P. Matias Fonseca de Medeiros OSB,
Abbey of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
Brazilian Monasticism in the 21st Century
1. A Short History
In the context of monastic life in Latin America Brazil currently has a considerable number of communities in the Benedictine tradition. By contrast to the other countries of Latin America, colonised by Portugal, whose monastic foundations begin to be established only towards the end of the nineteenth century, Portuguese Benedictines founded a first monastery at Salvador da Bahia in 1582. New foundations continued to be made and by the dawn of the seventeenth century reached the number of eleven monasteries. Already in 1596, by a decision of the Definitors of the Portuguese Benedictine Congregation, they constituted the Brazilian Province of the Congregation, whose headquarters were at the monastery of Salvador da Bahia. The abbot was the Provincial and Visitor.
In 1827, after the independence of Brazil, Pope Leo XII raised the Brazilian Province to the status of a Congregation on its own, and in the same Bull charged the monks with education of the young. Nevertheless, the anti-clerical laws of the imperial government, aimed at killing off religious Orders, forbade the admission of novices. In 1889, after the fall of the empire and the proclamation of the Republic, a decree of the new republican government separated Church from State and allowed the Orders – practically moribund – to open their noviciates, which had been closed for forty years. To respond to the appeal of the last Abbot General of the ancient Brazilian Congregation, Frei Domingos da Transfiguração Machado, Pope Leo XIII asked the young Congregation of Beuron to come to the help of its Brazilian ‘sister’ in helping to restore it. In 1895, under the courageous leadership of Dom Gérard van Caloen, monk of Maredsous, a group of monks of that monastery arrived at the Abbey of Olinda to being the work of restoring it. This work was completed in 1910 at the promulgation of new Constitutions.
2. Arrival of new monastic families
From the beginning of the twentieth century several monastic Congregations came to settle in Brazil. First came the missionary Benedictine sisters of Tutzing, who arrived at Olinda in 1903. Invited by Dom Gérard van Caloen, whose vision of a missionary monasticism was soon to upset the superiors of Beuron, the sisters opened schools and dispensaries for the poor, and soon set off for the mission of the Rio Branco (in the north of Amazonia, at the frontier with Venezuela) with monk-missionaries. Meanwhile Dom Gérard was appointed bishop of this mission (1905) and became archabbot of the Congregation (1908). The sisters of Tutzing are well settled in Brazil and now have two priories and many vocations.
In 1904/5 the Trappists arrived, sent by the Abbot of Sept-Fons, Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, looking for a place of refuge for his monks. Immediately afterwards Trappistine nuns arrive from Mâcon. These two foundations closed in the 1930s. The Trappists returned to Brazil for good in 1977 from the United States and settled at Campo do Tenente in the south of the country, where they have many vocations. Similarly nuns came from Chile to found a new monastery at Rio Negrinho, near the monastery of monks.
In 1911 a group of young Brazilian nuns, formed at the English Abbey of Stanbrook, founded at São Paulo the first monastery of Benedictine nuns in the whole of America, from which came practically all the monasteries of nuns in Brazil,Argentine and Uruguay. From the years 1930-1940 onwards Cistercians (O.Cist) came from Germany, Austria and Italy, with a predominantly pastoral monastic style. Cistercian nuns also founded three monasteries.
The following years saw the planting of new monastic communities of various Benedictine Congregations: Hungarian, Vallombrosian, Olivetan, American Cassinese, Camaldolese, nuns of the Queen of Apostles. Olivetans of Vita et Pax, American sisters of the Federation of St Scholastica, Polish missionary sisters, to say nothing of several small diocesan communities of Benedictine inspiration. Nor must we forget the Carthusians of ‘Nossa Senhora Medianeira’, founded in 1984.
3. The present situation
This whole monastic world, planted in Brazil more than four centuries ago, and coming to Brazil for a variety of reasons, lives in its own spaces. The foundation of CIMBRA (Conferência de Intercâmbio Monástico do Brasil) in 1967 opened the way for these different communities to get to know one another better and to work together. The fruit of this reciprocal knowledge has been the dynamic of communion which enlivens the communities of monks and nuns to seek and find ways of working together and helping one another on several levels, especially in the formation of young brothers and sisters. Period-ical meetings of superiors give the possibility of an open dialogue and exchange of views on questions currently posed for the life of the monasteries, their mission, their presence in contemporary society, in the world of work and of culture.
The Rule of St. Benedict remains for Brazilian monasticism a source of unity in a plurality of forms, which enriches and enlarges each community.