Extract from an article published in the book of the fiftieth anniversary of AIM "So far yet so near"


Conference of Monastic communities of the Southern Cone

Mauro Matthei Puttkammer, osb

The “Conference of monastic communities of the Southern Cone”, abbreviated to “SURCO”, is an organisation of Benedictine, Cistercian, and Trappist monasteries, both male and female, of the area of Latin America referred to as the “Southern Cone” (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay). Its main aim is cooperation of different kinds between the monasteries who follow the Rule of St Benedict. The main manifesations of this spiritual alliance are the regular publication of the journal, Cuadernos monásticos, uninterrupted since 1966, the realisation of annual retreats for Superiors, the annual organisation of study days and formation for monks and nuns, and a publishing house called “Ecuam”, which offers publications on monastic themes. The organisation manages an internet site, www.Surco.org, where one can find more detailed information. Currently SURCO brings together 26 monasteries, 13 male and 13 female houses, of which 21 are Benedictine and 5 Cistercian and Trappist.

This spiritual inter-monastic alliance, whose cohesion and use have been verified for several decades, was incontestably a fruit of the Second Vatican Council. The difficulties of the Council were followed in all monasteries with lively interest and a desire to learn to draw out the many consequences of the magisterial statements. Unlike Brazil, which underwent vigorous Benedictine monastic implantation from 1582, the Hispanic- American nations had their first monastic foundation in 1899, with the establishment of the current Niño Dios (Child Jesus) monastery at Entre Rios in Argentina. The Trappist foundations only began from 1958, with Azul, the first abbey. Religious life according to the Rule of St Benedict in the countries of the Southern Cone thus lacks the deep roots which characterise the Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, Mercy, and Jesuit orders, as well as more modern Congregations.

Added to these weak origins was the fact that, until the eve of the Council, some Benedictine monasteries still belonged to their European or American mother-houses, with their respective Chapters General, canonical visitations, and different Rules, which made them dependent on far distant, and consequently mutually separated hierarchical bodies. In the very optimistic climate of renewal and new times which imbued the Council, a wish for rapprochement was, albeit vaguely, felt in different monasteries. In particular, the decree Perfectae Caritatis produced a sharp echo in communities, and paragraph 22 was considered to be a direct invitation to seek a union or federation between scattered houses. Paragraph 22 reads, “Autonomous religious foundations and monasteries should, with permission of the holy see, consider the appropriateness of … federation if they belong to the same religious stock.”

Although the invitation of the Council was clear and the advantages of seeking a union were obvious, opposing factors quickly made themselves felt. Without mentioning the inevitable suspicions, due to differing spiritual formations and ways of life, fears and some prejudices, was the historical fact that there had never been a Congregation, Federation, or Union, nor any centre able to provide the impetus.

But what weighed above all on the first attempts to come together of what would be SURCO was the absence of a sufficiently defined idea of an aim to be achieved. At the start, there was talk of fixing a sort of legal framework, for which it was thought help could be asked from AIM. In any case, the first initiative came from a more marginal source. A few months after the closing of the Council, Prior Fr Santiago Veronesi, OSB, of the monastery of Christ the King, Siambón, Tucumán, Argentina, suggested a meeting to the Superiors of male and female, Benedictine and Trappist monasteries of the Southern Cone, to study together the new ways which the Council was opening up for monastic life, and to prepare themselves in this way for the Benedictine Abbots’ Congress, which would be held at Rome, and for the General Chapter of the Trappist Order. This historic event took place in the vast campus of the Los Toldos monastery, from 3 to 5 March 1966. Eight Benedictine superiors took part, along with Dom Agustín Roberts, Prior of the Trappist house of Azul, Mother Abbess Mectildis Santangelo from Santa Escolástica, and her Prioress, Mother Cándida María Cymbalista.

The presence of Prior Augustin Roberts and of Mother Mectildis at this first meeting was decisive for the future of these postconciliar monastic meetings. Fr Roberts ensured in perpetuity the Benedictine-Trappist collaboration, which is one of SURCO’s most wonderful characteristics and which, with the exception of Africa and Spain, has not appeared so strongly in other parts of the world. Both the writings of Fr Thomas Merton and, more popularly, the monasterythemed novels of Fr Raymond had facilitated a growing esteem for the Trappist life among Benedictines; and the writings of Abbot Columba Marmion had also been read in Trappist monasteries. In addition, the fact that the Benedictines of the Southern Cone neither managed parishes or large schools, as is the case in other regions, meant that the Trappists felt closer to them. The mutual sympathy between white and black monks has only continued to grow over the years.

The continuing presence of Abbesses and nuns from the largest female monastery of the Souther Cone, Santa Escolástica abbey, which had that time had more than eighty nuns, at the intermonastic meetings, gave a weight and continuity to a group of smaller monasteries and of short-lived foundations, often threatened by critical situations.

Just as during the first meeting at Los Toldos, the idea developed to ask AIM to structure the collaboration between monasteries. Fr Paulus Gordan, then Secretary General of the institution, presided over by Abbot de Floris, was to take part in the second meeting, which took place at Siambón monastery from 20 to 27 June 1967. Since the initial idea of becoming part of AIM was not possible, given AIM’s nature, Fr Gordan’s advice, to establish a “Conference of monastic superiors of the Southern Cone” was followed. The Conference elected Fr Ignacio Bruni, Prior Administrator of the Niño Dios abbey in Argentina, as the first President, and immediately took over the running of the journal, Cuadernos monásticos. The next tasks were future meetings, study, and formation. The decisions taken at this point have given good results until today. A significant modification in the Conference’s name was agreed on during the fourth meeting, held at the Benedictine Las Condes monastery, in November 1969. Given the fact that the presence of delegates from communities, as well as Superiors, had been allowed, a new name was adopted: the “Conference of monastic communities of the Southern Cone”. The abbreviation “SURCO” was thought up later, during the presidence of Fr Martín de Elizalde, OSB. Its advantage is that in addition to containing the syllables “Co” (Conference) and “Sur” (Southern Cone), it also matches the word “surco”, an equivalent to “furrow” in English.

“SURCO”’s success has had another beneficial effect, for from the 1968 and 1969 meetings, the Benedictines decided to sketch out a proper Congregation, number 21 in the “Benedictine Confederation”. In 1970, a “Pre-Congregation” could be set up which began to function on 27 December 1976, with the official approval of the Holy See, as the “Congregación benedictina de la Santa Cruz del Cono Sur” (Benedictine Congregation of the Holy Cross of the Southern Cone).