Sister Monique Masson, OCSO
Monastery of l’Etoile Notre Dame, Parakou
SOME MEMORIES OF THE MONASTIC MEETING AT BOUAKE
21ST-26TH MAY, 1964
The periodical Rythme du Monde consecrated a whole issue to the Meeting of Monastic Superiors held at the monastery of Bouaké on the Ivory Coast from 21st to 26th May, 1964 (1965, volume XIII, numbers 1 and 2).
This Meeting, which may well be considered historic, brought together almost all the superiors, men and women, of the monasteries of Africa and Madagascar living according to the Rule of St Benedict. They were joined by P. Daniel-Ange, superior of the Fraternity of the Virgin of the Poor in Rwanda. Both English and French language groups were invited, but only two of the English language group replied. In passing I mention that all the superiors present were Europeans. One African nun and three African monks participated in the discussions.
It must be stressed that the secretariat for helping monastic foundations was instrumental in mounting this meeting, headed by the Abbot of Floris, in response, I think, to a desire expressed by a certain superior of an African monastery. He was also present at the meeting. The monasteries of West Africa were only a few years old, for the first were founded in 1960. Some monasteries of Africa and Madagascar had more experience, especially the monastery of Ambositra, founded in 1934 by the Benedictine nuns of Vanves. This meeting provided the opportunity to compare our points of view and to share our experience on important questions about the future of monastic life in Africa.
Five questions were put forward for reflection in our communities:
1. What does the Church hope for from the monastic life sown in Africa? What sort of monastic life do we wish to sow?
2. Conditions of recruitment: the need for previous intellectual and religious formation.
3. Formation of postulants in the monastery.
4. How to form the indigenous postulant by the liturgy.
5. Economic problems of missionary foundations.
Reports on these five questions were written up and addressed to the communities to help them in their reflections. Opinions expressed were not only those of the superiors present at Bouaké, but also the fruit of discusssion among brothers and sisters in their own monasteries.
Dom Jean Leclercq opened the meeting by a conference of which I quote only a few passages: ‘I have been asked to speak of the planting of monasteries. “Planting” is a fine word, which suggests natural growth... making age-old monasticism live in the African of today... and therefore to return to the source, to the rock which is Christ, from whom ever flows the life of the Church. The young African monastic movement which we are witnessing will grow on the stock of the one eternal Gospel’.
What were the short and long-term results of this meeting?
• The first and not least important result was the very fact of meeting and getting to know one another, for our monasteries had been isolated. Each followed its own path, guided, of course, by the.Holy Spirit. However, to find ourselves among brothers and sisters, and to be able to exchange ideas in all confidence was a great blessing. This too was a fruit of the Spirit.
• The discussion of the five questions proposed widened our horizons, gave us a certain focus and opened up paths.
1. On the first question we based our reflections on the reports of Mgr Gantin, Archbishop of Cotonou, and of Dom Jean Leclercq. Both agreed on the essentials of monastic life, but the pastor expected an increased response by monks to certain vital current needs in Africa, and that they should respond to the needs of the Church which welcomed them. Dom Jean Leclercq held that the vocation of monks was simply to be there, to be a monk, and that it was a matter first and foremost of ‘setting up the reality of a life in charity, union to God, union among the brothers, thus presenting one of the charisms which are essential for the whole Church to enable her to fulfil integrally her role as spouse of Christ and witness to Christ’.
All the interventions which followed affirmed the need to maintain the contemplative dimension of monastic life, while some stressed the need for separation from the world and others the need for openness to the spiritual and material needs of the Christianity which welcomed us. In the end the debates issued in a ‘declaration on the fundamental orientation of monastic life in Africa’, envisaged above all for the Bishops. It laid down:
a. The monastic ideal, a humble and hidden life centred on the search for God.
b. The aim of the foundations, to allow young people of Africa to realize this contemplative ideal in a way of life consecrated by the Church, and thus to achieve its planting in their country of origin.
c. Even if we do not take a direct part in the work of evangelisation, there would necessarily be an influence of the monasteries by their life of prayer and charity on the surrounding populations.
In fact it turned out that even those who put the accent on separation from the world did not remain indifferent to the needs of the Church and the surrounding populations.
2. The discussions of the liturgy also issued in a ‘Common declaration on the encouragement of an African liturgy’ directed above all to the African bishops. Practically everywhere in 1964 we had a Latin office. We were asking to be able to celebrate the liturgy in a living language ‘for an active, intelligent and fruitful participation of all in the liturgical action’ according to the Liturgical Constitution of Vatican II. It was premature to invisage the conditions of an African liturgy. This could only be the work of Africans themselves, but we longed to have even at that stage the possibility of taking up the values of Afican cultures into monastic prayer: positions, gestures, singing, dancing, musical instruments, etc, all bringing in the rhythm of the local Church.
3. I could speak also of the other subjects raised, the formation of the young and economic life. I will say a word only on formation. It is reassuring to see that it produced the grace of authentic novices and nuns who have developed into superiors fully equal to their tasks.
The AIM continues to help us by supporting sessions on formation at every level. There are sessions which bring together the young in one or other monastery and thus foster valuable contacts between communities. The Saint Anne Structure for formation of future formators has already borne fruit. With the passing of the years the Help for Monastic Foundation became the AIM. The AIM is truly lived at the level of our communities. The Bouaké Meeting was the moment when it became known. It was only a startingpoint. It continues as an increasingly fine help to our monasteries at every level. The Bulletin of the AIM reaches us regularly; we are particularly grateful that it opens us to all the monasteries which are arising around the world. The AIM has certainly fulfilled the mission entrusted to it at Bouaké of bringing our monasteries together.