THE OBJECTIVES OF THE ABBOTS’ CONGRESS

Abbot Giuseppe Casetta, osb,
Abbot General of the Congregation of Vallombrosa

CasettaDear brother Abbots, Priors and distinguished guests, Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1.2).

I am glad to greet you with these words of the Apostle Paul. We are glad to find ourselves together again to strengthen the bonds of our communion and to share themes, problems and perspectives of monastic life for our future and that of the whole Church. I would like to focus this introduction to the Congress using the biblical image of the two travellers to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35). This will be no more than a platform for reading, without any exegetical claims. Recourse to a symbolic biblical picture, rather than strict reasoning, can help us map out a way which, even if only in outline, can leave room for the desire of greater depth of practical proposals for our life.

1. The Metaphor of a Journey

cheminAs we know, the episode begins with the metaphor of a journey, which returns at the beginning, at the centre and at the end of the account. The sign changes, from the initial ambivalence – perhaps it was a flight inspired by disappointment after the ‘failure’ of the Cross – and goes on to show the way, in which there is no breaking away from conversation with Jesus, to arrive eventually at resuming the journey full of enthusiasm and joy to bear witness to the Eleven about the meeting with the Risen Lord.

Let us pause on the first moment.

To find ourselves once more in Rome at Sant’Anselmo cannot in any obvious way be for us a flight. No more can it be a mere parenthesis in our daily life. The acceptance of this invitation presents us with a journey which must be made: to come together as monks belonging to the Benedictine Confederation.

Existence consists in meeting people and being met: this is the anthropological structure in which God spends time and space drawing us to himself and making us participants in his mission. Today a great opportunity is opening before us, for only in this context, which is repeated every four years, do we experience together the catholicity of Benedictine monachism. In this we neither undervalue nor overcome the particular, but we give it its full value in the complexity and multiplicity of what is signified.

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council we too wish to refer to the unsurpassed importance of that event. I believe that the criterion suggested by Benedict XVI in his famous speech of 22nd December 2005 is a precious point of reference to avoid abstract idealisation of what is a complex historical process, still unfolding, as is also the ideological aversion to it. The hermeneutic of reform and renewal within continuity gives us all a criterion which can help towards a fruitful comparison between opposing tendencies.

The continuity of the tradition requires from each of our communities and Congregations a serious commitment. As Karl Rahner said so provocatively, if we limit ourselves to repeating something, it means that we have not understood it. There is no more time to make adjustments, but we need the courage to make changes which are sometimes painful but necessary. We cannot limit ourselves to automatically reproducing photocopies. Our faith has nothing impetuous about it; it demands a serious commitment, for we have a rich treasury and an incredibly creative God, since – as the American historian and academic Jaroslav Jan Pelikan provocatively noted – tradition is the living faith of the dead, whereas traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

The great themes of modernity like liberty, the laity, the world and history have every right to enter into the conciliar texts not only thanks to the contribution of great theologians, the so-called periti, but also thanks to the liturgical, biblical and ecumenical movement of which some of our fellow monks and abbots were protagonists, some trained at the Athenaeum of Sant’Anselmo. On this occasion we would like to remember with profound gratitude what they have given to the Church.

Differences are invited to interact; also at an ecclesial level the ‘totality’ of the Church and the ‘particularity’ of its expressions come together. This is the awareness of ‘everything in extracts’ (Balthasar) in which the extract is taken in all its seriousness as a theological topos, as the late Magnus Löhrer and before him Cipriano Vagaggini so often pointed out to our students. With Vatican II as our basis, in these days it will be most important to listen alertly to the differences which are here expressed, and to the message of a history greater than ourselves, made up of the mysterious interaction of grace and free will, of sin and forgiveness, a history into which we have entered, which passes through our flesh and blood, and which we are called to continue. This we must do, attentive to the reading which comes to us from the text of Luke: the two disciples ‘conversed with each other about all the things that had happened’ (v. 14). It was a conversation in which there is discussion ‘about everything’, though without reaching the decisive word. It was an account which seems to know in detail everything that had happened, but without recognizing the key which could open up that memory. In Italian we would say it was ‘un parlarsi addosso’ [a conversation at cross-purposes].

Jesus’ question to the two pilgrims includes a word which expresses their state of mind better than any other, ‘What are the things that you are discussing between you along the road?’ The Greek verb antiballo signifies ‘throw at each other’, and it is the verb which Luke uses to describe a situation of division which is manifested not only in their distance from the community and from the events of salvation, but also in their mutual relationships. The importance of the word, the dynamics of dialogue, the mutual listening... The French philosopher Merleau-Ponty distinguishes between ‘the spoken words’ which create inconclusive chatter, and the ‘speaking words’ which generate reflection, discussion and sharing. Our Congress is an unmissable opportunity to recover the taste and the weight of the speaking word! It is a matter of a word of dialogue which creates movement towards those of other cultures and other forms of life, faced with the preoccupations, the hopes and the efforts of others, distinguishing them from ourselves in order to be able to turn our attention principally towards the living reality of all. Paradoxically, it is by so doing that we focus ourselves far more on the divine plan, that we immerse ourselves in ‘the Father’s business’ (Luke 2.49).

dialogueA sincere dialogue presupposes attention to reality, analysis, reflection. There is no advance without great humility, without recognition that no community, no Congregation, great or small, holds primacy, granted or acquired. We must all recognize our limits and make ourselves aware of the needs and attainments of others. There is no concern here to enlarge our own sphere of power or influence, only of journeying together towards the realisation of the Kingdom of God, with the Gospel of God and the Rule of our holy father Saint Benedict.

My analysis may be mistaken, but I have the impression that in these days interpersonal communication is increasingly compromised. We meet each other more and more as ‘internet connections’ and less as real persons who know how to communicate with one another. Suitable occasions will not be lacking: the work-groups, which have been organized into six circles (A-F) for the entire duration of the Congress, will permit us to study themes of interest relevant for us in the present and in the future of our Confederation, in a sincere exchange which we hope will be very fruitful. In this respect I think what happened to the two travellers to Emmaus is significant: Christ asks them to assess the quality of their vision (‘and their eyes were incapable’) and of their actions (‘they stood still, their faces downcast’). These days of the Congress are a propitious occasion for a moment of stillness to assess the quality of our expectations, of our aims and our hopes. ‘We had hoped that he would be the one...’ (v. 21) is one of those sentences which weighs like a boulder: a hope in the past is the sunset of hope, the interruption of a desire which no longer leaves room for freedom, which allows no further time for divine intervention.

I am sure that the principal talks that we will hear this afternoon (‘Continuity and Adaptability’ from Professor Hochschild) and tomorrow (‘Autonomy’ from Fr Casey) will challenge us also on the level of the quality of our hope, which must be more than the future of our past! ‘To take risks in hope’ can indeed be the postmodern path to holiness, even for monks! In this context we need to ask whether we are living through the crisis (a word ambiguous but at the same time full of possibilities) which is affecting our monastic communities, with a concentrated look at ourselves, at our structures, at our fears, at the number of our vocations, at the future of our economies, taking seriously the logic of marketing, entrusting ourselves only to the Word of God which may suggest to us different paths (cf. Rom 5.3; 8.18; 2 Cor 1.3-4; Heb 12.6) to a future which advances inexorably and may leave blood on the carpet. A weakness (2 Cor 12.10) in which the strength of God is made visible. It is a bit like the crossing of a desert, an exodus in which something indeed dies, but at the same time something is born in a continuous tradition which stretches from St Benedict to our own days.

The reflexion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer before his martyrdom seems to me extremely apposite to this situation: 

'Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.’ (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 130).

2. From Chronicle to History: Word and Eucharist

After hearing the ‘chronicle’ of facts from the two disciples, Jesus takes the situation in hand and begins to read the ‘chronicle’ in the light of scripture, transforming it into Salvation History. The point is advanced clearly: scripture aids understanding, helps to eliminate superstructures and incrustations – because it goes beyond the outline. The Word helps us to read what we live through each day as a chronicle with the eyes of God, with the eyes of faith. The history which ‘begins with Moses, runs through all the prophets to arrive at Him’ must be repeated time after time, must always begin once more from the beginning. In this Word we find the map and the instructions, the sign-posts, the uncertainties, the questions, the deviations, the wounds and the recoveries, but also the ‘guide’ to prevent us getting lost. The Congress is an opportunity to help us to give more and more space to the centrality of the Word and of the Eucharist within our communities and Congregations.

promenadePermit me now to make an appeal: let us help each other in these few days that we have before us to find the ‘history’ within our ‘chronicle’ because, as Karl Barth said, ‘the Word of God is designed to express not our thoughts about God but God’s thoughts about us. The Bible does not say how we should speak to God, but what God speaks to us, not how we should find the way to come to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us, not the right way for us to relate to him, but the covenant which he has made with all the children of Abraham in faith, and sealed definitively in Jesus Christ’ (Das Wort Gottes und die Theologie, p. 28).

In these days we will celebrate the Eucharist together. This too must not be simply a scheduled meeting on the timetable. The phrase ‘he made as if to go further’ (v. 28b) challenges us. It is as if a space were being opened for us, a moment of hospitality in which to make space for the presence of Jesus under the sign of the Word which interprets and the bread which is given and has its special place within that call, ‘stay with us’. We discover from the start that we are being made welcome by the will of God which wishes to stay with us. Hospitality means sharing a table: we invite him, but it is he who presides at the supper, and he that stands among us as one who serves. So our Eucharist becomes a ‘school of service’ in which the abbot or prior at the head of the community shares with all the others the plusses (perhaps few) and the minuses (perhaps many) of the abbatial service.

The Congress has – among other things – the function of electing an Abbot Primate of our Confederation who, according to no. 42 of the Lex Propria, is the bearer, the guardian and the executor of everything which concerns the Confederation. He must keep careful watch that everything which he sees as the authentic Benedictine tradition and its spiritual and intellectual patrimony is developed and safeguarded. We must grant to Father Abbot Primate Notker that his service in these years has really been on this course, not only with reference to Sant’Anselmo, with a human and organizational dedication, above all unequalled from the economic point of view, but also with reference to the Confederation as a whole, for he has taken all over the world, through his presence, his conferences, the vitality, the enthusiasm and the potentiality of the Benedictine life, not only for monasteries but also for civil society. As a member of the Abbot Primate’s Council I have in these last two years had the opportunity to experience at first hand how important this service has been for the Confederation, the Athenaeum and the College of Sant’Anselmo.

Allow me to add a simple word on the Athenaeum of Sant’Anselmo before you listen – according to the programme – to far fuller and more detailed talks. Granted that the Congress of Abbots does not occur only in function of the Athenaeum and College of Sant’Anselmo (which is a commonplace that it could well be blown up or just sidelined), we must reflect seriously on our presence at Rome as Benedictine monks. In this city we cannot allow that the tradition of study and teaching which has here been so significant for the whole world should be weakened or diminished. The Bishops of the now distant Synod on the Consecrated Life (1994) several times insisted, in my opinion with a good deal of delay – ‘de re nostra agitur [this is our own business]’. It would be lovely, but above all useful to hear the same expression from the mouths of all the abbots and priors here assembled – for once, without delay.

3. The Witness of the Return

Wednesday 25th September will be the last day of the Congress. It seems to me that the image of the disciples at Emmaus has much to teach us also about our return to our communities when the event of the Congress is over. The evangelist Luke puts the return of the two travellers on a par with the stories of those who first spread the Gospel, Mary, the shepherds, the poor, the disciples of the Church at its origins. This is seen in the journeying, the sharing of what they have recognised and what they have found. It is the unstoppable impetus of anyone who has experienced the Risen Lord. This is why ‘they returned to Jerusalem and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together’ (v. 33). This has always been the true path of evangelization. The true identity of the disciple called to bear witness to the encounter with the Risen Lord cannot be conceived as a private journey, for it is always an expression of the community.

In a few days time the Synod of Bishops will be opened, with the theme ‘The new evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith’. It is interesting to note the meagre importance given to the consecrated life in the Lineamenta for the Synod, to such an extent that criticisms expressed in some quarters provoked a re-writing of the few lines reserved for the consecrated life in the Lineamenta, this time giving clear importance also to monastic life. In the Instrumentum Laboris (no. 114) it says, ‘In this connection is recognized also the precious support to the new evangelization contributed by the contemplative life, and above all by monasteries. The relationship between monasticism, contemplation and evangelization, as history shows, is solid and fruitful. Such an experience is the heart of the life of the Church; it keeps alive the essence of the Gospel, the primacy of faith and the celebration of the liturgy, giving a meaning to silence and to every other activity for the glory of God’.

We should be grateful to the Holy See for the invitation extended to the Rector Magnificus P. Juan Javier Flores Arcas to take part in his capacity as peritus in the editing of the synodal documents. However, allow me to put a question to this Congress: will it be possible, here or elsewhere, to work out a strategy which will allow for a greater presence in the institutions which develop ecclesial projects, and to make it known that the monastic world and the Benedictine Confederation truly have something to say on the essential themes of the life of the Church and of society?What is the point of asserting that the monastic ‘experience is the heart of the life of the Church; it keeps alive the essence of the Gospel, the primacy of faith and the celebration of the liturgy’ if none of us gives witness, in the places where ecclesial projects for the whole Church are worked out, of this experience in the concrete unfolding of life? It seems to me that one of the objectives of the Congress should be to bring us out of an autarchy which runs the extreme danger of impoverishing rather than enriching us. We are autonomous in order to be interdependent. We speak of Congregations, we speak of communities, but – please – not in a selfcentred and introverted sense.

Conclusion

In giving heartfelt thanks to all those who have taken time and trouble to prepare this Congress, I wish to you all that these days may be able to bear fruit in a tranquil meeting and dialectic between different positions and different cultures, but in function of taking back to our communities the results of a coming together marked by the experience of God and communion between ourselves, as monks of a Confederation which is not a legal fiction but a living organism which must grow and bear fruit.

Thank you for listening, and buon lavoro to you all!

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