By Cecilia Seppia – Vatican City
Even Sister Maria Lucia's eyes light up as she describes how she envisions the Rossano Garden that will soon be created around the Saint Augustine Convent in Rossano, Calabria, in southern Italy. It must be above all green with shade provided by many trees of every species and size but chosen with respect for the biodiversity typical of this area, framed between the Ionian Sea and the Sila Greca mountains. The area will be full of flowers, with bright colors, where butterflies can dance undisturbed, unique fragrant essences can be appreciated, and bushes of a thousand shapes adorn the area with birds singing in the background. It is meant to be a paradise, like the one repersented in Creation at the beginning of time that can instill in every visitor a deep nostalgia for the care of creation. It also aims to provide a place for rest, prayer, dialogue; a place where you can breathe oxygen of fellowship and inclusion, also with wide avenues passable by people with disabilities.
The first convent of cloistered nuns in southern Italy
The Rossano Garden Park project takes inspiration from Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato si'. The initiative started long ago, but only this year has taken shape thanks to an ongoing fundraising effort and the help of many sponsoring organizations. Sister Lucia says it will finally be open to visitors in April 2022. When the Augustinian nuns arrived here from the Hermitage of Lecceto, in the hills of Siena, there was nothing within miles, not even the convent inaugurated two years ago in the Vernile Plain, the first convent of cloistered nuns in southern Italy. It is also the first in Italy dedicated to the great Father of the Church. All the sisters feel the enormous potential of this territory, an ideal place to reconnect with the essentials of life.
The intuition of Father Vittorino
Sister Maria Lucia Solera, superior of the Augustinian nuns of Rossano says "it was one of our confreres, Father Vittorino Grossi, a great scholar of St. Augustine, who came to visit us in 2016 and had the first intuition.” At the time we lived in a temporary location, but we took him to see the place where the convent would be built. Father Vittorino looked around with amazement and said: 'oh how beautiful it would be here to have a garden full of flowers and trees'. In an instant he gave us that contemplative gaze that knows how to see beyond the surface of reality, that aims at the potential for development, beauty and goodness that every human being should be able to enjoy. This suggestion of his did not fall on deaf ears, on the contrary! He helped us start dreaming.
A plan of God in line with the monastic tradition
Sister Lucia added, that “among other things, shortly afterwards, we received a visit from another dear friend of the community, a lay agronomist from Rome who had come to study some of the unique botanical species in Sila. When he also saw this place, he immediately fell in love with it, and exclaimed: 'a garden would be really good here!' But not just any garden, rather one that would host rare and precious specimens of trees and plants. At that point we couldn't act as if nothing happened, and although it seemed like a project bigger than ourselves, we began to work on it concretely. This is also because with this idea there was something strongly characteristic of the monastic tradition: many monasteries, in Italy and elsewhere, have been founded in this way over the centuries. Places that used to be unhealthy and arid, full of thorns and brambles or even swamps were identified. Then through the tenacious work of the monks, they came back to life, so much so that they were called Chiaravalle.
The synodal dimension to the project
Sister Lucia wishes to emphasize that behind the project of the Garden, which was also discussed at the "Forum of Catholic Information for the Custody of Creation" organized by Greenaccord, the nuns or experts were not the only ones involved in the planning. The development took on a "synodal dimension" in which everyone became involved: "over time, we received many suggestions, indications, ideas, from our people, and I believe that this widespread listening process made a difference. Moreover, all this seemed particularly important to us after a dark period marked by the pandemic that mostly kept us indoors, in closed, cramped, isolated spaces... I can say that rereading Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato si' we found not only inspiration, but also confirmation going forward with what we were doing."
Cultivating the ground of one's own interiority first
Sister Lucia recalls "there is a passage in the encyclical in which the Pope invites us to cultivate exterior spaces that, however, refer to an interior reality. As Benedict XVI also said: 'If external deserts are multiplying, it is because interior deserts are expanding. And so, as Augustinian nuns, we are attentive to the aspect of interiority - 'return to the heart' said St. Augustine - but also of 'communionality', that is, of living in unity with one heart and one soul, reaching out to God. We thought that the Garden was a very happy sign, an ideal synthesis of these two elements together. Therefore, as it is said in the encyclical, we have placed the accent first on attention given to cultivate the ground of one's own interiority, and then from here on the need to cultivate human relationships, so that they too may become a garden".
From Laudato Si' the call to responsibility
The superior of the nuns of Rossano, also emphasizes the great sense of responsibility that has motivated them during this time: "we find ourselves in a wonderful place, full of beauty and we feel called to the duty of taking care of it and then entrusting it back to the first recipients, the people who have always lived in this area. This area of Calabria in the north, northeast is also suffering from years of strong population decline and we are sorry to see people, especially young people, leave. After finishing high school, many young people choose to leave this land for other destinations, especially in northern Italy. So we thought it would be nice to create a garden that would be a sign, 'a work of art' that says to these young people: 'look, you live in a beautiful land that will have a future and will not regress to a desert, only to the extent that you know how to love it and take care of it'.
Called to do our part
She underscores again that "we in our own small way have felt called to the responsibility of doing our part, but as the Pope says in Laudato si', to change things, each must act without giving up, according to one’s own ability, role in society and the world. Every time Pope Francis speaks about care for our Common Home, every time he reminds us how everything is connected, he always finds us very vibrant, united with him, but most of all he motivates us! We really think that the Garden Park can be a help, as the Pope suggests ‘to restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium, establishing harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God’.
Seeds of hope and change
In order for the idea of the Garden Park at the Convent of Saint Augustine to become a reality, the project includes: the purchase and planting of multiple varieties of trees, carefully selected and compatible with the altitude, climate, and native flora; the creation of avenues for access to the park and pathways for internal roads; the creation of descriptive signs of botanical species for educational and scientific purposes; the beginning of work to secure future guest quarters of the convent for reception of guests and pilgrims.
There are ten sponsoring organizations: the Archdiocese of Rossano-Cariati, the Municipality of Corigliano-Rossano, the Diocesan Museum of the Codex, the Sila and Pollino National Parks, the Italian Botanical Society, Unical’s DiBest Department, the GreenAccord association of journalists, the Federation of Augustinian Monasteries of Italy, the Order of Saint Augustine. But anyone can do their part with a donation online by visiting www.osarossano.it. In return, your name will be written on the tree of gratitude that will be placed inside the Garden. In this way, in the heart of Calabria, the project of the Augustinian nuns aims to be a seed of hope and change!