Thursday, September 27, 2018

Dominicans leave San Marco after 582 years.

This week, the New York Times reported on the imminent departure of the Dominican Friars from the Convento San Marco in Florence, a place that has been home to a Dominican priory since 1436. As the NYT's Elisabetta Povoledo writes, San Marco's rich history makes the friars' departure particularly poignant:
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 at the end of September, this storied occupation will 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 in 1979 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 Dominicans' departure from San Marco has been anticipated for several years. Writing in the summer of 2015, Sandro Magister suggested that the decision to vacate what he called "the most famous Dominican convent in the world" was inevitable despite the direct intervention of Dominican Master General Bruno Cadoré, who seemed to urge his Italian confreres to do what they could to avoid shuttering the friary:
What is at stake smacks of the incredible. It is as if the Franciscan friars were to decide to close the convent of Assisi. And yet this is what could happen, at the behest of the order of Saint Dominic itself, if the superior general of the order, Fr. Bruno Cadoré, should put into effect the decision that the chapter of the Dominican province of central Italy, named after Saint Catherine of Siena, made in the autumn of 2013: the decision, that is, to suppress the "house," meaning the convent of San Marco in Florence.

The superior general has taken his time. In March of [2014] he made a visit to the convent about to be suppressed. He then wrote a letter to the Dominicans of the province in question, asking them to re-examine the question from the ground up, with the help of "experts." To no effect. The fathers of the province of St. Catherine of Siena met again in chapter at the end of last June and reiterated to the superior general the request to suppress the convent of San Marco.
Both Magister and Povoledo note the unsuccessful efforts made by various cultural and civil leaders to keep the friary open, and the NYT article quotes a local figure who opined that "[t]o suppress the convent is like dimming the lights on centuries of history." It might fairly be observed that the decision to close the friary doesn't mean the end of the Dominican presence in Florence or the loss of the Fra Angelico frescoes that made San Marco a famous landmark: the remaining members of the community are moving to a nearby friary at Santa Maria Novella, and the rooms of the former convent containing Fra Angelico's frescoes are already part of a state-run museum that is unaffected by the Dominicans' move. Nevertheless, I can't help but agree that something essential is being lost with the end of a living Dominican presence at the site.

Some of the internal Dominican politics involved in the decision to close the friary at San Marco are recounted in two articles by Tommaso Monfeli on the site Corrispondenza Romana. In one article, Monfeli argues that the decision to close San Marco while keeping open the neighboring friary of Santa Maria Novella is related to longstanding divisions that go back to a period when the two friaries belonged to two separate Dominican provinces that have since merged. The other article suggests that the efforts to keep the friary open included serious proposals to repopulate the community at San Marco with friars from other provinces:
Among the hypotheses put forward by [Florence Archbishop] Cardinal [Giuseppe] Betori were the possibility of entrusting San Marco to another Dominican Province with a greater number of friars (for example, the American Province of Saint Joseph, which had expressed interest) or establishing an inter-provincial friary open to all the Dominican provinces of the world. But the Roman Province, through the words of the Provincial, wished to remove the friars residing at San Marco and insisted on the closure of the friary, declaring itself, in the Acts of the Provincial Chapter, willing to hand it over to another Province only after having closed it.
The NYT article ends by quoting an elderly friar preparing to move out of the convent at San Marco, who blames the decision to close the friary on an apparently terminal decline in vocations and states that the Dominicans have reached "the famous point of return" and that it "is no longer possible to reactivate" the founding spirit of the Order. This pessimism seems a bit misplaced, given the notable success of some Dominican provinces in drawing many young vocations. Unfortunately, the Italian Dominicans seem not to have been touched by this renewal. One can only hope that something of the spirit of San Marco will remain, even without a living Dominican presence. AMDG.