend our days divided between prayer and work to maintain ourselves,” Mother Virginia Marie said.

The group of 12 nuns — including one postulant, or candidate for the life of faith — came from Brazil, Japan, the Philippines and across the U.S. to live a life of contemplation in Maryland. They’re alone for much of the day, except for meals, Mass and recreation time in the evening, which is spent “chatting with one another, doing craft work around a table and making items to sell at the gift shop,” said Mother Virginia Marie.

The nuns said the pope’s visit will alter their prayer ritual but not stop it.

“We’ll try to squeeze out parts of that day where we’ll try to keep up with our prayers during the day,” said Sister Miriam John, 60. “We’ll do the best we can — maybe up in the stands or wherever we are seated.”

Sister John, an Ohio native, converted to Catholicism during her senior year of high school.

“It will certainly be a great grace and privilege” to see the pontiff, she said, adding that “it would be nice to meet him face-to-face.”

Mother Mary Joseph, 81, met John Paul in Rome after her tenure as prioress at the southern Maryland monastery, Sister John said.

The current prioress, Mother Virginia Marie, said that her 16-by-20-foot hut and the other hermitages and buildings are on the site of the first monastery in the U.S., which was established in 1790 and inhabited until 1831.

The land was sold and farmed for about 100 years until a group of laypeople purchased the original property in 1933. The monastery was refounded in 1976, and Mother Virginia Marie and Mother Mary Joseph came six years later to help the community of nuns to grow.

“The contemplative life is as vital to the spiritual life of the church as the human heart is to the body,” Mother Virginia Marie said.

She also said her group of nuns prays for people who “don’t have time to pray for themselves.”

Although the nuns will transplant themselves soon to a different world just 30 miles from their monastery — to a baseball stadium filled with thousands celebrating Mass with the pope — day-to-day, they would rather be “enclosed.”

“The heart was made to function in an interior, hidden way,” Mother Virginia Marie said.

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