Fourth Meeting of Monastic Superiors of French-speaking West Africa

The French-speaking monastic superiors of West Africa held a meeting at Toffo, Benin,
on 5th-11th February, after which the Association of Benedictine Nuns of West Africa
held their own meeting of sharing and reflection.

We wish first of all to express to the AIM our joy at being accompanied in prayer in the context of the foundations which can be places of thrilling challenge. We drew attention also to the interest noted very recently by the formators at Parakou in the St Anne structure, the session of JPM etc, and we thank the AIM for its sharing, its determined support and its help wherever that has been possible.

The minutes taken by Mother Henriette, Prioress of Koubri and by P. Ange-Marie Niouky, Abbot of Keur-Moussa, will faithfully tell the story of the session. These meetings in a very fraternal spirit are important to situate ourselves better in our service of responsibility in community and with regard to the due witness of monastic life.

P. Théodore Coco, Abbot of the monastery of Dzogbégan in Togo, coordinator of the monastic Superiors of West Africa, summarizes the question:

“To be witnesses of reconciliation, of justice, of peace, as the recent Synod invited us: ‘The Church expects much of the witness of religious communities characterized by diversity, whether racial, regional or ethnic. Such communities proclaim by their life that God makes no acceptance of persons, that we are members of one single family, living in harmony, in diversity and peace.’ How can we give our continent this noble witness which the Church expects of us if we cannot manage the various crises inherent in the growth of our communities? We are going to examine various aspects of the management of our communities. Each of us must be alert to discover what God wants to say through this meeting to him and to his community.”

Opening

Mother Marie-Reine, Prioress of Toffo, expressed the joy of the community of St Joseph of Toffo in welcoming the monastic Superiors who were coming together according to custom for the purpose of a fraternal sharing of their personal and community experiences: ‘Welcome home at Toffo,’ she insisted, ‘make yourselves at home at Toffo. The family has no limit! This meeting will be an enrichment for all. It will contribute to the fulfilment of our mission to our respective communities in fidelity to our charism in our father, St Benedict. I am glad to be taking part in this meeting for the first time as newly-elected prioress.’ We greeted with joy the encouraging presence of Mother Beatrice, Prioress of Martigné-Briand (France), President of the Congregation of St Bathilde, on a fraternal visit to Toffo. She also was glad to make the acquaintance of the monastic Superiors of West Africa.

Management of Human Resources in our Communities

This theme had been chosen at the end of our meeting of 2006 at Keur Moussa, where we reflected on work in our communities. The connection between the two subjects is obvious. To help us begin our reflection on these dimensions of the Church and of the world the two invited speakers had accepted to share their knowledge and experience, M. Michel Améké, first councillor of the Commission for Justice and Peace in Togo, and P. Edouard Adé, pastor of the parish of the Good Shepherd at Cotonou.

To whet our appetites, M. Michel Améké presented four tableaux representing the situations to be managed. These first two days would throw into relief the importance of the structure of our communities and of the responsibilities of each of their members: Who? Does what? Where? When? How? We also discussed through a scheme of work which précised some notions of penal law. Free discussion with M. Améké in a way not devoid of humour and on concrete facts allowed us better to situate the connections with workers in our communities, those which needed to be put on a firm footing with administrative institutions. He drew our attention to dispositions to be made in order to avoid unfortunate accidents or lack of discernment.

P Edouard Adé took the same course as M. Améké by presenting pictures of panels which illustrated some scenes of life in society or in the family. He carefully stressed the first two, which included two others. The first panel presented two animals attached to the same rope. When they faced each other, they quarrelled; when they moved forwards, they worked together and made a good team. The second panel showed the animals on the prairie: they grazed without a care in the world till a predator appeared; then each made a run for it, and one unfortunate victim fell under the blows. There again, with the help of the herd instinct, the animals regrouped and repelled the predator. ‘All together, make common cause!’ In this same preliminary talk P. Adé also presented some situations which showed us how to manage our affairs in our relations with the outside world.

What model of management did St Benedict favour?

For St Benedict the monastery is above all a family, of which the abbot is the father. St Benedict therefore wanted a family on the model of the primitive community. Ananias and Sapphira gave a bad example of belonging to this spiritual family. Foreseeing this lethal danger St Benedict absolutely condemns the instinct of private property, of lack of transparency, etc. For St Benedict the monastery is also a ‘school of the Lord’s service’. So to live the Gospel is a path of growth which implies apprenticeship. All the wisdom of the father of the monastic family will lie in moderation, discretion, good sense in the perception of things and events. The Rule is already an inspired manual for the management of human resources which has proved itself.

Good management of human resources depends on whether the organisation possesses a vision, an objective, a mission and clearly defined values.

Vision: a world without hunger

Objective: to help people produce food

Mission: to reduce hunger by forming farmers

Value: commitment to God, humility, learning-curve.

Four essential anchor-points: examples given from humanitarian work:

• The Vision is needed to motivate the community, e.g. sign of Christian life, unity, progress towards God together.

• The Objective is essential to ensure that all work together to the same purpose, e.g. School of the Lord’s service, sharing of life, prayer, work, mutual help.

• Without Mission it is impossible for the monastery to know what work is to be done, so that tasks cannot be identified, e.g. complementarity of persons, balance, ora et labora.

Values show how the monastery should work, what sort of staff are needed to achieve it, e.g. humanity, humility, readiness to be a disciple, ‘sacred vessels of the altar’, renewal in the world of a taste for God.

Internal structure of the community: situation and role:

On this subject we dwelt on two specific employments, considered according to the size of the communities represented, small, medium or large. The two employments on which the groups reflected were the cellarer and the cook: difficulties encountered and job-description. To present the main lines of the task to be accomplished, what is expected of the official, his place in the hierarchical structure, the limits of his power of decision. At the feed-back, by way of conclusion the leader simply laid before us an anecdote: Thomas Aquinas was asked whom he would select, a scholar, a saint or a sage. He replied, ‘A scholar to teach us, a saint to pray for us and a sage to govern us.’

The complexity of managing people:

The field of human relationships fluctuates: since every human being has a personal history, the risk of misunderstanding is considerable.

Order: Everything has its place, every brother has his rank in the community according to his entry into the monastery. The problem of personal influence is too developed in Africa. We should pay particular attention to it. The order which St Benedict established in the community could be a means of healing in Africa.

Objective Structure: When considering a responsibility, a job, one does not begin by thinking of a particular person. This is the spirit of the Rule which should always be observed.

Selection: This is difficult. It is always necessary to turn to the right person, capable of giving of his or her best to the job, according to the objective orientation of the Rule.

The three levels of organisational structure

A good organisational structure needs three levels:

Knowledge: qualifications

Good sense: experience, competence, aptitudes

Goodness: personal qualities, behaviour.

To make this structure work in monastic life, the third level is the most important. Consequently this means inverting the order of the three levels. It is a matter of witness:

Third level: Goodness. It is important to consider not what diploma a particular brother has but what his motives are. It is essential to abandon any idea of a career-plan, and help him aim at openness to what God wants. What service can help him to live the life to which he is called? Can he in this way live a life of intimacy with the Lord? Hence detachment and liberty must be joined together. It is important also to detail the brother’s personal mission and that of the community.

Second level: Good sense. It is important to remember the adage ‘Grace does not destroy nature’. The whole monastery is a school of humanity. It is important to educate so that each person thinks positively of others.

- The evil eye – this is the evil eye which at first envies little things and in the end issues in sorcery. If I do not welcome the other as a gift from God, little by little he or she becomes a threat. A Beninois song goes, ‘What God the creator has given me is never little.’ The counterweight to sorcery is not exorcism but education in wonder. The culture of wonder, a positive pastoral attitude to the other, will set us free.

- Witness – ‘I am a Christian,’ said someone, rejoicing at the promotion of his friend, ‘a good which comes to another, my brother, gives me joy.’ The management of resources is the cultivation and development of this spirit around oneself.

First level: Knowledge. A brother is given a job in view of the needs of the community and the competence of the brother, but in view also of his own willingness. In the world recruitment follows the knowledge or the technical formation of the candidates. The abbot cannot give a job to someone without a minimum of aptitude. Formation is a real need.

Practical Advice

The importance of transmission, passing on service to the community: It is not for nothing that we pray for the brothers in our communities who enter into a service at the beginning of the week. The spirit of the Rule prescribes that those who enter on a service of the community for a set period should be helped by the prayer of all the brothers, with whom they remain in communion in the exercise of their service. The abbot should return periodically to the meaning of this prayer of blessing to make its meaning explicit. What meaning should be given to this prayer? The brothers fulfil their service in the light of the Trinity: we are creatures, servants. The Father creates, the Son saves and the Holy Spirit sanctifies.

For the success of this mission, certain elements must be respected, e.g. Perseverance in good zeal or ‘management of performance’. It is one thing to begin a good work, another to stick at it and continue to be effective. In the jargon of management of human resources this is called ‘management of performance’. This means, how, over time, do I ensure my competence?

Feed-back: a cycle of review and setting out objectives: Taking account of the universe in which we are formed avoids the generation gap. Misunderstandings can creep in and issue in a dialogue of the deaf. The internet generation is a generation of dreamers. Hence, it is vital to be aware of this and always ensure that an order given has been understood and noted. Discrete verification is always needed, to ensure advance in a job and a new experience. Such checks should not be resented as a lack of confidence, but should be felt as an encouragement to do better. ‘Government is information!’ In our modern societies it is indispensable for authorities to have information. This exchange between the brothers and the authority must not degenerate into suspicion of the brothers. Make the apt comment in season and out of season. ‘To be present without being present!’ God is always present on the journey!

Conclusion: Monastic life, a sign of the Kingdom

It must never be forgotten that monastic life is a sign of the Kingdom to come. Its source is incontestably the Rule of St Benedict. Whoever is responsible must take responsibility for his office and for the brothers under his command. The responsible person is also the one who supplements the weaknesses of fragile brothers. He attempts to foster a certain maturity among the brothers while accepting them as they are. It is in this attitude of confidence that he gives himself to all. Sometimes we form a priori views of facts which have no relation to one another – especially in Africa we must be more aware of this.

The issue of this meeting was the truth of monastic witness: we lived a real meeting of brotherhood. May this reflection animate each of us to live as ourselves and to accompany our brothers and sisters in this sign of service.

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