Dom Eamon Fitzgerald
Abbot General OCSO
PERSPECTIVES AND PLACES
I have been asked to say something about the Order in the light of the present evolving situation. We face the same issues, and so we need more solidarity in the monastic world and shared reflection that will help find creative solutions. It is a question not just of saving the charism but of freely living our hope in the Gospel and how to transmit the treasure that is ours.
There are at present 169 houses in the Order - 96 of monks and 73 of nuns - located in 44 countries. Of these houses 90 are in Europe (51+39); 23 in USA/Canada (16+7); 14 in Central and South America (7+7); 20 in Africa (11+9) and 22 (11+11) in Asia. As one might expect, Europe and North America show a greater diminishment in numbers and increase in average age except for a few outstanding exceptions, the main one being Vitorchiano for the nuns. The houses where growth in numbers and a lower average age are present are in Africa, Asia and Central and South America. In January of this year we numbered a total of 1,898 monks and 1,630 nuns giving an overall total of 3,528 monks and nuns.
The Order is divided into Regions (or regional conferences) which are free associations of houses of monks and nuns, generally, but not always in the same geographic area, which have no juridical
authority, but which work together increasingly on common concerns and in a spirit of mutual help. There are 7 regions in Europe, one in Asia, one for Africa/Madagascar, one for Canada, one for the USA and one for Central and South America. The matters of collaboration cover a wide range of concerns from formation, meetings of cellarers, guest masters, infirmarians, sharing of personal resources and in more recent times care of the sick and elderly and considerations of amalgamation or fusion. Commissions of Aid or ‘for the future’ are another element that has arisen in response to the needs of individual communities. There is also another ‘commission of aid’ which was established by the General Chapter to distribute the charity of the Order to houses in need. Communities are invited to contribute to a fund to help houses in need. While a good number of houses contribute, this fund is mainly composed of the large contributions of the beer industries of a few monasteries in Belgium which you may have heard of!
Now I will leave the Order aside and turn to AIM, its work, its concerns and the challenges of today and prospects for the future. What I have to say here will be a bit more eclectic and will reflect something of my own experience and what I have heard and seen over the past few years in regard to AIM or its work. First of all I wish to say that I subscribe fully to the remarks of the President of the AIM when he spoke of the need of solidarity in the monastic and Benedictine tradition in the face of what is happening in the world today at the political and social levels – the mingling of peoples and to put it in a few words, the world becoming a global village, as McLuhan said many years ago. It is not a time for paddling our own canoe or simply ploughing our own furrow. It is a time for collaboration and communion in the service of the Gospel, which is a service of humanity.
So I wish to say first of all a word of thanks for AIM, for the foresight that saw it being set up over 50 years ago, for the work it has done over those years and for the work that it continues to do through the President and Secretariat, the Council, the Executive Committee and the international team. That work includes:
• The concrete financial and practical help in building projects, in equipping monasteries to provide for themselves by providing equipment, training and formation of members and so on.
• The formation courses provided, the possibilities provided for studies, and especially the monastic formators’ programme.
Now I wish to share some thoughts and probably more some personal experiences that come to mind. I would like to touch on the question of globalization. Four of us present here attended the bi-annual meeting of the Union of Superiors’ General last week in Rome. The theme had to do with mysticism and prophecy today and was related to ‘the young and consecrated life today’. A Salesian, Don Pascual Chavez, a Mexican, former Superior General of the Salesians and past President of the USG gave a paper on this topic. While he said that the subject (of young people and the consecrated life) was a vast subject that needed real differentiation, given the diversity world-wide at the same time, ‘what is happening to the religious life in Europe is already in progress elsewhere, for example in Latin America, and not only there’. He went on to say that globalization is leading to a homogenization of peoples and especially of the young, flattening cultures and offering one single social model. He talked of a new secular humanism transforming the world into a new global village, moving towards common forms of a culture that is breaking down the traditional forms of passing on values, ideas and feelings. The social media have a huge influence here.
This resonates with my limited experience of visiting in Africa and other places in the developing world. One has only to notice how you can find the jersey of some of the famous European football teams being worn in the most remote places. Another more striking example for me was in visiting a community of nuns in Africa. Normally as many of you may have experienced, at the end of such visits there is usually a celebration for the visitor. There is singing and dancing but also a sketch or drama. Over the years it has always been stories based on religious Old Testament stories or Gospel stories. In this year of Mercy the story of the Prodigal son featured a lot. However in this community they put on a play (drama) that had to do with contemporary life and a conflict between traditional religious practices, present day social problems and even religious life. It had to do with a young lady who was engaged to be married but became pregnant beforehand; this was totally unacceptable in the traditional mores. The solution was to invite her sister from the convent to replace her for the marriage rite and then all would be well. I don’t get into details – the sister came out from the convent and then refused to go back after fulfilling her temporary role as bride! I won’t go on, but the point I want to make is that this was a total break with the past (to the surprise of some elders) and to me showed very clearly a new and ‘modern’ generation of young people in the monastery. They took this in their stride while for me I saw it for the culture change (and shock) that it was – shades of the new humanism spoken about above.
Again mainly (but not only) in the African context a good number of superiors have real trouble exercising authority as a service to the community (many of us still have!). And I see the need for the presence there of an older or at least wiser person who can not only model but also share responsibility in the community and so be a formative influence. But where to get the person? It would be difficult enough in Africa, though that would be the ideal solution. And I tend to feel that the white man’s day there is finished. But maybe there might be a space and a place there for such white men if they were available. We are talking here about formation, or integral formation, as one superior said to me when I asked her whether she had any thoughts about the challenges for AIM today. While acknowledging the need and value of teachers and academic formation and having speakers who can educate, widen intellectual horizons and pass on knowledge of the faith, the tradition and the charism that are necessary and important, still the thing that matters most is to implant monastic and Christian values and enable people to live in a monastic way in community.
Perhaps this is the place to mention an instance of what I have been talking about above. Three years ago during a Visitation of a monastery of the Order in Cameroon, the Visitor and his assistant had a real challenge to find a superior for the community. The community was under a Pontifical Commissary who was not resident and so a local superior (claustral prior) was needed. The Visitors tried other houses of the Order in Africa with no success. Finally they phoned Rome. They had an idea: they thought of asking the Superior of Ewu Ishan in Nigeria for a monk as a possible superior. The procurator and I discussed the matter and said they should try and we would see about getting it through at the Congregation in Rome. The Prior of Ewu Ishan agreed and offered one of his brothers who was to head up their new foundation as superior, and another as novicemaster. This was accepted and accepted by Rome and the men were appointed. The superior has just finished three years service there and has now returned to his monastery to head up the new foundation of his own community. First of all I want to say that the superior in question did a wonderful job in an extremely difficult situation. He is a wonderful model of monastic life: attentive to people; a man of few words, prayerful, intelligent, open to initiative and with a deep Christian humanity and good monastic sense. I mention this here as a solution that was inter-Order but also the fruit of friendship between monastics.
However, the appointment met with a lot of anger from the other African superiors. How could a Benedictine lead a Trappist community? And so on. In some places there is a very strong sense of being Trappist and not Benedictine! However I am glad to say that time and experience of the man won the day and in the end some of the opposition were hoping he (and they) would stay on as superior! The moral of the story might be that friendship is a good basis for collaboration!
But, still with this question of assistance from others and probably from older houses, I would like to return to this question of the new humanism. I offer a quotation once again from Don Pascual on this new humanism. He says:
‘The new humanism needs a Christianity that discovers, with and for the young, the human and humanizing power of Christianity. It needs people who have the courage to do with young people what they proclaim: create alternative communities that live what they say, that renounce the idolatry of money and power, and experience the freedom of being loved by God, and so have the capacity to love one another and others’.
This new humanism in Christian terms is the new evangelization which begins with hearing the Gospel ourselves and allowing it to change our hearts. Maybe this is the place and the space where some of us in older communities can be called to make the alliance between monasteries a reality in our own experience and thus a source of renewal and new life. We are always beginners, and are always poor and unworthy servants!