top of page



Monastic life today



“All of Life as Liturgy”



The Cistercian General Chapters
(OCSO and OCist, September and October 2022)



Monastic Life and Synodality



Dwelling in the ‘common House’

Monastic Life and Synodality

Bulletin No. 123, 2022



Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB, President of the AIM

Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina, synodality and theocracy Dom Geraldo González y Lima, OSB


• A Small Beginning of the Synodal Journey in OCSO

Dom Bernardus Peeters, Abbot General

• The Rule of Benedict and Synodality

Mother Andrea Savage, OSB

• Listening with the Ear of the Heart

Sr Jennifer Mechtild Horner, OSB

• The Community of Tibhirine, an example of synodality

Marie-Dominique Minassian

• Challenges to Benedictine Monastic Life in West Africa

Sr Thérèse-Benoît Kaboré, OSB

Monastic life and Economics

The French Monastic Eco-System, an example of a co-operative network

Marie-Catherine Paquier


The Syro-Malabar Liturgy

Dom Clément Ettaniyil, OSB

Great figures of Monastic Life

Mother Pia Gullini

Sr Maria Augusta Tescari, OCSO


The Studium of the Priory of Bouaké

Secretariat of the AIM



The Bulletin of AIM takes care to harmonize with the various initiatives of life in the Church and in the world. This is why the current issue adopts the diapason of the theme of synodality according to the wishes of Pope Francis.

Has monastic life something particular to say and to live on this subject? Without any doubt the answer is affirmatives, and it is our duty to express the originality of this contribution. The three words stressed by the letter of Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, addressed to monastic communities, well reflect our characteristic approach: listening, conversion, communion. A careful listening, to which St Benedict invites monks from the Prologue of the Rule, and which he stresses throughout the Rule; a conversion which moves from the intellect to the heart to cultivate there the source of life; and a real communion, to harmonize from that position all our fraternal relationships, social and friendly.

Looking towards this fine horizon none of us has the leisure to relax, even if tempted to do so. To encourage us to move forwards Fr Geraldo González y Lima, a member of our international team, shares with us the encounter with the Risen Lord lived by the pilgrims to Emmaus, sharing their doubts and questions and receiving light from him who gives himself in the Word and at the Breaking of Bread. Dom Bernardus Peeters shares with us his first impressions as the new Abbot General now functioning with the whole order. Two Benedictine sisters show us their approach to synodality with relation to the Rule of St Benedict. A lay specialist for the writings of Tibhirine gives an account of the fine experience of synodality practised in that Algerian community.

As usual, various rubrics receive their share of the rest of the issue. The dynamic of sharing in the matter of monastic commerce gives an echo of the practical economy of the monasteries. The liturgy in the Syro-Malabar rite at the Abbey of Kappadu takes us out of our home territory, and the distinguished figure of Mother Pia Gallini of Laval/Grottaferrata/Vitorchiano gives us a stimulating witness to monastic life. Finally we present the Studium at Bouaké on the Ivory Coast, supported by AIM.

It is obvious that the monastic contribution to the Church and to the rest of the world remains lively. Monks, nuns, brothers and sisters of our great family, always need to become more aware of their responsibility in this matter and make sure that they do not limit their viewpoint to the narrow field of their local community. Let us together embed ourselves in the Word of God and in the Body of Christ to spread our road, with our hearts enlarged, with all our brothers and sisters, on the path of this life.

Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB

President of AIM


Lectio divina, synodality and theocracy


Lectio divina

Dom Geraldo González y Lima, OSB

Abbey of São Geraldo (São Paulo, Brazil)


Lectio divina, synodality and theocracy


Many of our monastic communities are living challenging times with the ageing of their members, the lack of vocations, the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic, climate change, etc., and they have to make complex decisions based on their present and near future.

In this context, we also received a renewed call from Pope Francis to use the tradition and wisdom from the concept of synodality, in which everyone is invited to listen and to be heard.

When we think of synodality in Benedictine terms, Chapter 3 of the Rule of Saint Benedict immediately comes to mind, in which everyone is called to council, including the youngest members. However, faced with complex decisions with strong consequences for our communities, we often ask ourselves if we are a monarchy or a democracy, and the same monastic tradition reminds us that we are neither one nor the other, but rather a theocracy, theocracy understood as the community that seeks together the will of God and its concrete realization in their lives.

How then can we harmonize synodality with theocracy to seek God's will and its fulfilment in our communities according to the Benedictine tradition?

Once again, the Benedictine monastic tradition bequeaths us a precious instrument, namely shared Lectio divina! Do we make use of this instrument? So I propose this possibility based on the biblical reading of the account of the Disciples of Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35):

Now that very same day, two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking together about all that had happened.

In the paths and in the history of salvation of our communities, do we talk about everything that happens, whether they be moments of doubt and pain or happiness and joy? It is worth remembering that when I share a pain, it is divided, and that when I share joy, it is multiplied.

And it happened that as they were talking together and discussing it, Jesus himself came up and walked by their side, but their eyes were prevented from recognising him.

Where two or more are gathered in his name, that is, in shared Lectio divina, will not Jesus walk in their midst? Even if we sometimes fail to recognize him because of our aridity, he is there!

He said to them, ‘What are all these things that you are discussing as you walk along?’ They stopped, their faces downcast. Then one of them, called Cleopas, answered him, ‘You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.’

Sometimes we start Lectio divina sad, but through his Word, Jesus does not stop questioning us and looking for the reason for our sadness. Do I have this perseverance in seeking God?

He asked, ‘What things?’ They answered, ‘All about Jesus of Nazareth, who showed himself a prophet powerful in action and speech before God and the whole people; and how our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death and had him crucified. Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free. And this is not all: two whole days have now gone by since it all happened; and some women from our group have astounded us: they went to the tomb in the early morning, and when they could not find the body, they came back to tell us they had seen a vision of angels who declared he was alive. Some of our friends went to the tomb and found everything exactly as the women had reported, but of him they saw nothing.’

In Lectio divina, do we not constantly encounter the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus? And in the same Lectio, will we not find the meaning of the passion, death, and resurrection of our ‘communities’? ‘I know it’s Easter because I deserved the joy of seeing you,’ said St Benedict to the priest who found him in Subiaco to celebrate Easter with him (Second Book of Dialogues, Chapter 1).

Then he said to them, ‘You foolish men! So slow to believe all that the prophets have said! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer before entering into his glory?’ Then, starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself.

Consequently, in Lectio divina, does not Jesus testify to us about his and our history of salvation? However, to have this ‘intelligence’ I mean, to do this ‘divine reading’ of events based on the Holy Scriptures, I always need to ask for the help of the Holy Spirit.

When they drew near to the village to which they were going, he made as if to go on; but they pressed him to stay with them saying, ‘It is nearly evening, and the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them. Now while he was with them at table, he took the bread and said the blessing; then he broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight.

Sharing the ‘Table of the Word,’ the ambo, and sharing the ‘Table of Bread,’ the altar, do we not recognize who Jesus is? And in his shared Word does he not ‘abide’ with us?

Then they said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’ They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven assembled together with their companions,

Does the Lectio divina shared at these ‘tables’ not set our hearts on fire? Does it not transform sadness into joy and lack of meaning into hope?

Does shared Lectio divina not direct us to the heavenly Jerusalem, the City of Peace, where God's will for us is fulfilled?

Does not St. Benedict ask us ‘what page, in fact, or what word of divine authority in the Old and New Testaments is not a very exact norm of human life’? (RB 73.3)

… who said to them, ‘The Lord has indeed risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then they told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of bread.

Does shared Lectio divina lead us to rise again with Jesus?

Would it not also be the way of resurrection for our communities?

In shared Lectio, do we not witness the encounter with Jesus and the discernment of the will of God the Father through the Holy Spirit?

Isn’t this the meaning of ‘Suscipe me’ in our communities: ‘Receive me, Lord, according to your word, and I will live, and do not confound me in my hopes’ (Psalm 118.116)?



sharing Your Word,

we recognize You in the bread

and in our history of salvation.


A small beginning of the Synodal Path in the OCSO



 Dom Bernardus Peeters, OCSO

Abbot General


A small beginning of the Synodal Path

in the OCSO

On 11th February 2022, the General Chapter of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict  Observance (Trappists), in Assisi (Italy), elected me as their new Abbot General. It was an event that took place in an impressive atmosphere of synodality, without this theme being explicitly addressed. The synthesis presented at the end of this first part of the Chapter summed up the experience as follows: At this chapter ‘we realise that no solution can give hope if it does not mark the beginning of a walking together, of a synodal journey, in which we find unity and energy in following Christ, the way, truth and life, who calls us to follow him with love and trust.’

Although synodality was not an explicit theme, it was of course in the air, as we are part of a Church that is fully engaged in the synodal process leading up to the Synod of Bishops in 2023. The new Abbot General and his Council were therefore asked to initiate the synodal process in the Order. In the past few months, I have begun to do so.

As we planned to celebrate the second part of our General Chapter in September 2022, I told the superiors after my selection that I would like to visit all the regional meetings that would take place in the meantime, in order to get to know the superiors of the Order better, but also to listen to what they consider important at this time for the life of the Order. I gave my word, and so on 20th May I left Rome for a six-week trip to various regional meetings in England, Belgium, France, Canada, the USA and Spain. The emphasis was on the meetings of the superiors and less on visiting individual communities, although some communities were also visited during this trip.

Beforehand I had asked the regional meetings to share with each other and with me their dreams about the future of the Order. To ensure that these dreams may not be unreal I ask you equally to share how you view the realisation of this dream in the spirit of a synodal Church, in which participation and co-responsibility are essential (DP 20. VIII). Let us listen with the Spirit who has given us the charism by Word and Tradition, in the desire to be not another Cistercian Order but a different Cistercian Order (Letter to superiors).

I came to this question because during the first part of the General Chapter I read Pope Francis’ booklet Let us dream. The path to a better future (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2020). He wrote this booklet in the middle of the pandemic and states in it that dreams can help us to get out of the crisis. In a threefold way, dreams help us to face the reality and see openings to a new future. To see - to choose - to act are the three steps we must take from our dreams.

This is a moment to dream big, to re-think our priorities - what we value, what we want, what we seek - and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of. What I hear at this moment is similar to what Isaiah hears God saying through him: Come, let us talk this over. Let us dare to dream. (Pope Francis, Let us dream. Prologue)

It proved to be a good tool to help superiors to talk to each other in a completely new way. Normally, the regional meetings are characterised by sharing reports on the situation in the communities. Often this remains on the outside, because making oneself vulnerable to one another remains a difficult task, also for superiors. In all the regional meetings during this trip, the same experience was that sharing each other’s dreams brought those present to another level. It was not the intention to argue or challenge each other’s dreams. Just an exercise in listening, with respect to seeing, choosing and acting.

The intention is that I will collect all these dreams and give an opening speech from there for the second part of our General Chapter in September. This process of dreaming is a first step in the synodal process that we have started in the Order. It started very hesitantly because isn’t dreaming unrealistic? But in the meantime, many communities have taken up the question and have already started to dream and listen to each other's dreams. Still, more steps will have to be taken on the synodal road, but we have time.

You often hear that monastic life is synodal by nature. Yes, that is certainly true, but as I said at the end of the first part of the General Chapter, it is sometimes good to rediscover what you have. And let's face it, synodality may be in our structures, but do we really use it?

It is true, listening is all over the Rule, but do we really listen to God in our prayer, lectio and work? Are we, as Superiors, good listeners to everybody in the community or do we listen only to a privileged group of brothers or sisters? It is easy to say that we listen to the youngest one but is that a reality? How do we listen to our local church to whom we belong? What about our listening to those who knock on our doors? Are they really Christ or are they disturbing us? Brothers and sisters, this General Chapter has convinced me that we have the capacity to listen. It is there because we received by our baptism, without exception this gift of the Holy Spirit. It was confirmed by our Confirmation and it is daily nourished by the Eucharist. My dream, for all of us, will be that we become true listeners! But be aware, this requires from all of us: conversion! (Closing speech of the 1st part of the General Chapter 2022)

It is still too early to draw any conclusions from this journey through the dreams of the different Regionals. I still have to visit some of them and among them are the three major regions of the southern hemisphere. A summary or a conclusion would therefore be premature and would attest to a non-synodal attitude. Especially since it is my ambition to involve these regions more in the direction that the Order must take.

This first great journey does confirm the general feeling of the first part of the General Chapter that we have to give more attention to a personal and communal growth from the ‘I’ to the ‘we’. As good Cistercians, Mary shows us the way. At the end of the first part of the General Chapter I gave the superiors the icon of Mary, Vergine del silenzio, as a way to go with her along the synodal road and, in listen-ing, to realise the three movements of this icon: stop, calm down and wait!

The Rule of Benedict and Synodality



Mother Andrea Savage, OSB

Abbey of Stanbrook (England)


The Rule of Benedict and Synodality

Presentation to CIB Conference of Delegates,

23 May 2022


Synodality is very topical at present. As Church, we are all involved in the process leading up to the Synod of Bishops in the autumn of 2023. We are all journeying together. Pope Francis has invited all the baptised to participate in a time of listening to the Holy Spirit and to each other. The common denominator between the Rule of St Benedict and synodality is the word Listen but also community. The Rule begins with the word LISTEN and it is at the heart of everything that St Benedict writes. Central to this is our listening for the will of God, guiding us through-out our monastic life, in our prayer, in our lectio divina, in our sisters, and in the work, we are asked to do in community. In preparation for this talk, I have found I could easily give a talk for an hour so I will try and draw out what I think is important.

We are all learning what it means to be a Synodal Church. Pope Francis describes this succinctly in his Address on the 50th anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops in October 2015.

A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening ‘is more than simply hearing’. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14.17), in order to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2.7).

I might add to this a synodal Church is to be very Benedictine. There is much in the Rule that the Church can take and use in the art of listening to each other and to God. In fact, the Preparatory Document produced by the Vatican for the 2023 Synod quotes RB 3.3 On Calling the Community to Council, ‘The reason we have said that all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best.’

This is a principle we are to use throughout the Church in the Synodal process, and in our listening. Basically, we are called to listen to each other in discerning the way ahead. We are journeying together. To hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the People of God, to all the baptised. This means giving a voice to everybody. If people are not given a voice, they become frustrated and begin to murmur and we all know what St Benedict has to say on the subject of murmuring. It is the one thing he abhors! He tells us (RB 4.39) ‘Do not grumble’. Although we are also encouraged to keep silent even for good words in RB 6, there is a balance in the Rule of when to speak and when to remain silent.

The silence is there for us to hear the voice of the Lord showing us the way of life, and this we do in the silence of our prayer and our lectio divina but equally in listening to our sisters in the example they give us. In all this, we learn to discern when to speak and when to be silent. How often in community Chapters do we find those that seldom speak have the most to give.

It also saves us from the hidden agendas that we all have. When we approach the community meetings on subjects, we must be careful that our agenda doesn’t actually block the workings of the Holy Spirit, because we are not open.

As we know, the Rule of St Benedict points us to the Gospel as our guide. Recently I have come to see the Emmaus story as an illustration of synodality at work. This was literally a journey on foot but it was also a spiritual one. It could be described as a story of a monastic Chapter meeting in miniature. All the elements are there: the two disciples - the community, Jesus, the Abbot - and they were discussing the business at hand. Back to the story as it unfolds.

The two disciples are obviously very down at heart because ‘we had hoped that Jesus was the one who was going to redeem Israel’ (Luke 24.21). They had wanted him to be the Messiah who would set Israel free. He did, but not quite in the way they had expected. Their agenda!

Jesus said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24.26-27)

The disciples had opened their hearts and listened. We know they listened because they were ready to change. Jesus set not only Israel free but all humankind. It is when they are at table and he took the bread, blessed and broke it, their eyes were opened and they recognised who had been speaking to them, but Jesus had vanished.

They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’

So often when we come together to discuss important business our openness and our willingness to listen allows the Holy Spirit to do its work.

I remember when our community was discerning the way forward in the late 1990s. The question we all had to ask ourselves is what would give us life? In 1996 if you had asked me whether I wanted to move and build a new monastery my answer would have been a resounding ‘no’. What changed? Our process of discernment began with the community using facilitators for the first time. They were not what I would call an overriding success, but it got us talking and listening to each other. We received all kinds of professional help on the practical level, accountants, architects, etc. We listened to what they had to say. We also received some excellent spiritual guidance from within our own Congregation and from without. At times I felt we were turning ourselves inside-out. The moment came when we had to think outside the box!

Our initial vision was to adapt and change our monastery.  Mother Joanna Jamieson, who was then abbess, decided not to limit our vision but allow ourselves to dream. Dream about Benedictine life for women in Britain in the 21st century, and apply it to the life of our community. We decided to look at every option that might be available to us. In the end, we had five options. It was at this moment I felt it all changed. Having permission to dream I found liberating; the windows were opened, and the Holy Spirit was allowed to come in. Some words of guidance from Mother Joanna that also helped me: God is in the facts.

Looking back now on the road we travelled together as a community, I would say we made lots of plans but many of them ended up in the waste-paper basket. God took us one step at a time. We learned so much from the journey together, there were many highs and lows. We did make mistakes but more than anything we grew stronger together as a community. We learned to listen together but were also willing to change. I was reminded today of St John Henry Newman’s saying: To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.

Back to today and the way forward for the CIB. You have already begun to talk and listen to each other. What I would say along with the talking and listening, dare to dream. Open all the windows. What is your vison for Benedictine life in the 21st century? What are the important elements? What will breathe New Life? We will celebrate Pentecost in less than two weeks. Pray the Holy Spirit to make all things new.

Listening with the Ear of the Heart



Sister Jennifer Mechtild Horner, OSB

Monastery of Beech Grove (USA)

 Listening with the Ear of the Heart:

The Rule of Benedict and Synodality


Desing of Fr Yves, Abbey of La Pierre-qui-Vire, France.



On October 10, 2021, the beginning of the Synodal process, Pope Francis gave a homily in which he out-lined the necessary components of what a synod is to be. Pope Francis stated, to celebrate synodality is to walk the same road together. In looking at the way Jesus walked with others, Pope Francis unpacks the three ways that we are called to walk together as a community of believers. We are called to encounter, to listen, to discern.[1] As I listened to and then read Pope Francis’ homily, I was struck by how he was naming, without naming, the Benedictine way of life.

The monastic way of life is truly a way of encounter. It is through encounter that we hopefully grow in trust, trust in God and one another. This encounter takes place daily within the walls of the monastery as sister encounters sister. This encounter invites each monastic to open herself to the other by making room within her heart for the needs and views of the other. It is through the dailyness of each encounter that each sister opens herself up to the possibility of conversion by having the courage to speak and the humility to listen. Each encounter is shaped by the depth of its listening. It is the depth of one’s listening that changes us and leads us to conversion.

In starting his Rule with the word Obsculta, LISTEN, Benedict is clearly setting out the way that we as monastics are to live our life together. We are called to ‘Listen, with the ear of our heart.’[2] It is in listening, mutual listening, that a community journeys to God. It is this journeying together that will lead us to where we are called – the very heart of God. It is about listening to one another so that we can truly hear what God is saying to us. It is not a listening to some, but rather, a listening to all. Our charism of hospitality takes us even further. Through our charism of hospitality, we are called to encounter those outside the monastery and also listen deeply to those whom we find coming to the monastery for guidance and care.

In chapter 3 of the Rule, Benedict tells the abbess/prioress[3] that whenever an important decision is to be made, she is to call the WHOLE community together so that each member can be heard (RB 3.1). It is this mutual exchange within the heart of the community that is central to Benedict’s understanding of synodality. In Benedict’s view, all are to be heard, not just the precious few. This can be so different than the world’s way, even the Church’s way. That is what makes Pope Francis’ call for this Synod such a gift to our Church. It is not only the clergy who get to speak but all, so that God’s voice can echo through the whole Church.

While Benedict wants each voice to be heard, he takes time in chapter 3 to name the way each sister is to share her voice when gathered for counsel. Each member is to speak with humility while not defending her views obstinately. Of course, each sharing is done within the context of the Rule and must not deviate from it. Each member is not to follow her own heart’s desire and should not contend with the abbess/prioress defiantly(RB 3). In Chapter 69 Benedict is very clear that no one is to presume to defend another. Each member is to speak for herself (RB 69). The shape of this sharing allows each member to share deeply but not in a way that will tear down community. When called together for counsel, it is so through listening to one another we can discern the movement of the Spirit. The abbess/prioress for her part is to listen deeply and ponder what is shared so she can come to a decision. This decision is not made lightly but done in such a way as to build community and bring about peace.

While Benedict wanted to make sure everyone is heard from the youngest to the oldest, he was not creating a democracy. Yes, everyone is to be heard, but when a decision is made, each sister is called to obey. Benedict knew that decisions need to be made and not everyone gets what they want all of the time. How many times have we heard the words ‘you didn’t listen to me’ or ‘I wasn’t heard’ when in reality, the person was listened to but just didn’t get what she wanted? I know that we have all probably been guilty of feeling this way at times. It is hard to share what is in our hearts and find that the community feels called to go in a different direction. This is what communal listening and discernment is all about. We have to offer our voice, listen to the voice of others, and then be open to the voice of the community as a whole. It is when we can let go of our own will that we are able to listen to the Spirit in our midst. To grow in this area, we need to have enough experiences where we have found that our voice matters. Once we have experienced this, we can learn to grow in trust.

In the call to synodality the abbess/prioress plays an important role. She is to listen deeply with the ear of her heart to what is in the heart of each member. Of course, this happens when the community is called together for counsel. And yet, it is important to remember that it happens at other times too. In fact, the whole of monastic life is a call to synodality. Day in and day out, we, as monastics, are called to walk the same road together. We are called to listen to one another not only when we are called together for counsel but throughout our life together. We are called to always be in the mode of listening as we chant the Psalms, share meals at the common table, during times of manual labor, and during times of recreation. In each instance, we are called to walk the same road together. Every moment gives us a chance to listen and this daily listening empowers us to listen more deeply as we are gathered together in Chapter. It is in this daily listening that we grow in trust of one another. That is why, I believe, Benedict spoke so strongly about murmuring. To murmur is the opposite of listening. To murmur about another is, in a sense, to take her name in vain. It is a tearing down not a bearing with the other. Synodality cannot happen unless we are able to bear with another and begin to grow in trust.

The abbess/prioress, then, is to call the community to a deep love of one another. She is to create a safe space where one can speak and be heard and where differences are embraced rather than being feared. She is to encourage love and call out bitterness so that good zeal in the community prevails and the wicked zeal is rooted out. As we walk this road together, the goal is the same for all. In the words of Benedict, ‘Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life’ (RB 72.11-12) Synodality in the Benedictine way of life goes beyond the walls of each monastery and is also experienced in other ways. As communities are brought together in Federations or Congregations, another form of synodality develops. Each of these communities supports one another and through their sharing becomes more together than they could ever be alone. Together they steward the Benedictine charism from one generation to the next.

Another experience of synodality is found in the CIB. The first CIB meeting I participated in was held in South Korea. I remember, like it was yesterday, the experience of arriving at the monastery in Daegu. I was a little nervous as I had never been to such a gathering before. The Korean sisters welcomed us with open arms. We came from different countries, spoke different languages, had different forms of dress; and yet, we were all Benedictines. Yes, some were sisters, and some were nuns and some of our customs were different because of our culture but our essence was the same. We are Benedictine to the core. For the days we were together, we listened deeply and exchanged our thoughts and ideas with reverence and grace. We arrived as strangers but left as friends. Walking the same road together, the CIB becomes a place where we can grow together and share our charism with the world.

I am sure we all have had experiences of synodality in our own communities, Federations, Congregations and CIB. Sometimes it comes easily, and sometimes it is difficult and yet synodality is always necessary if we are to grow in the Benedictine way of life. My sisters, my friends, it is a gift we have to share with the world. Let us do so with courage and with intentionality.

[1] Pope Francis gave this homily at the opening of the synodal process on October 10, 2021.


[2] Rule of Benedict (RB), Prologue 1.


[3] Since some communities use the term ‘abbess’ for their leader and others ‘prioress’, I am choosing to use both as a way of honoring each leader.

The Community of Tibhirine as an Example of Synodality



 Marie-Dominique Minassian


The Community of Tibhirine

as an Example of Synodality[1]


Memorial of the Brothers of Tibhirine at the Abbey of Aiguebelle (France).


 ‘The theme of synodality is not a chapter in a treatise on ecclesiology, still less a slogan or a new term to use or exploit in our meetings. No! “Synodality” expresses the nature of the Church, its form, its style, its mission.’[2]


In his address to the diocese of Rome Pope Francis explains, in terms simple but striking, the realization which he hopes to bring to life throughout the Church. Synodality says something about ourselves, about our identity, about our relationships, which we must encourage to grow within us and then enlarge.

A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which has an awareness of listening. It is a reciprocal listening in which everyone has something to hear[3]. To make explicit the model of synodality which he would like to promote in the Church Pope Francis offers us the example of the person of a saint who is dear to him, Francis of Assisi, ‘alert to the voice of God, he was alert also to the voice of the poor, alert to the voice of the sick, alert to the voice of nature. He transformed all this into a way of life’.[4]

Listening to the Word

There is a marked parallel between St Francis and Tibhirine. Tibhirine is also a style of life, a way of listening. The more time we spend on the writings which lay before us that spirituality, the more we appreciate what held the first place in their spirituality, namely listening to the Word of God. For monks there is nothing original in this. Here is a first text of Christian de Chergé, Prior of the community, who shares with us a little of his experience of this Word:

The Word of God is a well. Every Word, every word… In the desert of our language there are ‘hollow words’, and there are also ‘wells’ (like a tap of tepid water, fresh or warm), the word slipping off the tongue, the word straight from the heart. Anyone who wants to listen to the Word will discover this well. Every Word delivered must be drilled, must be bored deep.[5]

The moment we take the risk of standing at the top of this well we must enter into the dynamic of the Word which these words can reveal within us. Are we standing beside tepid water, cold water, warm water? What is it that fills our words? This is a question before which the Word is constantly going to put us. Are we, effectively, this place of incarnation of the Word? Let us listen again to Brother Christian in a Chapter to his brothers;

It is he [God] to whom we listen [the Word]. It is he that we celebrate. It is his work that we want to do. This means that we are learning to efface ourselves: we clothe ourselves completely without taking a stance. The Word has taken the risk of confiding itself to us… This is not so that we can close it up in our own meaning (this would be a denial of meaning), nor in our own way of reading, as if it was our task to bring it to life. It has a life independent of us. We do not need to give it breath… Rather we need to feel that it is truly our own breath.[6]

When we open the book what we are effectively receiving is the breath of someone else. Like a sail filled, it is not ourselves who make the boat advance, it is the wind, the breath. It is for us to open ourselves, to consent to be formed by this wind, this breath which is the Spirit. Brother Christopher, the youngest member of the commun-ity, puts forward this idea in his own way:

To live in the word is not to repeat it docilely like a lesson learnt by heart, but to inhabit it, to let it take root, to live by it, to be nourished by it to the point of being conformed to it, to espouse its movement, the Breath.[7]

Well then, what should we expect when we open the book? We should expect a conversion, a profound movement of conversion to another person, an Exodus and a conversion. Let us return to Brother Christian who, in another Chapter to his community, goes one step further:

Objective of lectio: a privileged way in the school of contemplation for the awakening of ‘faith in the reality of the PRESENCE of God in and around us’. It is ‘a source of continual prayer’ which is a union of the heart with God who SPEAKS to the heart.

‘Discover the heart of God in the Word of God (St Gregory). The result? The reader receives the grace to incarnate this Word into life and to undergo a total transformation. Compare the question of Jesus to the scribe, ‘What do you read in the Scripture? What is written?’ It could be translated, ‘How do you read it?’ (Lk 10.26)… Do this and you will live… ‘Let us adapt ourselves interiorly to the Scripture’, says St Bernard. Isaac de l’Etoile says; ‘May Christ be for us the Book written on the outside and the inside’.[8]

This is a long text and very dense. We must underline some elements. First of all, the more we read the Word of God, the more we enter into the mystery of a Presence, the presence of God in ourselves. Little by little we become more and more aware of this presence of God within us, but also around us. We discover that God is speaking… and speaking through others and through events…

A second point to stress: the more we read the Word of God, the more we receive the grace to incarnate what this Word wishes to communicate into our life and to share what this Word wants to bring to fruition in our life.

Finally: present to others your life of reading. It seems to me that we need to re-find in it the strength and the desire to bear witness, something which ‘breathes’ God, which brings others to put the question of the deep source of our existence. Brother Roger of Taizé had a very fine piece of advice: ‘Do not speak of God unless someone asks you questions, but live in such a way that they do ask you questions’.

Every day we are challenged by listening. Every day the psalmist asks in the Office of Vigils, ‘Today will you listen to his Word?’ (Psalm 94). There is, then, in the Spirit a force capable of putting us on the road, of bringing us to life, and so of making us alert before the word of others. ‘Eternity has only today to signify and embody itself’.

Mutual Listening

This brings us to the second dimension of listening: mutual listening. Let us take up the thread of our reflections with Pope Francis: ‘The holy Spirit in his liberty knows no frontiers, nor does it allow itself to be limited by appearances. The Holy Spirit needs us. Listen to the holy Spirit by listening to one another’.[9] Brother Christian might be commenting on this when he says, ‘Everyone can participate in the effort of translating the Word. You can never capture the holy Spirit in a photo. In the diversity of our temperaments and of our cultures, each of us has something to say about this Word which is the life of every person’[10] This is exactly what we are trying to live as Christians: a continuous translation of the Word.

For this translation to remain active we must enlarge our attention to enter into the richness of the holy Spirit speaking in every person. Leave no one aside! This begins to be difficult because we have the very natural tendency to withdraw or shut down when we do not recognise ourselves in what is said by others. To quote Brother Christian again, ‘It is by goodness that humanity is called to dominate the universe, but by turning away from goodness we yield to temptation and to the illusion of force. This confession of the goodness of God results in the welcome of those who share it: such a person is the flesh of my flesh. God needs my conversion to the other in order to continue to create me in his image, man and woman, from generation to generation.’[11]

This extract from the Chapter is very important since it defines the criterion of good health of our communities, which is precisely ‘the welcome of the other’. Basically, the more welcoming I am, the more welcoming are our communities and the further we are in this confession of the goodness of God and vice versa. This is spiritual health. It implies a permanent conversion to the other. What a require-ment! Tibhirine was a small community, less than ten brothers, so impossible to escape! It was said about Tibhirine that it was an ‘impossible’ community with strong temperaments, different social backgrounds, different theologies, different choices, but still they formed one body, they made a community – and what a community! Anything is possible in the bond which the Spirit offers us in entering upon this permanent conversion to others. ‘Since we are all made of flesh and blood we are all on the way to being members of the Body of Christ. In each of us the Word wants to become flesh, that means, every brother according to the flesh can become for me the Word of God’.[12]

When we take the risk of following the gospel right to its roots we must be prepared for a journey far from our comfort-zone. This is a theme dear also to Pope Francis. The peripheries are not only exterior boundaries; they are also our own interior boundaries. So prepare ourselves for a journey to go and listen right to the end of these echoes of the Word. Vatican II offers us an interesting formula. The Council Fathers spoke of this ‘sowing of the Word’, hidden but open to our listening. We need to be able to re-discover it in everything, in every person. It must be stressed that we do not immediately see our brother or sister as a Word of God. Interior whispers, even if they are not verbalised, exist at the deepest level of our being, and we must pay attention to this and really persevere in order to contribute to this climate of love. Brother Christopher has a beautiful way of expressing this desire: ‘I would like to reach this peaceful land where I pray the Our Father without forgetting anyone’.

Listening to events

The more we grow in listening to the Word of God which transforms us, the more it helps us to meet and see the other as a word for us. This listening embraces the totality of what is real and everything that happens to us. Progressively, events too become a significant word for us and our journey towards God. Let us listen again to Pope Francis:

‘We must go beyond the 3-4% which represents those nearest to us, and go further afield to listen to others, who will sometimes insult you and harass you. But we must listen to what they think, without imposing our own opinions, allow the Spirit to speak to us.’[13]

To confine ourselves to the 3-4% nearest to us is really to deprive ourselves of a great part of reality. The Pope’s idea is to go to meet the 96% that we lack, with a real awareness that we truly do lack these others. This equally helps us to understand an essential dimension of the Church, Catholicity. ‘It is impossible to understand “Catholicity” without reference to this broad and welcoming field which has no marked frontiers. To be Church is a way of entering into this breadth of God.’[14] This concept of entering into the breadth of God means that we are not Christian, Muslim, Buddhist but ultimately and essentially children of God, and there exists only one camp, that of those whom God loves. We must be prepared to receive the life of God from all the others, the 96% who are waiting for us outside our immediate circle.

Is there any trace of this in the story of the monks of Tibhirine? Each year in the circular letter sent to parents, friends and supporters of the community we can find some of their ‘ventures’, the fruit of listening to their environment, sometimes with surprising results:

‘In Chapter we have taken a slightly revolutionary vote. We have offered an almost unoccupied building to the Little Sisters of Jesus who are looking for a safe place for a fraternity of repose and prayer where the Little Sisters of the region, notably that of the Sahara, will be able to come and renew their strength during the hottest season. Our enclosure is becoming mixed, of course, but its contemplative vocation is also multiplied by two (at least!). When consulted, the Cardinal was categorical, ‘This is the best solution. Five years ago I would have said to you…But that was five years ago, and you would not even have thought of putting such a question to me’[15]

A second example:

‘This Ribat (‘link of peace’) has been running for ten years, uniting Christians who want to be attentive to the spiritual dimension of the life of Muslims and integrate their life and prayer with those of our Muslim brothers’.[16]

This group was originally a group of Christians who wanted to share their daily lived experience with Muslims. Rapidly enough they were joined by Muslims. They met twice a year, and during the six months between meetings worked personally in preparation for this sharing. That year the question was, ‘How does the spiritual life of the other integrate with mine?’ Then they spent two days together to share the fruit of their experience and of the deep listening of their daily life.

As a further originality, they developed the experience of association in the use of a part of the garden outside the walls. Four young fathers of families shared with the brothers the work and the sale of the produce. A still further originality: a welcome to Muslim neighbours for prayer while they waited for the construction of a village mosque - a totally remarkable solidarity of sharing. Even more surprising, as an example of extended communion: a twinning with a community in the south of France that welcomes people with addictions, which has allowed several of them to stay at Tibhirine, and some monks to go there regularly…

Towards an Integral Listening

What have we learned, heard, sketched from the community of Tibhirine? We have put our finger on what is meant by ‘an integral listening’. These monks teach us what is meant by a listening which has its source in the open welcome, frank and obstinate, of the Word of God, a resolute welcome to the Word which augments among us this listening and makes us enter into an enlarged capacity to listen to the whole of life, its events, its context, thus enabling us to grasp anew everything that happens to us in the light of this presence of God in each one among us.

[1] Conference given in the framework of the festivities of the 150th Anniversary of the Parish of Vevey (Switzerland) on 5th May, 2022. For this publication the author has graciously agreed to an abbreviated version.

Marie-Dominique Minassian is a Swiss theologian, Researcher at the University of Fribourg, specialist in the spiritual heritage of the monks of Tibhirine, member of the Association for the protection of the writings of the seven monks of Atlas.

[2] Pope Francis, Discourse to the diocese of Rome in the Diocesan Assembly, 18th September, 2021.

[3] Pope Francis, Discourse for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, 17th October, 2015.

[4] Fratelli Tutti, 48.

[5] Brother Christian, Homily on the Third Sunday of Lent, 14th March 1982, L’Autre que nous attendons, p. 57.

[6] Brother Christian, Chapter of 2nd March, 1991, Dieu pour tout jour, p. 373.

[7] Brother Christopher, A note from lectio, undated, on Jn 8.31.

[8]  Brother Christian, Chapter of 23rd November 1991, Dieu pour tout jour, p. 384-385.

[9] Discourse to the diocese of Rome, 18th September, 2021.

[10] Brother Christian, Chapter of 14th June, 1994, Dieu pour tout jour, p. 491.

[11] Brother Christian, Chapter of 23rd July, 1986, Dieu pour tout jour, p. 138-139.

[12] Brother Christian, homily of 21rst August, 1982, L’Autre que nous attendons, p. 74.

[13] Address to the diocese of Rome, 18th September, 2021.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Brother Christian, Chronique de l’espérance, 13th December, 1977, Heureux ceux qui espèrent, p. 411.

[16] Circular letter of 1988, Heureux ceux qui espèrent, p. 706.


Challenges to Benedictine Monastic Life in West Africa



Sr Thérèse-Benoît Kaboré, OSB

Priory of Our Lady of Koubri (Burkina Faso)


Challenges to Benedictine Monastic Life in West Africa


When I was asked to give in the Bulletin a glimpse of my doctoral thesis[1] I thought of the challenges to monastic life in West Africa because they are truly provoking. In my opinion they can lead to a reflection which will be beneficial to monastic life in West Africa and more particularly French-speaking West Africa, since these challenges invite us to remain vigilant and to work to solve them. In fact if monastic life is to advance it must be capable of posing questions to itself and of being examined.

Nurturing Vocations

More and more in these day people speak of Africa as a cradle of vocations in the Church. Nevertheless, this is not true for all the countries of Africa nor for certain special vocations such as monastic life, which in any case is little known. In fact the specialities of this austere life do not attract much, and most of those who knock on the door of the monastery do not persevere. The reality is that, more than fifty years after their foundations, the great majority of monasteries have hardly sufficient numbers to engage on a foundation. This is the judgement of Fr André Ouédraogo, retired abbot of Koubri:

If I take our monastery, St Benedict of Koubri, which celebrated its 50 years of foundation on 11th July, 2013, we have received between 1963 and 2013 a considerable number of candidates in search of a monastic vocation. If all the candidates had persevered we would have been able to make several foundations, both in this and in other countries. Alas! Of this great number of candidates how many have remained? The other members of our African region could say the same. Before this great mystery many candidates have entered but few have remained.

It is true that monastic life as one gospel way of life brings many renouncements and demands which must be faced at the choice. Nevertheless this reality of an important number of departures must question the monasteries about their way of living monastic life and of presenting it to the outside world. Rather than approving a mitigated monastic life, it is a matter of finding adequate solutions to the questions. At stake is the whole of monastic life in West Africa. Fifty years after their foundation several monasteries are still feeling their way.

Chapel of the Benedictine nuns of Koubri. © AIM.

The Question of Formation in Monastic Life

Although at the present time the level of formation of candidates has changed, there is still some way to go, for a certain number show gaps which require supplementary scholastic instruction. If a monk is a contemplative by vocation that does not mean he is dispensed from managing his understanding of knowledge and of learning to think. The real problem is to embed monastic life. As Fr Denis Martin, one of the great promotors of monastic life in Africa, commented, ‘Perpetually professed monks who have not received the least level of instruction drift if they have nothing on which to base their monastic life’[2].

The Challenge of Religious Vows

An African monk takes on consciously and deliberately the task of witnessing to Jesus Christ by his whole life. His monastic consecration constitutes a personal immolation. For love of Christ he accepts the cultural values corresponding to the three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

The Challenge of the Vow of Chastity

The vow of chastity is, for the African religious, the most fundamental expression of poverty: this vow touches his essential symbolic self-presentation[3]. A Cistercian of the Congo even exclaimed, speaking of the evangelical choice of consecrated celibacy, ‘It is a victory of Christianity in our world, and that does not make it any less a miracle!’[4] Such a situation on the part of African religious does not make it any less possible to live the vow of chastity fully. It does not indicate a disordered sexuality[5]. For African religious as for all other religious everywhere in the world there is an obligation to take which is freely engaged. There is no half-way house for Africans. Their practice of chastity for the Kingdom of God must be at the same time against ‘a hedonistic culture which separates sexuality from every objective moral norm, reducing it often to a game and a recreation, giving way to a sort of idolatry of instinct’ (Vita Consecrata, 88). If the vow of chastity does not offer the possibility of living like incorporeal beings, nevertheless this vow constitutes a challenge for anyone who engages in it.

The Challenge of the Vow of Poverty

In a continent in which a large section of the population is undernourished, lacks a decent shelter and has no access to medical care and other services provided free elsewhere in the world a religious cannot take lightly the vow of poverty. But how should the religious and even more the monk, embrace poverty? In places near monasteries people can understand that monks live their vow of poverty by renouncing radically the right to individual property and the personal use of the revenue of their work, but also of sharing their goods with others. Nevertheless this remark of one of our seniors in monastic life in Africa puts a question to all of us, ‘May our brothers not be able to say when they look at us, “How they love money”.’ Or again they must never be able to make this comment on one religious with regard to a sister, ‘She thinks of earning money rather than the salvation of souls.’

The Challenge of the Vow of Obedience

Professor Michael Hochschild, after research in several European monasteries, came to this conclusion, ‘An outside observer looks for humility and obedience in monastic life, but too often in reality individual autonomy and autorealisation reign supreme’[6]. This is equally true of the reality of certain monasteries in Africa and particularly in West Africa. When individualism becomes embedded, choking the dimension of prophetic witness relative to the vow of obedience like the rest of the vows. It is essential to combine a dynamism, a spirit of initiative, a sense of responsibility, with the spirit of obedience, and thus arrive at a mature Christian obedience, free from one’s own will, not fearful, servile or hypocritical or with reservations with regard to the future, such as, ‘When I arrive at perpetual profession I shall be able to do what I want.’ From this point of view it is imperative that monastic formation help the candidate to reach an adult obedience, reflective and voluntary.

The Challenge of Fraternal Life

Fraternal life is the daily battlefield. The challenges are multiple and the obstacles many. One of the threats to fraternal and community life is individualism. When one thinks only of oneself and one’s own work, community life becomes secondary, or rather embarrassing with regard to time. In fact there are monks who are convinced that by working hard and vigorously they are serving others. But how can this manner of thinking by verified? They have no interest in others and their own life. The problem is that by so behaving they deprive their community of its vital impetus: ‘communication breaks down and consequently there is less and less general interest in the community.’ It must be understood that the cenobitic monastic way of life cannot in any way be lived without taking account of others, and of community and interpersonal relationships. Other difficulties also can arise in community life: difficulties of communication, sometimes linked to the differences of generations, rivalries, thirst for domination, failure to listen, and to accept others. In the matter of interpersonal relationships the comment of the Dominican Sidbe Sempore should question us all,  ‘We are taken as examples, and when people speak of sanctity they spontaneously turn to us. But are we even real Christians?’

The Question of Economic Autonomy in the Monasteries of West Africa

The monasteries of West Africa continue to affirm that for the needs of daily life each can be self-sufficient by their work, but that the question must be asked for exceptional expenses, such as construction of purchase of materials. There is here a question of organization and of formation. Monachism in Africa cannot claim autonomy while neglecting this economic question. The economic project for the future of monasteries in Africa must be made the object of a profound study. European monasteries in Africa have often been presented as flourishing economically. It would perhaps be interesting to present on the same level monasteries with a seriously reduced economy, often in debt but not always prepared to put out their hands. In any case, it is no longer possible to rely on benefactors, whether this be AIM or other organisations or individuals, to replace machines or for building. It is vital for communities to know how to prepare a budget, including deteriorations which will at some time require replacement.

Sewing Workshop at the Monastery of Toffo (Benin). © AIM.

On the matter of aid, the monasteries of Africa have received so much from AIM-International. In this day and age it would be interesting to think of an AIM-Africa as Fr Boniface Tiguila, founder of the monastery of the Incarnation at Agbang in Togo, at the time of his speech at the golden jubilee of AIM in 2011. The intention is not to suppress AIM-International. At the meeting about giving-and-receiving the monasteries of Africa can and should themselves contribute. Internally, within Africa, this structure can give help, even slight, to monasteries which need it (we think of the Widow’s Mite). The monasteries of Africa cannot expect to be flourishing before initiating such a structure. This proposition should be seriously considered. We hope that AIM-Africa will soon see the light of day!

A Model Monastery for Africa

Africa is living in a situation of poverty which cannot be hidden. In such a situation an austere level of life may seem bourgeois. Wealth, even relative, far from being understood, will be exaggerated. The conditions of development in each region should be considered, and care taken that the collective witness to poverty pose questions to the population (cf. Perfectae Caritatis 13; Canon 640). If monastic life is to be prophetic there is an obligation to take this reality into consideration.

In this consideration, should it not be possible to rethink the foundations and the functioning of monasteries in West Africa? Would it not be possible to invent in Africa the possibility of living monastic life fully in small numbers, in small communities? Is every new foundation necessarily destined to become a large community if the possibility of an authentic monasticism is to be assured? As well as large monasteries in the classic form is there not a place for lighter, more reduced communities, with a limited investment and limited growth? Such questions have been admirably voiced ever since the first meeting of monastic superiors of Africa, meeting at Bouake in 1964[7].

Such a perspective demands serious reflection, but also bold experiment. Little monastic communities near villages, with an identical level of life and habitations, as similar as possible to those of their neighbours, could give a reflection of the true face of monasticism and its aims. With a less imposing habitation and a more simple way of life such small communities would be able to give an effective witness of real poverty, which would remain before the eyes of all who saw them live a realistic sign of the transitory nature of the things of earth. As communities of prayer and work they could have a great influence on the populations around them.

Relationships of the African monk with his family

Faced with their biological families, consecrated Africans live through joys and sorrows in the search for a harmony in accordance with their consecration. Granted that they have left all to follow Christ, they are still confronted face-to-face with family problems, in such circumstances some African religious from poor families suffer by living in a rather more comfortable situation while their families remain on a more primitive plain, in which they cannot help the family. Because of such suffering some leave religious life, others cheat to help their families, others never reach their full potential. Monks are not spared this either. It has been noted that after a family visit some brothers or sisters reman upset for a time because of the problems and difficulties of the family. It is a very delicate question which deserves particular attention and a concrete resolution. On the one hand the Rule has nothing to say about this problem, on the other it cannot be ignored that this situation is, in Africa, a real problem.

Monastic Difficulties from the Intrusion of the Contemporary World

The world is today living through a significant mutation set up by the globalization regarded as a vision of one world. This globalization affects not merely the economy but spreads out in the cultural situation by creating a sort of global culture to which no one can be indifferent. The new sociocultural situation thus engendered has had a direct influence on the religious life and especially on monastic life. Certain behaviour patterns and practices which the monk has always considered essential are sharply called in question. The opportunities of the modern world do monks enormous service but at the same time constitute a menace for the cloister as well as for silence both interior and exterior. It may well be asked what has become of monastic silence in a world where ultra-rapid communication has invaded every corner. And enclosure? How to escape becoming dependent on a mobile, WhatsApp, Facebook, internet? Without closing off the richnesses and advantages of globalization it is important to consider frankly the problems which it raises (Vita Consecrata, 99).

In no way can the monk deny the essential values and important customs of his way of life. He must be well rooted in his monastic life. In this way he is invited to give an account of his identity in really being what he should be. That is when monastic life should be a witness of the demands of the Kingdom of God and of his presence among people. Only then will he be able to put questions to the world.

The various challenges mentioned explain the urgency of an effective answer from monks and nuns of the region of West Africa, an answer which takes its starting-point from the maturity of the monks and their firm rooting in monastic life itself. Africa needs men and women who are capable of witnessing to the Beatitudes and to the primacy of the Absolute in their lives. This requirement will be satisfied only to the extent to which monks become more and more aware of the richness of the vocation which the Lord has given them, and so of the mission which has been confided to the in the Church and in the world. They must ceaselessly reaffirm their special charism, must ensure that they have a clear vision and that they live it each day. Only then can they give the answer demanded by our time – without ceasing to be what they are.

[1] Title of the thesis, ‘Vie monastique et législation canonique : la question de l’identité bénédictine face aux défis contemporains en Afrique de l’ouest.’

[2] D Martin, Formation des postulants au monastère in ‘Rythmes du Monde’, no 39.

[3] G. Mbida, ‘Les vœux de religion dans le contexte culturel africain’, in Revue de Droit Canonique 65, 2015, p. 208.

[4] E. Mununu, ‘Des dispositions intérieures et des structures de la communauté’ in Rencontre monastique, 31.

[5] E M’Veng, L’Afrique dans l’Église 1985, p. 109-110. It has often been held that Africans are incapable of living the vow of chastity. Of course fecundity is valued in Africa. But it is no less true that in traditional society and even today mastery of sexuality is an important value to which all (women as well as men) attach great importance. Mastery of sexuality was one of the dimensions which serves to measure the degree of humanization (a human being cannot act like an animal which cannot control itself). A knowledge of African culture shows that sexual promiscuity is in no way permitted. From a young age Africans learn to live chastely.

[6] ‘Les bénédictins entre la continuité et le changement, intuitions et perspectives à partir d’un projet international de recherche’, Congress of Abbots, 2012, p.6 (photocopy).

[7] D Martin, ‘Problèmes économiques des fondations missionaires’ in Rythmes du Monde, 39 (1965), p. 898-99, cf. A Ouédraogo, Chemin, p. 99-100. This author approves of the possibility of small fraternities linked to large communities. He proposes also the idea of a temporary monastic life for all those who would like to live a monastic experience for a limited period. Nevertheless, as the author himself recognizes, such an experience would not be possible with-out communities deeply rooted in their monastic life.

The French Monastic Eco-Systerme


Monastic Life and economics

Marie-Catherine Paquier[1]


The French Monastic Eco-System,

an example of a co-operative network


Abbey of Cîteaux.

The monastic model inspires business people to mutual help, co-operation, collective innovation, fair price, ethics of production, ecology, communication, and preference for well-considered decisions. These are characteristics of many commercial enterprises in today’s world, concentrated on recent possibilities of incorporating their purposes in their statutes. But what is really at stake? Should the organisation of such enterprises of and for monastic communities of today draw its inspiration from classic enterprises, given that their purpose is fundamentally different from those where growth of economic and financial value is an end in itself? Building on some very rich historical studies, sociological and economical, we propose here to explain the organisation of the present French monastic eco-system. This eco-system, gradually built up by the monasteries themselves, today allows monastic and lay organisers to work together. It is remarkable to find that on economic questions monastic orders, men and women of different generations and sensibilities, can work hand in hand, at the same time leaving the door open to a variety of lay partners. It is a fine illustration of economics as a sort of leaf-mould of relationships! We propose to examine how today’s monasteries organise their economies as a network, constructing their economic decisions in function of the spiritual priorities rather than the reverse.

Financial Decisions dictated by Spirituality

Monastic economy allows monks and nuns to support their life by work under the eyes of God. Based on the renunciation of goods and obligations, this unique economy, sometimes considered a laboratory of an alternative economy, encourages each one to contribute according to his or her personal talents. In fact the work-capacities depends on the abilities of the brothers or sisters of the monastery, on the time they can devoted to work, on a balance between times of individual and collective prayer. We should recall that the work of monks and nuns includes three kinds, divided between service to the community (household, maintenance, kitchen, repairs), monastic hospitality (welcome, spiritual listening, preparation of rooms and meals) and money-producing activities properly so called (work-shops, services, shops). Here we are interested in this third form of work, either at the stage of production itself, or at its organisation and control if it is done by salaried lay people or delegated, either in physical shops or on-line.

Money-making activities of monasteries are most often grouped in a juridical structure separated from that of the community, adapted to the activity, and remunerating the work of monks and nuns by the value of remuneration paid to the community. Within the community money-making activity is most often run by an economic committee, composed of the abbot or abbess, the bursar and those responsible for the different activities or services. For the major orientations and important decisions such as the creation of a new activity, the division of tasks or the arrangements of work-places, the community is not only consulted but often associated in decision-making. The produce generated and sold by monasteries includes agricultural and food products, cosmetics, decorative arts, objects of piety various services, printing, sewing, picture-restoration, book-binding) sold by mail-order, physical and on-line distribution both monastic and lay. When added together these activities of production and commerce produce the necessary subsidy to support the needs of the community, complemented by contributions for retreats (if these occur), activities of the guesthouse and other forms of revenue. Caught between economic and religious needs, monasteries practise a measured marketing, indeed even a de-marketing. Selling, making and earning money do not constitute ends in themselves, and many communities do not hesitate to renounce commercial initiatives to preserve their spiritual priorities.

The Community, Active Member of a Co-operative Network

Although totally autonomous in their choices and in their accounts, communities do not remain isolated from each other. For example, to federate and co-ordinate their efforts French monasteries have created four associations whose activities complement and nourish each other: ‘Monastic’ for the formation of economic questions and for use of the trademark, ‘Aid to Cloister Work’ to support and diffuse monastic products under the heading ‘Artisanat Monastique’, ‘Theophil’s Shop’ for setting up a collaborative market, and ‘Monastic Links for Commerce’ for the formation and exchange of good practice on the themes of shopping and commerce. These four monastic entities act as a platform to support the economies of the monasteries and are run in concert by religious and lay people.

In addition to concerted actions, many cases of co-operation occur here and there between communities, both for the fabrication of products and for their sale (each monastic shop sells not only its own products but also a wider or narrower range of products of other monasteries). Co-operation takes also the form of a veritable collective intelligence: advice of one community for the production of complementary goods or a link of two monasteries. The commercialization of monastic products also attracts private lay people who set up lasting partnerships which allow communities to programme volumes of manufacture well in advance. Finally, communities take care to weave faithful bonds with their suppliers, chosen for their proximity or the quality of their work. Thus the monastic economy functions as a collaborative eco-system by which the monastic and lay partners co-produce not only economic value but also human and spiritual solidarity.

Buyers and the Quest for Authenticity, agents of economic evolution

On the side of buyers and consumers of monastic products, fervent Catholics or not, monastic products assume a priori a great confidence, derived from an aura of naturalness, solidity, tradition, sincerity and spirituality. It has been proved that support and generosity hold an important place in buying and selling, the more so because it is done in close contact with the monastery either physically or on-line. Accustomed to the medieval archetype of monks as pioneers and initiators, the buyers are inclined to tell themselves idealized stories of the products and the processes of fabrication, which may well not reflect the actual facts of monasteries today. This is not without danger for the link between monasteries and their clients, and it is important to keep clients well informed of the new ways of proceeding in monasteries. In fact the collaboration of lay employees need not in the least diminish the control which a monastery has on the whole life-cycle of a product from conception to sale, including the purchase of raw material, fabrication, packing and expedition.

Monastic economies as part of society have evolved from the primary to the secondary and then tertiary sector, thus passing from agriculture and stock-farming to the production of artistic objects, then to services and commerce. Thus services have been developed more and more, often to the detriment of the manual labour assumed by cenobitic Rules, of which the best-known is the Rule of St Benedict. Today, for many communities, especially the more elderly, a shop is a more important source of income than the workshop. Nevertheless, we have registered a tendency in the last few years to return to fabrication and monastic manual labour, ready to abandon tertiary activities which are too often hyper-digital, to re-invest in workshops and the formation of monks as artisans. This return to an emphasis on fabrication, which often occurs through partnership with lay people, is at the heart of the present reflection in communities.

Constraints which lead to Innovation

In the last analysis monastic economy is not only an economy of need, but also an economy of limits: limits of competence, of workers, of space, of time. These limits which in secular life are experienced as constraints, are experienced by monastic communities as spaces of liberty and creativeness promoting change and innovation. For monasteries the game is to maintain or develop economic activities while also adapting to current tendencies in society and fidelity to the spiritual basis of the cenobitic life. In this closed economy research to maintain an equilibrium between different times, different activities, different places, different ideas is essential in order to achieve the best possible combination of reasonable satisfaction of needs of the group and its individuals, the reasonable mobilization of the work-force, the human competences available and the service to humanity. Thus the logic of production and commercialization calls for a triple negotiation between

1. Expectation of the client seeking natural, authentic and spirit-ual products

2. The unique economic strategies of a monastery

3. The internal combination between remaining faithful to spiritual priorities and the religious justification of work: how to make use of the internet and the now indispensable social media while still avoiding secularization, how to satisfy the requirements of sellers without disturbing a spiritual equilibrium,, how and how far to collaborate with laity, what to sell and what not to sell in our shops, how to retain solidarity while multiplying on-line sales, how to preserve the confidence of clients while remaining transparent in new practices, how to put a healthy ecology into practice.

Such questions animate today’s reflections on the monastic eco-system. If these systems and these questions are unique, the answers provided by each of them are pertinent, provided that they are the fruit of community reflection in agreement with internal and external constraints. There are as many ideas and solutions as there are communities. They must reach solutions in a state of confidence which allows spiritual community choices to take precedence over economic considerations rather than the opposite.

[1] M.-C. Paquier, who holds a doctorate in Business Studies, is a teacher and researcher at EBS-Paris, whose centre of interest is fabrication and business in monasteries. She helps communities, their bursars and leaders of workshops and shops, Her research has been published in several scientific publications. The present article is an adaptation of an article in the periodical Les Amis des Monastères.

The Syro-Malabar Liturgy



Dom Clément Ettaniyil, OSB

Abbot of Kappadu (India)


The Syro-Malabar Liturgy


In 52 AD St Thomas the apostle arrived in the Malabar Coast in Kerala, South India. On July 3rd, 72 St Thomas was martyred in Mylapur. Sunday, July 3rd 2022 marks the 1950th martyrdom anniversary of St Thomas. In this 1950 Jubilee year of the arrival of St Thomas, it is good to reflect on the liturgy of the Syro-Malabar church. The Syro-Malabar liturgy comes under the East Syriac liturgical family, which was developed by the disciples of St. Thomas. The Syro-Malabar rite Mass is called Qurbana which means offering, gift or oblation. Qurbana summarizes the whole mystery of salvation in its celebration of the Eucharist. There are three forms of the Holy Mass in the Syro-Malabar Church: the simple form, the solemn form and the most solemn form Raza, which is the distinctive feature of the Syro-Malabar Liturgy. If celebrated properly, it takes two and half-hours to complete the Raza.

The word Raza also could mean ‘mystery’. The Raza is the celebration of the Cross, the Word of God, and the Body and Blood of Christ, three living representations of Our Lord. They are given supreme priority in various prayers, hymns and rituals of the Raza. The mystery of the Cross, the Word of God and the Body and Blood of Christ is completely unveiled in the Raza. The cross without the figure of Christ signifies the Risen Lord. ‘He is not here but has risen’ (Luke 24.5). The Dove on the top of the cross signifies the Pauline theology on the role of the Holy Spirit at the Resurrection. The lotus below points to the attempt made by the Thomas Christians to interpret the meaning of the cross in the Indian context. The Lotus is the symbol of purity and is our national flower. The cross on the lotus explains how well Indian Christianity is integrated into Indian soil. The buds getting ready to blossom at the four ends of this resurrection cross signify the new life and hope given by the risen Lord. The cross on the three steps signifies the Calvary on which the cross was raised.

The Raza begins with the procession to the bema (little altar in the centre of the church) and the two candles are placed on the bema symbolize the Old and the New Testaments. The deacons who carry the candles during the procession symbolize the disciples called to be the light of the world. The Raza is introduced by the remembrance of the command of Christ (Luke 22.19) by both the celebrant and the faithful. The Raza begins with the proclamation of the incarnation of Our Lord through the symbol of the Angels’ Hymn, ‘Glory to God in the highest….’ (Luke 2.14). Gradually the worshipping community enters the Old Testament background of the incarnation and the hidden life of Jesus in the introductory Rites. The community responds to it by pronouncing ‘Amen’, which means ‘truthfully, let it be, faithfully, certainly’, which is the re-enactment of the whole Mystery of Salvation by pronouncing ‘Amen’. In the Raza Amen is used 65 times.

The Lord’s Prayer is recited thrice in the Raza as in other forms of the Qurbana. As a distinctive feature of East Syriac Liturgy, the Lord’s Prayer is recited at the commencement and at the conclusion of the Raza. After the Rite of Reconciliation, the confident commun-ity without blemish, with pure hearts and trustful countenance, calls the Father in heaven using the Lord’s Prayer, as is usual in all Liturgies including that of the Latin Church.

One of the often-repeated prayers in the Raza is ‘let us pray, peace be with us’. The deacon utters it. It is used 15 times in different contexts. In a way Raza is a celebration of peace, the Risen Lord. The use of the Psalms leads us into the Mystery of the incarnation and to identify ourselves with the Old Testament life and proclaim it as part of the mystery of our salvation history.

One of the unique features of the Raza is the observance of a special rite after the Psalms, viz., the Anthem of the Sanctuary and the Kissing of the Cross-. After the priestly prayer, which follows the Psalms, the first Deacon hands over the Cross on the Bema to the Celebrant. After paying respects to it by kissing, he helps the Archdeacon, the deacons, the other ministers, and the faithful to kiss the cross. The choir sings the anthem of the Sanctuary during this time.

The resurrection hymn Laku Mara d-Kolla sung thrice in Raza, is attributed to Simeon Bar Sabba (AD 323-341). This is a hymn of celebration for his victory over suffering, death, and Satan. When Laku Mara is sung, the sanctuary veil is drawn. It is our tradition to keep the sanctuary veiled. The veil has the function of revealing and hiding. The sanctuary veil separates the sanctuary from the rest of the Church. The veil by hiding the sanctuary reveals to the beholder the mystery of heaven that is beyond human perception unless revealed. The sanctuary veil indicates that heaven is hidden from ordinary human perception. It is in liturgy that one is given the experience of heaven. The sanctuary veil symbolizes Jesus, who is the only mediator between God and humanity (1 Timothy 2.5) and unveiling is identified with the opening of heaven (Luke 4.25). The hanging sanctuary lamp symbolizes God’s presence and it also represents Christ as the light of the World.

In our liturgy, incensing is done five times. The rite of incensing indicates glorification of God, forgiveness of sins and sanctification of man. During the Laku Mara, the deacon incenses the whole sanctuary, the whole church, and the community assembled. Incensing is a symbol of our total submission to God, of the prayer that rises up to heaven from the community and is a sign of forgiveness of sins. During the rite of preparation the chalice and paten are incensed. Incense is part of the procession of the Evangalion book. At the beginning of the Qudasha-anaphora, as an expression of showing reverence and adoration to the Eucharistic gifts and to the altar the celebrant incenses them. Finally, during the rite of reconciliation as a symbol of forgiveness of sins, the celebrant, the deacons, the community, the altar and the Holy Mysteries upon it are incensed. This elaborate rite of incensing during the rite of reconciliation is seen only in the Syro-Malabar liturgy.

The public life of our Lord is commemorated during the Liturgy of the Word in the Raza. It begins with the Trisagion (Isaiah 6.3; Revelation 4.8) sung thrice. The Church recognizes this hymn as one proclaiming the role of the most Holy Trinity in human salvation, and one that expresses the great joy of the liturgical assembly in hearing, understanding and accepting the details of this salvation history through the Sacred Scripture.

There are four Scriptural Readings in the Raza which are according to the day of the Liturgical Season. In general, the readings are from the Law, the Prophets, the Apostle and the Gospel. The four readings in the Raza are a comprehensive celebration of the whole Bible, and a confession with unconditional acceptance of it as the source of Christian faith. The combination of the Responsorial Hymn (Shurraya), Instructional Hymns (Turgamma) and the Alleluia Hymn (Zummara) during the Raza show how important the Word of God is for human beings. Instructional Hymns before the reading from the Apostle and the Gospel and the solemn procession of the Evangalion book are unique features of Syro-Malabar Liturgy, especially to the Raza. Only one candle is carried during the reading of the epistle. This means that the revelations prior to Jesus are imperfect.

At the end of the Alleluia Hymn, the Archdeacon and the deacon accompanied by all other ministers, take the Evangalion book and the Cross which are placed on the right side and on the left side of the Altar respectively. The Archdeacon leads the procession by lifting the Evangalion book up to his forehead, reaches the Bema and hands it over to the Celebrant. The Celebrant kisses it first and then extends it to other ministers and to all the faithful, to be kissed. He then places the Evangalion book and the Cross on the table in the Bema. The deacons go to the entrance of the Sanctuary, face the people and alternate the Turgamma of the Gospel with the community. At the end of the Turgamma, the Celebrant chants the Gospel, while the deacons stand on either side of him with lit candles and the Archdeacon on his left side holding the Cross. After the chanting of the Gospel, the Celebrant closes the Evangalion book, kisses it and gives it to the deacon at his right side, who places it on the table in the Bema. The Cross is also placed on the same table.

The second deacon proposes the Proclamation Prayer, which presents the actual disposition and situation of the faithful. The response to the intercessory prayers, ‘Our Lord, have mercy on us,’ (Matthew 20.29-34; Matthew 15. 22; Luke 17. 13) shows the right attitude of someone asking favours. After the intercessory prayers, the celebrant prays in a loud voice with hands extended. Once the prayer is over, the archdeacon takes the Cross and hands it over to the celebrant, who in turn, passes it to the deacon at his left side. The Celebrant then takes the Evangalion book and gives it to the deacon at his right side. The deacons go up to the altar and stand facing one another in front of it.

There is the Imposition of Hands at the end of the Liturgy of the Word. It is to be noted that the blessing is believed to be directly given by God and hence during this time, everybody in the community including the celebrant bows the head. The celebrant goes accompanied by the archdeacon to the middle of the nave near a large veil with Cross printed on it, spread out on the floor, and recites the prayer facing the altar. In the Liturgy of the Word, we celebrate the public life of Jesus and during the rite of preparation we commemorate his passion, death and burial. The rite of preparation is an immediate preparation to the central part of the Qurbana.

Now, the deacon dismisses and sends out all those who are not baptized, those who have not received the sign of life (proper reconciliation) and those who are not prepared to receive the Holy Communion. Then the second deacon kisses and receives the Evangalion book held by the first deacon and the first deacon kisses and receives the Cross held by the second deacon. The Evangalion book and the Cross are then placed at the right and left sides of the Altar which symbolizes that the Son and the Holy Spirit are seated at the right and left side of the Father.

The Celebrant then begins the hymn and the Choir and the deacons sing their part. After each part of the hymn, the celebrant kneels and kisses the veil on the floor three times and stands up and blesses the community with the sign of the Cross. He does this on the other three sides of the veil and comes back to the original position facing the altar. The deacons now facing the altar sing the couplets ‘For evermore…’ and turn to the celebrant and sing ‘We entreat your great mercy…’. The celebrant and the deacons sing the couplets ‘Behold, I am with you all…’ and ‘By your grace ….’ respectively thrice. After each set is over, the deacons walk down toward the celebrant. Once they reach the veil and stand opposite the celebrant they all sing ‘Save us from temptations …’. All then prostrate together and kiss the veil. While kneeling, the celebrant blesses the deacons. Then all of them stand up and the celebrant blesses all. The archdeacon and the deacons kiss the sacred Paina-stall of the celebrant. The whole ritual which is unique to the St. Thomas Christians of India is seen as humbling of the celebrant as an immediate preparation for the Qudasha-anaphora, veneration to the Cross and as a farewell ceremony of the celebrant, as he will soon leave the Bema.

The celebrant washes his hands at the Bema as a symbol of purification of the community as the archdeacon and deacon go to the bethgaze, the treasure houses, are arranged on both sides of the altar. The chalice and paten are prepared in the south and north bethgaze respectively. In each Raza, only the particles needed for the communion are prepared. While the choir sings the proper hymns, the Archdeacon and the deacon bring the Eucharistic gifts to the altar which symbolizes the funeral procession of our Lord. The Archdeacon then raises them in his hands in cross form, deposits them on the altar and covers them with soseppa-square shaped cloth, symbolizes the burial of our Lord and covering of the tomb with a stone.

In the second part of the Raza, the community remembers all those who are intimately related to the Mystery of Salvation in a typical St. Thomas Christian perspective: the Holy Trinity, Blessed Virgin Mary, all the apostles very specially St Thomas the Apostle, the Patriarchs, martyrs, just, confessors and the departed ones. The Creed is solemnly said by the community as they are moving to Anaphora, the central part of the re-enactment of the mystery of salvation in the Raza.

The celebrant approaches the altar with all humility by bowing down thrice on the way. After he reaches the altar, he kisses in the middle, the right and the left of it, representing the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, respectively.

In the Anaphora, the celebrant seeks the prayers of the community thrice, which is an expression of the intimate relation between the celebrant and the liturgical assembly in the ecclesial body. During the Qudasha, the climax of the Christ-event, the death and resurrection of Jesus are celebrated and proclaimed. The Resurrection is proclaimed as the supreme action of the Holy Spirit. Thus the decisive action of the Holy Spirit in human salvation is also proclaimed in the Anaphora through the typical rite of Epiclesis. In the Qudasha of the Apostles Mar Addai and Mar Mari, there are prayers of inclining and thanksgiving. They are said by the celebrant with bent head, low but audible and modulated voice. At the end of the second g’hanta, the “Holy” hymn (Is 6,3; Rev 4, 8) is sung. In the middle of the third and fourth g’hanta prayers, the Institution Narrative and the Epiclesis are inserted, respectively.

The Rite of Reconciliation underlines the reconciliation of humankind with the heavenly Father by the help of the Holy Spirit. This Rite begins with praying ‘Peace of those in heaven…’ which is a combination of Pauline theology in the captivity epistles and the theology of Psalms. Psalm 51 and 122 are used to open up a repentant heart, which is ready to confess the sins and seeks absolution. During the breaking of the Body and its mingling with the Blood, the purificatory effect of the Holy Qurbana is proclaimed along with the role of the most Holy Trinity in the celebration of the Mysteries. After the mingling of the Body with the Blood, the two halves are placed on the paten, one upon the other cross-wise, so that the broken side of the particle below faces the chalice, and the particle above, the celebrant. After this the celebrant makes the sign of the Cross on his own forehead and that of the deacons. This is a summary of an elaborate Rite of Reconciliation that existed in the early Church. With the dialogue prayer in the second part in the Rite of Reconciliation, Raza becomes a public act of reconciliation with both the vertical and horizontal aspects of it. This salutation is a public confession of the fact that the Holy Trinity gives itself completely in Jesus Christ to man.

Since all those who are unworthy to continue, are dismissed at the end of the Liturgy of the Word, communion is a must in Raza. Communion under both species which are consecrated in each celebration is distributed to the community. In the Rite of Communion, the faithful are united to the risen body of the Lord and thus become inheritors of the heavenly Kingdom. After the communion, the community, the deacon and the celebrant express their thanksgiving separately. Then after the Lord’s Prayer, the Huttamma- the sealing prayer is said by the celebrant with the sign of the cross and he blesses them while standing a little to the right of the sanctuary door. The Raza is concluded with the celebrant’s bidding farewell to the Altar, with the prayer ‘Remain in peace, altar of forgiveness…’ said alone silently and by kissing it.

The Syro-Malabar Qurbana is a Liturgy that presents a unique mystical world. The mystical experience of this world is beyond human logic and ideas. It takes human beings to the Heavens, i.e., raising the earth to the heavens and bringing down the Heavens to the earth. Liturgy is the meeting point of heaven and earth and they become one. Hence, the challenge of Zophar to Job is also a challenge to all of us,

‘Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?’ (Job 11.7, 8).

Mother Pia Gullini


Great Figures of Monastic Life

Sr Maria Augusta Tescari, OCSO

Vitorchiano Monastery (Italy)


Mother Pia Gullini[1]




In the realities of history and of the life of our communities there are some paths which escape any superficial analysis. It requires a deeper search to recognize the secret ways which Providence uses to construct a path in the midst of human contradictions.

The fecundity of the community of Vitorchiano, which has given birth to several communities, is astonishing. Such vitality, which is almost miraculous, can be explained by the gospel law of the grain of wheat which dies and, in dying, gives plentiful fruit. Everyone knows the sacrifice of Sr Maria-Gabriella, but in the complex history of the community, which has long been the Cendrillon of the Order by its origins and its material and intellectual poverty, but there is another grain, less well-known but of a quality rather extraordinary, namely Mother Pia Gullini, Abbess of Grottaferrata from 1931 to 1940 and from 1946 to 1951. In her humility, maternity and a sense of the Church have, in our opinion, reached an exceptional degree.

We know that Mother Pia always wanted to make a foundation. She used to compare the desire to a tree which she had cultivated and which others (superiors and circumstances) continually cut back, but which remains always living. In 1948 she wrote to an abbot of the Order, ‘When the Lord wills he will say to this tree, ‘Put forth flowers.’ This will be its springtime and no one will be able to prevent its flowering.’ To the same correspondent four years later, ‘The Eternal proceeds gently but always reaches the goal. I am sure of him and I leave him his infinite liberty. If I am already with him when he realizes this wish I shall help him doubly.’[2]

A prophet, Mother Pia had showed herself such on several occasions. With respect to ecumenism which was already beginning to grow, and the usefulness of the simple message of love and the gift of Sr Maria-Gabriella, but also with regard to her own death and the impossibility of her rejoining her community at Vitorchiano, which had transferred from Grottaferrata in 1957. We know that prophets have never had an easy life.

Her Life

She was born on the 16th August, 1892, at Verona, where her family had resided for several years because of her father’s work. Maria Elena Gullini belonged to a family of the high bourgeoisy of Bologna. Her father, Arrigo, was a railway engineer. He worked in Italy and Montenegro. He settled at Rome, probably for the sake of the university studies of his children. He was Vice-Director of the State railways and Administrator President of the important Society, Chantiers de Gênes.

Her mother, Celsa Rossi , was distinguished for her quite exceptional beauty, and also by an uncommon goodness and intelligence. In her youth she had thought of a religious vocation but had not been able to fulfill it. Very pious, she lived her faith with intensity and sought to pass it on to her children. Very reserved, disliking anything which smacked of vanity, she willingly allowed her elder daughter, beautiful and enterprising, to replace her for worldly obligations; Maria therefore would accompany her papa to various reception and society dinners.

A friend reported that in the engineer Gullini’s office there was a large portrait in oils of Maria in a black and white evening dress, very low-cut and leaving her arms bare – to the great displeasure of her mother - a portrait which showed the position which the eldest child held in her father’s social life. Mother Pia herself recounted that it was on the occasion of a ball, registering her dissatisfaction with futile and passing things, that she took the decision to enter religious life.

From the ages of eight to eighteen she studied in Venice, at the Sacred Heart Convent, receiving there the education given to daughters of good family. The teaching was given in French. With her artistic temperament Maria excelled in music and painting. At the age of ten she made her First Communion at the hands of Patriarch Sarto, the future St Pius X. At the age of twelve she found herself in danger of death from a tubercular peritonitis, which left her for the rest of her life with a tiresome tendency to fatigue. She was very lively, proud and rebellious, even violent, determined to be free, with the obvious qualities of a leader. She loved nature, had great sympathy for the suffering of others and for the needs of the poor, upright and loyal without the least trace of human respect. She spent her summer holidays in the villa on the family property near Bologna or in Montenegro. Because of her father’s work she was prominent at the inauguration of stretches of railway, and family photographs show her with bouquets of flowers in hand while she was cutting a ribbon. Distant relations or peasants still remember the arrival of ‘the young lady’ at the country house of her grandparents and how attentive she was to their material and spiritual needs.

She studied, with her father, English and German with the Berlitz method – a novelty at the time – with a teacher who came to the house for lessons. Sportive, she loved skating and riding, a frequent visitor to the riding-schools of Rome. After the declaration of war she attended the nursing-course ‘La Samaritana’ with the desire to go to the front to care for the soldiers, but her father opposed the plan. Maria used to go to Mass with her mother almost every morning and taught the catechism to the children of the elegant parish of St Camille and of St Helen, less central in Praeneste, which she loved. Her frequent visits to the Little Sisters of the Assumption on the Via Nino Bixio led her to accompany them often to help the poor.

Her replies to offers of marriage desolated the family, ‘No, he is not handsome! He lacks finesse! He is too large! Too small!’ Pushed into reflecting in the presence of an ‘ideal’ candidate she had consented to get engaged, but not officially, to a very sympathetic young engineer from Venice; but when he, an officer at the front, wanted to make their link more formal, Maria, who was conscious of her religious vocation, turned him down.

Her confessor and spiritual director was a well-known Blessed Sacrament Father, Fr di Lorenzo. It was he who opposed most obstinately her entry into the Trappists (according to him, with her exuberant and independent temperament, Maria could not possibly choose the silence and obedience of a Trappist), but he later became a frequent visitor to Grottaferrata. In any case, Maria Gullini had at first not the least intention of entering the Trappists. Service of the poor attracted her far more strongly to an active congregation and, despite the opposition of her family, she had asked for admission to the Little Sisters of the Assumption. Tall, beautiful, full of life and intelligence, she had too many exceptional qualities to be accepted without further ado. Mother Teresa, the superior, sent her for advice to Dom Norbert Sauvage, procurator of the Trappists, and he arranged for her to make an eight-day retreat at the Trappe of Grottaferrata within the cloister.

It was the 14th November, 1916, and Maria wrote,

‘I am making a retreat praying for sinners. As for a result, Lord, inspire the priest and I will do exactly what he tells me.’

And Dom Norbert, who, at the beginning of her retreat had announced, ‘We will speak of Jesus Christ’, said to her,

‘Mademoiselle, it seems to me that you are called to a life of love. Jesus seems to me to ask a total sacrifice of you. Your nature wants an active life, your soul demands a contemplative life.’

He frankly proposed the Trappists to her, but not there.

‘At Laval, one of the first monasteries of the Order, there are twenty-four nuns, among whom many are young. In such a mass of religious sisters a devil like you will be unnoticed.’

It is probable that Dom Norbert had planned to secure for her a good monastic formation and then return to Grottaferrata as superior, but no documents confirm that there had been an agreement with the Abbess of Grottaferrata on the subject. What is certain is that from that moment a period of combat began for Maria, with her parents, with her confessor and other priests who accused Dom Norbert of giving her her head, but most of all with herself, who was not prepared to accept the grace. The result of the combat was the victory of her ‘sweet Saviour’, and the entry of Maria to Laval on 28th June, 1917. Her uninhibited way of acting disconcerted the religious of Laval, just as she had already stunned the sisters of Grottaferrata. But her vocation was obvious and also the good will of the candidate. On 29th September 1917 Sister Pia – this name had been given to her in memory of the Pope who had given her the First Communion – took the Cistercian habit. On 16th July, 1919, she pronounced her first vows, and three years after that on the same date made her perpetual profession.

In 1923 she was appointed Mistress of Lay Sisters, of whom there were about forty, This is Mother Pia at Laval, as the Lay Sisters remember her:

‘Mother Pia became Mistress immediately after her profession, but Mother Lutgarde[3] had confidence in her. She said that apart from a few exterior faults Mother Pia was perfect. She was the one I most loved. I found it ravishing to hear her talk about Jesus, and to see her spirit of faith.’

She was a spirit burning with love of God. She loved the Rule. She helped the old sisters with their toilette, arranged their beds every four hours. She had never worked in the garden, but she joined the sisters at digging and thanked them afterwards. She had talents for everything. Her novice-mistress spoke of her simplicity and described her as a soul magnanimous, ardent, capable of any sacrifice.

From 1923 onwards Mother Agnes Scandelli, Abbess of Grottaferrata, had been asking for the help of personnel from Laval for that very poor Italian community, but Mother Lutgarde was not able to give it until three years later. The choice was obvious, naturally the Italian, Mother Pia: ‘We are making a great sacrifice, and Mother Pia also, but we cannot refuse anything to God.’[4] But there was another reason for the repatriation of the young nun: Mother Pia was suffering from the beginning of tuberculosis and there was hope that a change of air would help – which is what happened, though slowly. Mother Pia arrived at Grottaferrata on the 9th November, 1926. The difficult departure from ‘her’ monastery of Laval was very taxing, and her insertion into the new monastery anything but easy. The new arrival, of different culture and training, sickly, endowed with exceptional human gifts, provoked a reaction of rejection. In the circumstances her decision a year later, to transfer her stability to Grottaferrata, had something heroic about it.

Community of Grottaferrata at work in the fields.

The Chronicles[5] speak of pressure on the part of her parents to keep her in Italy, but according to letters and other documents it is possible to glimpse discrete insistence on the part of major superiors, worried about the future of Grotta, deprived of sisters capable of replacing the aged and sick abbess. Having left her monastery with the disposition of a total sacrifice – ‘a sacrifice is never refused… I will go where God calls me’ – Mother Pia overcame her desire to return to Laval and the insistences of Laval to have her back. However, she continued her correspondence with her dear Mother Lutgarde until 1942, and with the community until three years before her death.

The very difficult situation of Grotta, wholly attached to their abbess, weighed heavily on the already weak health of Mother Pia, who in 1928 found her liver crises so serious that she was obliged to undergo surgical treatment – fairly delicate at that time – which left her for some days at death’s door.

At this moment one of the old lay sisters offered her life for the recovery of her younger sister, who then began to improve. After a stay with her family she became sub-prioress, infirmarian, prioress, showing total obedience to Mother Agnes although she suffered from many things in the community which should have been changed and were not.

In 1931 Mother Agnes Scandelli retired, after thirty-three years of rule. Mother Pia was appointed Abbess by pontifical decree of Cardinal Lega, Bishop of Frascati. It had been impossible to proceed to a normal election because of the affection which the nuns had for their previous superior. It is not difficult to imagine the courage and faith necessary in such a special situation, but Mother Pia knew how to gain the affection and esteem of the community, which confirmed her almost unanimously at the elections of 1935 and 1938. She wanted to make Grotta a Trappe like the one she had herself known at Laval.

Although the very walls of the convent were impregnated with prayer and the spirit of sacrifice, Grottaferrata was more like a Franciscan community than a Cistercian one. To undertake a transformation was difficult by reason of their acute poverty – many times the baker’s monthly bill was paid by the Gullini family – and also of the restricted space and unproductivity of the property (only five acres), not to mention the badly adapted house, the small number of choir sisters, the presence of some sisters who were opposed to her, and, later, the repercussions of the second World War.

In 1939 Sister Maria-Gabriella died, and then began a period very fruitful for Grotta and its abbess, but also very stormy. In December 1940, so before the end of her third triennium, Mother Pia was constrained to offer her resignation. The difficulties – there is nothing new about this, given that she was an intelligent and forceful woman - came especially from the male superiors. In the decisions which led to her resignation weighed heavily, quite apart from disagreements over the running of the community, a correspondence about ecumenism and the publication of the biography of Sister Maria-Gabriella, an opening which was neither understood nor agreed by all![6]

The excellent Mother Tecla Fontana, who succeeded her in the government of the community, confided the noviciate to her, and Mother Pia, good educator that she was, consecrated herself with joy to the formation of the young, while still continuing with her enormous correspondence and her ecumenical relations.

Six years later, in 1946, she was re-elected abbess and confirmed by an almost unanimous vote at the first scrutiny. In these years she retained also the direction of the noviciate. The insuperable oppositions nevertheless continued, though few: Mother Pia hoped for the support of the new Abbot General and the superior of Frattocchie, recently appointed, to begin a foundation which she had planned for years. But in 1951, the end of her triennium, a crisis exploded which had been brewing for a long time. On the 19th April the superior (who had not yet been elected abbot) and the Immediate Father, Abbot of Mont-des-Cats, called together the community after None and announced that Mother Pia had resigned ‘for special reasons’ and had already left the community.

Mother Tecla resumed the reins of the community as superior ad nutum. This was a bolt from the blue, and the majority of the community never came to understand the reasons for her departure.

Mother Pia waited in Rome, staying with the Ursuline Sisters. I saw her there, in those days which must have been very sad; she was calm and peaceful; she gave the impression of a royal guest rather than an exiled sister. Then she left for the Abbey of Fille-Dieu, where she was to remain for eight years until her recall to Italy. In 1953 she was not allowed to return to her homeland, neither for the abbatial election nor for the political elections, although two other Italian sisters present in the Swiss monastery were allowed to do so.

We now leave the sisters of La Fille-Dieu to describe her during her stay there:

‘Mother Pia was goodness itself. It was a joy to meet her, her amiability and her smiling face did us good. Her expansive gestures seemed to envelope us in her heart. She had a huge sympathy for any who were suffering, she wanted to console them, help them. Her spirit of faith carried her to Jesus the Victim: she would stay for hours near the tabernacle. She was a great silence, staying united to the good Lord and living in his presence. Her artistic talent did us much good. She remained among us for eight years, giving the example of a perfect religious, a generous soul with a great spirit of faith, a perfect charity, full of a truly maternal delicacy, a heart of gold thinking only to give pleasure. She was a silent soul, for her silence was a loving audience with Our Lord. All my life I shall thank him for my contact with her. She effaced herself and wanted to pass unnoticed. Of every virtue she gave an example to the extent of heroism. A great nun, our walking Te Deum.’[7]

During this time, in Italy, the abbess elected in 1953 and the author of the transfer from Grottaferrata to Vitorchiano, resigned for reasons of health. A superior ad nutum was appointed. In 1959 an abbatial election was prepared and Mother Pia was officially recalled to Vitorchiano by the Immediate Father. We do not know whether her recall was aimed at her possible election as abbess; the community in its great majority claimed her, and the superiors who had earlier deserted her now supported her return. But who was aware that Mother Pia was then at death’s door, that in view of her state of health the journey from Switzerland would be for her very tiring? In any case it was not for her to decide, only to obey. She went, very tired but serene.

Abbey of Vitorchiano. © AIM.

On 22nd February, 1959, she left the monastery which had received her and where she had wanted to die. On the 25th, at the instance of her brother, a doctor, struck by her appearance, she was hospitalized at the Roman clinic and received several transfusions. A myeloma was diagnosed at a very advanced state. In addition her heart and liver and other organs had undergone irreparable damage. Mother Pia accepted this treatment and the attention she received in a detached way, with tranquillity and a smile.

On 15th April she left the hospital and was received at the Sisters of Bethlehem to receive there a useless therapy, waiting to rejoin Vitorchiano. She well knew that she could not take up the burden of direction, she felt that she was approaching death. She well knew – and said so much with a royal detachment – that she would never rejoin her community; ‘we will go to the Lord before going there’, she said. I visited her in hospital; she was seated in an armchair. The visit impressed me a great deal. No word passed, no word of the future, no sign of the joy which a person in her situation might feel, for, if one may say so, her return to Italy was a rehabilitation.

Her return to Vitorchiano had been fixed for 5th May, the Solemnity of the Ascension, but she died of a cardiac collapse on 29th April, the day of the celebration of the feast of St Robert, her preferred saint among the founders of Citeaux. Probably she identified with his search, his desire for a foundation and his renunciation. Mother Pia was 67 years old and had 40 years of profession. She was the first sister to be buried in the new cemetery at Vitorchiano, in accordance with a prophecy she had made to an Italian sister of La Fille-Dieu.

[1] With de permission of the ARCCIS association.

[2] This and the following quotations, which have no explicit reference, are taken from the notes and documents kept in Vitorchiano's archives.

[3] Lutgarde Hémery, abbess of Laval from 1900 to 1944.

[4] Letter from Mother Lutgarde to the Reverend Abbot General - 24/10/1926.

[5] Vitorchiano - Chronicles - 1875/1975, p. 142.

[6] M. DELLA VOLPE, La strada della gratitudine, Jaca Book, Milano, II ed., 1996, p. 92.

[7] Letters from the Sisters of La Fille-Dieu, 1959.


The Studium of the Priory of Bouaké



The Studium

of the Priory of Bouaké (Ivory Coast)


Secretariat of the AIM



We here present the initiative for formation in the monastery of Bouaké as an example of the possibility of balancing formation in monastic life and philosophical/theological formation, since both are necessary for the survival of our communities in a constantly-changing world.


In 2016, intent on the formation of monks in view of the future of the community, Dom Jean-Luc Molinie, superior of the monastery of Bouaké and a monk of the Abbey of En-Calcat (France), set up a Studium of philosophical and theological formation, linked to the course of studies at the Faculty of Theology of the Catholic University of West Africa at Abidjan.

An agreement had been reached between the Studium and the Faculty for the course of study (programmes and hours), the relevant professors of the Faculty and Diplomas. This envisaged a formation oriented especially towards monastic life, since the Studium forms monks (biblical studies, patristics, spiritual theology, liturgy). The cycle of studies, led by the University over two years, is spread for the monastery over five years. At the end of the studies the University delivers a document officially recognising the credits, as well as the canonical Baccalaureate for students in theology.

In order to reduce travel expenses links have also been woven with the Faculty of philosophy of the University Alassane Ouatara at Bouaké by arrangement with the UCAO. The cycle of theology of the Studium extends each year from February to April and the cycle of philosophy from October to December.

Originally proposed for the brothers in formation at Bouaké, the Studium opened in 2020 to monks and nuns, religious of other French-speaking communities of Africa. This diversity is a fine opportunity for the students to enrich their life-experience and deepen their reflection on religious and monastic life in Africa.

The number of students varies between ten and twenty. They come from the Ivory Coast, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Togo, Rwanda, Benedictine communities but also other Orders such as the Monastic Fraternity of Jesus Eucharist (of Gagnoa), the Clerics of Saint Viateur, the community founded by P. Zacharie in Burundi. The financing of the Studium is provided by a contribution from the students and by the support of AIM: this is for travel-expenses of professors of the Faculties, lodging of the students, teaching.

The Professors

To ensure the continuance of the project it is important that some of the brothers undertake part of the formation over and above that of the professors of the Faculties. As the Studium is under the academic tutelage of the UCAO only brothers equipped with a Master’s degree are able to run the courses. The Director of the course needs to have a Doctorate. Certain brothers of Bouaké who already have the Diploma in Theology are studying at the Dominican Centre of Formation at Yamoussoukro or the Jesuit Institute of Theology of West Africa at Abidjan in order later to take charge in the Studium.

The Place of the Sessions

Since 2004, when the country was shaken by violence, the community has attempted to re-open the dispensary for the local population. At the invitation of the country’s medical authority the project was transformed into a large health-centre: maternity, laboratory, dispensary. Unfortunately numerous difficulties prevented the pursuit of this project: lack of funds, bad management of the personnel connected, support of the buildings, running-expenses, etc. The community therefore decided to abandon the project in favour of the rehabilitation of the two buildings as a hospitality-centre for the students of the Studium of philosophical and theological formation. The AIM participated in the financing of the rehabilitation of the buildings, which are now operational. During the annual six months of formation the two buildings welcome the students for lodging and for the courses. During the rest of the year the buildings are available for groups of young people and for spiritual retreats.

The Preparatory Year

The arrival of new students pretty well every year has sparked reflection on their integration into the course of studies, since they join students who have already had a number of sessions. Further, the experience of the first years of the Studium has shown that it is necessary to put in place a basis of philosophical and theological study before deeper sessions, even if the student does not later enter the theological course. In fact the current issues in society, the problems and questions which they raise in religious communities make it necessary to have a minimum of philosophical formation to enable the students to understand and benefit from the work of reflection. For these two reasons – and on condition of having at least five new students each year – the Studium would like to put in place an obligatory period of about nine months for the students before joining the formations of the Studium. This period includes a session of philosophy for three consecutive months (introduction to philosophy, methodology, hermeneutic, anthropology, politics, ancient philosophy, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas) and a session of three consecutive months of theology (introduction to the Bible, to the New Testament, to theology, methodology, fundamental theology, the sacraments, articulation of philosophy and theology, intellectual and spiritual life, introduction to Canon Law, the early centuries, etc), and a period of revision and examination. This basic formation can also be useful to brothers and sisters unable to engage themselves for several years of study in the courses of the Studium.

The Future

The Studium now seems to be well established and its continuance assured.

It will be useful to make the works in the library of the brothers at Bouaké accessible to the students of the Studium in order to help their studies. A reflection is in progress for constructing a library building suitable for their work and research.

bottom of page