Journey to Brazil - November 2017
Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB
President of AIM
On Wednesday 22th November, 2017, I arrived at São Paulo to attend the jubilee meeting of CIMBRA, the national association of Brazilian monasteries of the Benedictine family, who were on this occasion celebrating fifty years since its foundation. The next day I arrived in the monastery of Vinhedo, where the meeting was to take place. The monastery is on the edge of the town, in a very pleasant green area, with its various buildings spread over the campus.
I received a warm greeting, and during lunch I already recognised a number of well-known faces, encountered at Rome or elsewhere. The meeting began with Vespers, an Office slightly developed, with the national hymn to the Virgin of Aparecida, the patron of the country, and a long litany to St Benedict. The evening meal allowed us to meet more personally. I meet Sister Teresa Paula, of the monastery of Encontro, a foundation of Béthanie in Belgium. She is of Portuguese origin but speaks impeccable French, having been Prioress General of the Congregation of the Queen of the Apostles. She has lived in various places, and finally since 1979 in Brazil. I would have the opportunity to visit her monastery later in my stay. In the evening a little introductory meeting enabled us to situate ourselves better. The Secretary of CIMBRA gave a presentation drawn from the archives of the association to cover the fifty years since the foundation of CIMBRA before we retired for the night.
Friday 24th November
Lauds were celebrated at 06.30 and were followed by Mass presided by Dom Edmilson Amador Caetano, previously a Cistercian abbot, and now bishop. After breakfast we met in full assembly to listen to a conference by the bishop. His experience as monk, abbot, president of CIMBRA and bishop gave his a very wide perspective of experience since the foundation of CIMBRA. He dwelt on the need to consider the evolution of mentalities in modern society in order to allow our monastic structures to evolve. He sees in CIMBRA a fruit of the Second Vatican Council, and this is a major point for him. He invited us to make a distinction between the essential and the accidental and superficial. His observations on the present state of the monasteries were very open and useful for the communities. It remained to focus on the means to be deployed so that the communities should be able adapt without losing their special characters.
In the second part of the morning there was a round table discussion with four witnesses with different links to CIMBRA: a sister of European origin (from Encontro), a young Trappist monk who had attended several session of formation of CIMBRA, a Tutzing sister whose long personal experience had given her numerous contacts with CIMBRA, and finally the Prior of Vinhedo.
Saturday 25th November
The Mass was presided by the President of the Brazilian Congregation, Dom Felipe da Silva, abbot of the Abbey of São Bento of Rio de Janeiro. I was later to have the opportunity to visit his monastery. The morning’s reflections were enriched by a conference of Dom Bernardo Bonowitz, abbot of the Trappist Novo Mundo and Vice-President of CIMBRA. His talk was stimulating, and fixed objectives, as much concrete as spiritual, for the years to come.
After this there were workshops on possible avenues of approach for CIMBRA. There were many suggestions, but the main aim was continuity. At the beginning of the afternoon the President of CIMBRA, Mother Vera Lucia Parreiras Horta, abbess of the monastery of Salvador de Bahia gave her vision for the future with great gentleness and strength.
After that it was the turn of the Abbot Primate, Dom Gregory Polan, who also made use of the meeting of CIMBRA to join the group of superiors and visit several communities. His talk centred on vocations to the monastic state. He set out to re-dynamise the communities in order to make themselves attractive. He proposed community meetings in small groups on matters of the common life, or more profoundly on the spiritual experiences of each member, pointing out that this had brought considerable benefit to his own community.
In the evening we were invited to the First Vespers of Christ the King in the community of Vinhedo. We entered in solemn procession to the full power of the great organ, and a fine choir joined the monks to sing the Office. The community is composed of twenty-five to thirty monks, and Dom Bernardo presided. The atmosphere is simple and enthusiastic, and we were all glad for this moment of prayer. Afterwards we dined in the refectory of the community with all the brothers, many of whom are young, and spoke very freely. They had prepared fine pizzas and good desserts. I was opposite a brother who had been a dental surgeon, another who had been a professional dancer of samba, tango and other Brazilian specialities; another aged nineteen. At the end of the meal it had been arranged that I should travel with the Abbot Primate by car to the Abbey of São Geraldo in São Paulo, but I could not face the car-journey at this late hour, so stayed the night and took the bus the next day. Indeed on that day I was to give a conference at São Geraldo after Mass.
Sunday 26th November
During the night I re-thought my conference and was not satisfied with it. On rising at about 05.30 I set out to re-write it, and managed to finish it after Lauds and breakfast, jumping into the bus at 8 o’clock.
Mass at São Geraldo : the celebration was very solemn, presided by Cardinal Orani João Tempesta, archbishop of Rio, who is also a former Cistercian abbot. The community of São Geraldo consists of no more than a dozen monks, but the buildings are imposing and they have a distinguished college of two thousand students. At the Mass the faithful filled the great building, and the choir of monks sang plainchant. The liturgy was very grand. After the celebration we shared a glass near the exhibition hall where documents on the last fifty years of monasticism in Brazil and on the work of CIMBRA were set out. Then we moved into the auditorium of three hundred seats, where all the monks, sisters and nuns, as well as numerous oblates, were waiting to hear the conference I was to give on the future of monastic life.
I put forward a reflection on seven points which seem to me important to underline for the present and the future. I built on the work of the International Team of the AIM, which is producing a document on the subject, proposing an internal reform on community life. At the end of the conference we moved into the refectory to share a festal meal prepared by the college staff.
In the afternoon I returned to Vinhedo. After a short pause we dined rapidly at 18.30 before leaving for the airport of Campinas. I was to travel, with Dom Bernardo Bonowitz and Mother Liliana Schiana Moriello of Boa Vista, as far as the town of Curitiba, to reach the monastery of Novo Mundo during the night. We arrived soon after midnight and quickly went to bed to avoid exhaustion the next day.
Monday 27th November
I celebrated Mass with a lay person from the guest-house. The brothers are most attentive to see that everything goes well, in a way rare in a masculine community. After breakfast the novice-master gave me a tour of the monastery and its grounds. The situation is quite exceptional: the buildings are in the centre of a forest of hundreds of hectares. The isolation and the silence are complete. The monastery was built in two stages, the first dating from 1979. These are brick constructions, with galleries joining the different buildings. The second stage dates from the last decade, and is much more modern in appearance. The church had become too small for the Sunday congregation, and the monks undertook an expansion which made it possible to accommodate about two hundred faithful. The guest-house is not large.
Everything breathes simplicity, airiness and good taste. The monastery has two hermitages close by. The revenue of the community is largely from farming, on which two paid workers as well as the monks are employed. The community consists of about twenty-five members, most of whom are young. One American founder is still present, very old but full of vigour and interest. The noviciate still has many candidates. I am very impressed by the climate of listening and respect which reigns here. For lunch a festal meal was prepared by external staff in the form of a picnic. Conversation went well, and towards the end of the meal several groups offered us songs or other entertainments. In the afternoon came a meeting with the community. I spoke a little about the AIM and gave some indications about the situation in Europe. There were various questions, but what struck most was concrete examples and witness.
Tuesday 28th November
After breakfast I went off to the monastery of the Encontro and was warmly received by the dozen sisters. The community was founded from Béthanie (Loppem) in Belgium. All the sisters speak French, which made life easier for me.
I was happily surprised by the great liberty of the sisters and their joie de vivre. The architecture is remarkable; the well-known Brazilian artist had a hand in the arrangements of this place, for which he has a special affection. The representations of the Encounter, that is, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (under the patronage of which the monastery falls) are everywhere. The Prioress told me that to live happily in a monastery it is necessary to have space to bump into one another, and for this the Encontro is most successful.
In the afternoon we had a meeting with the community, and they asked me to repeat the talk I had given two days ago. I did not develop it, but rather tried to make them do the practical work on one of the themes, the community. There was a good atmosphere and several sisters showed their interest in an approach so linked to the contemporary situation.
Wednesday 29th November
After Mass at 6am and breakfast the sisters assembled for farewells. It is a really fraternal community, from Sister Marie-Chantal, aged 99, to the youngest postulant, full of determination and all kinds of questions. We parted heartily, in the Brazilian manner! I was driven to the airport by Sister Maria-Paula, who had studied at the Studium of Vanves.
At the airport of Rio I was met by Dom Matias Fonseca de Medeiros of the abbey of São Bento, who took me to his monastery, a veritable seventeenth-century fortress on the edge of the sea. The abbey is much visited by tourists and has three hundred employees. On one side the noise of the city is omnipresent, on the other is an impressive naval base. A little further off the planes landing and taking off at the little airport of Rio are visible and audible. The baroque church is impressive, with its wooden and gilded baroque statuary. Vespers is entirely in Latin. The community is composed of about thirty monks, of whom a certain number are fairly young. The abbot, Dom Filipe da Silva, is a peaceful person, and the liturgical rhythm of the community is very recollected. I met again the previous abbot, Dom José Palmeiro Mendes, whom I had previously met at the Abbots’ Congress in Rome and at the Abbey de la Source (Paris) where he used to stay when he visited France.
At dinner in the well-proportioned refectory the reading was the book of Cardinal Sarah on silence. After the meal we met in the community room for an exchange on the AIM. Questions went in all directions, and I was obliged to make a statement on the condition of monasticism in Europe and the West. We spoke of Vietnam, India, Africa and many other topics. Then we celebrated Compline with a great procession of litany to the Virgin Mary, ending with a statio before the statue of the Immaculate Conception.
Thursday 30th November
On this festival of St Andrew Dom Matias was celebrating his golden jubilee of profession. The Mass was presided by the Cardinal-Archbishop of Rio, Mgr Orani Tempesta, OCist and concelebrated by two of his auxiliary bishops, the previous abbot of São José do Rio Pardo, Dom Paulo Celso Demartini, OCist and the Prior of Santa Rosa, Dom Cristiano Collart, as well as Abbot Filipe and the monks of the monastery. I witnessed to my profound fraternity and respect for Dom Matias, and thanked him for his collaboration in the Bulletin of the AIM in Portuguese.
After breakfast the superior of the Tutzing sisters came to take me to a favela in which is located an infant school run by the community. The climb up to the favela took us into a very special atmosphere. The favela consists of 80,000 inhabitants, but is the calmest of the favelas of Rio. The visit to the infant school helped me to see the work of the sisters with laity, which was truly impressive. I would have liked to spend at least a full day there, but it was not possible. We had to leave after two hours, but I was impressed by what I saw. After that we went to the house where live the Tutzing sisters, who look after a school of 300 pupils. I shared lunch with the dozen sisters, and after lunch we visited the college. The sisters want to ask for help from the AIM for various projects, and we discussed them at length.
Friday 1st December
After Lauds, Mass and breakfast it was time to take the plane for Salvador de Bahia. Arrived there at noon, I was met by two brothers of the Archabbey of São Bento. The monastery, right in the historic centre of the city, comprises some thirty monks, an impressive building in the middle of a poor quarter. A visit of the buildings impressed me. The corridor of cells is 98 metres long. This corridor runs at three levels of the monastery. One part is kept for the guests, one for administration and one for the monks. A certain number of rooms are used for storage or are empty. A college is linked to the monastery. It is also a place for tourists and has a fine library, open to the public, and for this reason a number of employees.
I took part in Vespers in the undecorated classical church, wholly different from that of São Bento in Rio. This was followed by a festal lunch in my honour: white cloths on the table, wine and varied food, and all in a very fraternal atmosphere. I had had the pleasure of meeting the Archabbot, Dom Emanuel d’Able do Amaral, several times at the Congress of Abbots in Rome, when he was also President of the Brazilian Congregation. He is a simple person, to whom it is easy to talk frankly; he invited me to return to the monastery for at least a week.
After dinner we went to the other end of town where I was to spend two days in the monastery of nuns. I had a warm welcome there too.
Saturday 2nd December
This was to be a full day. After Lauds and breakfast Mother Vera Lucia Perreiras Horta, the abbess, took me to see the school of dance which the sisters have set up for the poor children of the locality. The monastery is on the edge of a favela where violence reigns, as in many others. The school of dance allows boys and girls to restructure themselves both physically and mentally, and I had the chance to see a fine exhibition of classical dance from several groups. After that the abbess showed me the catechesis course. The children had prepared a presentation on the Mystery of Christmas. Their parents were also present; clearly the contacts are simple and most beneficial. I greeted each child but needed to leave fairly soon to meet Marie, a friend from my own home region, who has spent all her life in Brazil, deep in the poorest quarters, as a medical, social and pastoral worker. A notable achievement is the development of a pedagogy with a theatre of marionettes.
The journey to the favela where she lives was long. We passed all kinds of quarters where Marie had many stories to tell. I was full of admiration for the capacity of a European like herself (though she has kept a magnificent accent) to adopt another culture. Marie lives in a very narrow street which required a high degree of skill from the driver to avoid too much danger. We entered her house, which is highly original, very bare, to integrate with the locality, but in the best possible taste. It even has a little garden, at the end of which is a small hermitage where I could rest for a bit. We chatted a great deal about life in the favela, about the work with children, about the reactions to the charity which constitute the best witnesses to human relationships at the very heart of extreme poverty. Marie came to Brazil in answer to a request from Dom Helder Camara, intending to stay for two years; she has spent her whole life there.
Returning to the monastery I concelebrated Mass in memory of a Brazilian priest of the diocese, highly respected for his artistic, pastoral and social work. It was presided by the auxiliary bishop and several priests concelebrated, as well as a large and lively congregation. There followed the first Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent. To begin Advent in Brazil is not banal, and I was glad of this new spirituality. In the evening there was a festal dinner with the sisters.
Sunday 3rd December
I was due to concelebrate the Sunday Mass with a monk of São Bento, but he was completely blocked by traffic, and the abbess asked me at least to begin the Mass in French with a translation. In the end the monk arrived halfway through. Nevertheless the experience of the Franco-Portuguese Mass with simultaneous translation by a woman (in this case the abbess) brought me a wholly new approach to ministry, more shared at the liturgical level, more a partnership, more natural.
Immediately afterwards we left for the nearby town of Itapecerica da Serra where there is a monastery of sisters, Nossa Senhora da Paz. There are some thirty sisters, who wear a grey habit with a long and delicate veil. It is a foundation of the Abbey of Santa-Maria (São Paulo). We immediately entered the chapter room by a very impressive doorway, to find the sisters ranged on either side. There followed a most fraternal dialogue with questions and witnesses of all kinds, a fine moment of sharing the truth, followed by Vespers. This was according to Schema B of the Benedictine Office, with several chants from the recently published monastic antiphonal. This was followed by a solemn meal with white cloths and impeccable service by three sisters. I was most impressed in this monastery by the fine attention to detail; everything is perfectly in place.
Monday 4th December
The morning was spent visiting the monastery. Its architectural plan and arrangement are perfect. It must be admitted that this community has the good fortune to have as friend and oblate the great Brazilian artist Claudio Pastro, whose works are omnipresent in the monastery and who advised them on all the arrangements. He is now dead and his body rests near the church of the sisters. For the last ten years of his life he lived in his house near the monastery. All the sisters were present during the visit of the monastery, and the climate of fraternity was impressive.
At the end of the morning it was time to leave for a short visit to the sisters of Santa Maria, the first monastery of nuns in Brazil in the twentieth century. They were first founded in the centre of São Paulo, but they moved to a more withdrawn locality. The monastery is built in concrete on a very modern plan; the architect is the same as that of the priory of Vinhedo.
At our arrival the community gathered with Mother Escolastica Ottoni de Mattos, who has been abbess for some years. She did her studies in Paris and lodged in the Studium at Vanves, financed by the AIM. We had met each other before and it was a joy to see her again. Mother Escolastica has really given a new breath of life to this community which was suffering from old age and a lack of dynamism. Since then, young people have joined the community.
We ate in silence. Mother Escolastica had chosen the music, concertos for oboe by Albinoni. This choice could not have been better for me, as I enjoy them particularly, and to hear them in this context brought me special pleasure. After a well-prepared, simple lunch we made a rapid visit, including the great library, well-kept and equipped with tables facing the great bay windows. We then had a meeting in the chapter-room with the community. I asked the sisters that some of them should describe their vocation. This gave an original and stimulating view of community life in Brazil and its great variations. We could have spent a long time in this exchange, but the clock was moving on. Mother Abbess wanted to show me the workshops and their monastic products (chocolate, liqueurs, etc), then to the airport, weighed down with presents. It remained for me only to return to take the measure of other dimensions of this vast country.
At the end of this first visit my most marked impression was that a large number of monastic communities had been founded over the centuries. Hence each of these has the duty to pass on an important material and spiritual patrimony. This makes their heritage very rich, but also weighs them down and makes difficult their capacity for renewal in a constantly changing society. The communities of the northern hemisphere experience the same difficulty in a more severe way, with weighty consequences. In Brazil there is more youth and other monastic factors, with several new communities, of which some, but not all, have a fine dynamic. Europe and North America certainly have heavier difficulties in renewal but Brazil is moving towards the same sort of situation with the progression of secularisation, economic
pressure and the success of evangelical tendencies. There would certainly be advantage in drawing on new initiatives to give a more adapted thrust to the monastic movement in the new world.