HAIFA, Israel, March 22 (AP)--While Pope John Paul II pleads for religious harmony in the Holy Land, 17 cloistered nuns on Mount Carmel quietly pray for their Jewish neighbors. Not to win souls for Christendom. These nuns want Jews to be Jewish.
``How can you be a servant in Israel if you speak about conversion?'' says Sister Angela del Bono, mother superior of the Monastery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in a rare interview from behind a metal grille in the parlor of a sprawling granite convent.
She pounds her hand on her forehead beneath a veil. ``Imagine someone coming in here and telling me to become an Adventist or a Muslim,'' she says, smiling at her own fervor.
The Carmelites will not see the pope in their country. They leave the cloister only in emergencies. Every day one nun listens to the radio and reports news to the others.
When del Bono learned that the pontiff was going to the Western Wall while in Jerusalem, she saw it as a profound message of hope for Christian-Jewish understanding. This theme of the papal visit is the life work of her sisters. It's a rare calling within a rarer one: Christians praying for Jews within the confines of a cloister. In an age of action, the nuns are devoted to contemplation and to the belief that prayer can bring about real change in the world.
``We pray that Jews remain true to their covenant,'' says del Bono, 68, holding a thick wool sweater tightly around her floor-length brown habit in the unheated convent.
``We pray that people come to the full revelation of God... If they are good Jews and we are good Christians this is already glory to God without forcing anyone to change,'' the native Italian nun says, speaking in English. ``We pray for all to be happy and be righteous in front of God. Each man can go to heaven--Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Zulus--if they are...of goodwill. If they feel godly, if they follow their own conscience, they will go to heaven.''
Her community was founded in 1892 by two nuns from the Carmelite monastery in Avignon, France, with the help of twin brothers, Joseph and Augustin Lemann, Jewish converts who had become priests. The brothers, according to the nuns' history, were taken with the idea of Carmelite nuns living on Mount Carmel, where the the Bible (I Kings 18) says God sent fire and rain when the Israelite prophet Elijah prayed to him, after 450 pagan prophets of Baal had failed.
In 1895, Pope Leo XIII gave the nuns two prayer intentions: to pray for the land of Israel and the reconciliation of hearts.
A former mother superior told del Bono that she thought the early sisters on Mount Carmel prayed for the conversion to Jews. ``It's incredible to think of this,'' del Bono says. She is not sure when the mission changed.
But Nostra Aetate, a 1965 papal declaration of a new theological approach to Jews and Judaism that rejected anti-Semitism, had a strong impact on Catholics. And by the time del Bono arrived in 1968, there was no talk of winning converts.
Today, the nuns pray communally seven times a day and spend two hours in private prayer. They devote the rest of the day to the community's work of making rosaries and cards of pressed flowers.
They spend most of the day in silence.
Even in their solitude, however, Carmelite nuns have had their share of controversy surrounding Catholic-Jewish relations. When a group of Carmelite nuns started a convent at Auschwitz in 1984, Jews protested until the nuns left.
``I don't think (the nuns) wanted to provoke hate,'' del Bono says. ``They were remembering the suffering.'' But given the controversy, she says, she supported their leaving.
The Vatican's 1998 canonization of Edith Stein, a Jewish-born Carmelite nun who was killed in Auschwitz, brought Jewish charges that who felt the Catholic church was laying claim to a martyr who died because of her Jewish heritage.
The Carmelites celebrated, she says. ``We thought: `What a joy. What an honor.' But some Jews thought: `Why is the Catholic Church taking our Edith Stein?'''
Del Bono says she has no problems with conversion to Christianity if it is chosen freely and after much thought. ``Edith Stein had a long history before becoming a Catholic.'' she says. Such choices, del Bono says, are a mystery to be respected. ``Each soul is a mystery only God can see.''
Catholics who hold on to old attitudes about Jews, she says, would not appreciate her community's mission. And the nuns' vocation is often misunderstood by both Catholics and Jews who see the contemplative life as escapist.
A Jewish student who visited the monastery told her she was ``going against the laws of God by choosing celibacy.''
Del Bono laughs. ``I told her: `I am the spiritual mother of many.'''
As mother superior of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, she is paying special attention to the children of Israel during the papal visit. She prays that the trip will lead to greater understanding between the world's religions.