Mother Rosaria Spreafico OCSO,
Abbess of Vitorchiano
Vitorchiano, a monastic missionary movement
This text was written two years ago. It retains its relevance and presents some precious criteria for undertaking the project of a foundation in good conditions. The community of Vitorchiano has had a fine experience of making foundations during the whole of the second half of the 20th century and extending right up to the present time.
In a conference given at the Abbey of Ligugé on 9th July 1961 Dom Gabriel Sortais, Abbot General of our Order from 1951 to 1963, expressed himself thus:
Those who have received the gift of monastic life [have the duty of] transmitting it to a new generation and a new race. In monasticism today this transmission of life […] is not a free choice, but of its very nature an inescapable obligation, once it is understood how closely this transmission is linked to the nature of the Church.
Les choses qui plaisent à Dieu (Abbaye de Bellefontaine, 1967), p. 384.
It was only during the abbacy of Mother Cristiana Piccardo that the community of Vitorchiano opened itself to the ‘monastic mission’. After a first foundation in Italy there were other foundations in Latin America, in Asia and in Eastern Europe. An influx of many vocations of young people made it possible to fulfil the desire to bring to birth new monastic communities. This desire had already taken root in the heart of our community as a fruitful heritage of the ecumenical graces of the Blessed Maria Gabriella and of Mother Pia Gullini (Abbess of our community during the Second World War). It was also a natural response to the call to the Church and the Order.
These foundations renewed and continue to renew the missionary spirit within our community, which is one of the elements of youth and vitality in the Church. But we should not forget that, precisely in view of the many missionary appeals, the first task was to renew the community at Vitorchiano itself. This was the task to which Mother Cristiana, who guided the community for twenty-four years (1964-1988, that is, the years during and after the Second Vatican Council), devoted herself heart and soul. Fidelity to Tradition, to the Magisterium and to the Pope, an openness to the signs of the times, a wise use of dialogue as an instrument to encourage a community unity based on a common vision, the unbelievable confidence which she gave to young people coming from different continents and cultures, a vision of monastic life both clear and attractive in its simple and joyful humanity – all these were features of this great lady. But this is not the moment to give a eulogy of Mother Cristiana, who profoundly marked our history and who remains a living part of it, even from distant Venezuela. However, a tree is known by its fruits, and to know her it is quite sufficient to look at our foundations.
From the beginning, even if the concrete modality of circumstances modified them, the birth of each of our foundations has always been based on fundamental principles which laid down the outlines of the project. An authentic monastic mission is always and exclusively born in the heart of a community which listens and responds to the call of the Church, which generously agrees to share its own life, which puts itself at the disposal of others in a spirit of prayer and obedience, with a clarity and community decision which exclude all forms of individual projects. A nun may be called to leave or to stay, but in every case she is called to bear the weight and the risk involved in a foundation.
In his message to the General Chapter of 1993 at Poyo Dom Armand Veilleux, at that time Abbot of Scourmont, said,
According to the Cistercian tradition a community is founded by another community which passes on to it its own expression of the Cistercian spirit. For a foundation to succeed and develop it is normally necessary that it should be warmly desired and supported by the mother house. When a foundation is the personal project of an abbot or of a small group of founders, without being undertaken by the whole community (or at least a great part of it) there is little hope that it will develop. There are foundations which have begun as a personal venture and have indeed developed, but only because they have been taken up and adopted at a certain moment by the community of foundation.
L’ordre Cistercien de la Stricte Observance au vingtième siècle, II (privately printed), p. 314.
A foundation can become a surreptitious attempt to get rid of difficult subjects or those who upset the community, in the hope that they will find a new balance; the illusion of a quick fix in the founding house almost always produces an intolerable situation in the small group of founders, and provides no solution for the founding community, for unity is always and exclusively the fruit of a charity which seeks to integrate each member in the patience of love and in the journey of suffering wedded to the compassion of Christ.
A foundation must be born not only at the heart and from the heart of a community, but must also be born as a community. For us it has always been important that the founding group should mature in a consciousness of the Church, in an experience of reciprocal integration and dialogue, learning to take on responsibly their own choices under the direction of the abbess of the founding house and of the superior appointed. A good understanding and collaboration between the abbess of the founding house and the superior appointed for the foundation is vital. In our community we have always tried to help those designated for the foundation to live as a little community in the heart of the larger community.
This has of course implied language study, but also the experience of beginning liturgy in the local language, space given to dialogue for forming a common mind among the founders, formation of monetary responsibility and organisation of work, the assessment of plans for the future monastery, contacts with the place of the foundation. For the founding community all this involves making room for the life which is about to be born, with an inevitable increase of work and tension and a real spirit of sacrifice and self-denial. This is the price to be paid if one wants to achieve a real birth-process at the heart of a community. If one has not lived through this process of giving birth right from the beginning, it is difficult to catch up on it afterwards, since only what is truly part of the Church can be really fruitful in serving the local Church.
What are the danger areas of which a foundation should be aware?
A foundation always involves a long road of deepening vocational conscience and of personal and community conversion, which are neither easy nor predictable.
1. The first challenge to be met concerns unity among the founders
We have found that the integration of the group of founders within the mother house is only a beginning, even if all their efforts are successful. The small number, the totally new environment, the fatigue of a new monastic foundation are all elements which throw up problems of relationship which were only imperfectly perceived in the larger and safer context of the mother house. The difficulties of mutual acceptance and loyalty to a new superior, of inevitable divergence over what is being built up and the structures being established become more obvious. The sisters come up against the difficulty of a new language and of a totally unknown environment, with the weight of distance and loneliness. The search for a work which will provide a livelihood for the community can also produce some anxiety.
Integration must be a primary aim, acceptance of one’s own authenticity and that of the other sisters to live out the effort of mutual acceptance and correction in charity; this requires explicit expression of confidence. Above all, integrity demands a clear loyalty to the constituted authority as a concrete expression of obedience to God. Communion in prayer helps integration still more, and therefore right from the beginning it is important to recite the divine office in all its rich content, in its sacramental richness and – so far as possible – in the language of the country. Another important step is the precise and concrete orientation towards the work which will provide a livelihood for the community. This is not always possible, because of the poverty and precariousness of the new country, but it remains a most positive element in integration.
2. The challenge of a growing community:
Inculturation and transmission of the charism
The fatigue of the beginning is followed by the difficulties of ‘the morning after’, when the initial nucleus of the founders must gradually give way to the liberty of growth and the expression of the new local generations, though there must be no abdication of a charism which demands the gift of life from the founders rather than theoretical teaching or determination to maintain the influential positions. The founders are required to pass on the Cistercian vocation in all its integrity, the values which constitute it and the structures which define it. At Vitorchiano we have never thought of inventing a new monasticism in order to conform to a particular socio-geographical milieu. This experience has taught us that it is only in fidelity of a received patrimony that a creative power develops. It then allows the founders to become aware of the richness of the local opportunities, and to integrate them fruitfully into the furrow of tradition. Inculturation is never a sociological or geographical event, but rather the experience of a humble openness, respectful and appreciative of the beauty and grace of a people, a culture, a reality which typifies the place which we have wedded. This openness can create an authentic welcome to those who join the monastic community, valuing their specific contribution and understanding the richness of their diversity.
3. The challenge of permanence: remaining faithful to communion
It is vitally important to convey a real love for the mother house, but not to transfer to the new foundation a passive and unreasoning imitation of the details of the life of the mother house. More important is it to bring out the great value of the birth-process, the sense of being children of the mother house, the grace of having vital roots on which are based a hope and gratitude for the life which grows out of them. Of course on the part of the mother house appreciation and understanding in following the journey and development of the foundation are indispensible. This must encompass not only the regular steps leading towards autonomy, but also a passion for communion in a shared journey, despite the distances and differences inevitably produced and generating the richness of being the child and belonging to the same monastic family. Once full independence has been achieved, and a foundation is able to walk on its own, friendship, community, companionship with the mother house must never wither away, precisely because of the fruitfulness of the sharing which enriches both communities.
What has been the experience in our foundations of the help provided by AIM, and how can AIM support these communities?
We can only declare that, unless our foundations had been helped by the Order and by the AIM, none of them would have been able to develop. I have asked each house founded by Vitorchiano what their experience was of the help received from the AIM, and each of them answered by expressing their gratitude for the economic aid and help towards formation. Thanks to the contributions we have received our daughter houses have been able to benefit from the teaching of good professors in formation-sessions, from economic help in setting up, from help in buying books, teaching material and computers. Besides this they have received help towards buying machines and material for work and means for liturgical celebration.
We entrust ourselves to the understanding and charity of those whose profound conviction is that God has given us a special task, that of contributing to the diffusion of monastic life throughout the world. On our own we can never respond to this call, together as Church it can be done.