The International Commission of Benedictine Women (CIB)
From the report of Mother Judith-Ann Heble, President of the CIB
The annual Conference of the International Commission for Benedictine Women (CIB) took place from 8th to 23rd September, 2015, in France. Mother Marie-Caroline Lecouffe, prioress of Bouzy-la-Foret, delegate of the CIB for Region 3 (France-Israel) was responsible for the organisation. The main host-monastery was the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Jouarre. The Abbot Primate welcomed the group of abbesses and prioresses representing the different regions of the world, and all those of France who were able to come. The theme of these days was Solidarity and Respect for the People of God and for Creation.
The Council met with Dom Richard Yeo to deal with legal and canonical questions. The Abbot Primate and Dom Richard both insisted that independent monasteries should not remain isolated, and that they could envisage joining up with others to make congregations. At our meeting we prayed together and presented out communities to one another by photographs of the sisters, the churches and the works we do. We concluded our meetings with a blessing for those who had come from all parts of France in order to join us. These days of the CIB included visits to several monasteries in France in which the members gave several conferences.
On 12th-13th September we joined the monks and nuns of Bec-Hellouin. Welcomed by Mother Marie-Placide Cazenove, prioress of Sainte-Francoise Romane, the members of the CIB and the prioresses and abbesses of the North-East of France heard Mgr Stanislas Lalanne, Bishop of Pontoise, give a talk on the Church of France and the challenges which it faced. On the return journey to Jouarre the group stopped at Notre-Dame de Paris, where they attended Vespers.
On 14th September Mother Marie-Noelle Etchelet, prioress of Sainte-Scholastique d’Urt in the French Basque country, spoke to the participants about monasticism in France and the new challenges facing Benedictines today. Sister Marie-Laure of the monastic fraternities of Jerusalem in Paris, and Sister Mireille Golliez, prioress general of the deaconesses of Reuilly at Versailles (Reformed) presented the initiatives of their respective communities on monastic life.
We had a holiday on Sunday, September 15th to go to Paris. We briefly toured the Collège des Bernardines, a 13th century Cistercian college and the Montmartre, Sacré-Coeur Basilica. The Foundation des Monastères – which supports all Benedictine communities in France – hosted a lunch at their offices. After being properly refreshed, we all boarded the train to our destination, a cruise on the Seine River with an amazing view of the skyline of Paris – including the Eiffel Tower. We then travelled to Vanves for Vespers and Mass at the Sainte-Bathilde Monastery. We were warmly welcomed by Mother Marie-Madeleine Caseau to a delicious dinner prepared by this international community. Vanves is the location of the AIM office. Of course, Sister Gisela Happ was happy that we were able to see where she has spent many years working for our communities throughout the world.
From September 17th-20th, our home-base was Sainte-Croix Abbey in Sainte-Benoît, near Poitiers, France. The little community of Sainte-Croix was most hospitable, even providing us with booklets prepared for the Liturgy of the Hours in both English and French. Abbot Jean-Pierre Longeat of Ligugé and Mother Fabienne Hyon of the Monastère des Bénédictines of Sainte Bathilde, Saint-Thierry, France, spoke on the international connections of French monasteries in other countries. Here, too, we gathered with the Abbesses and Prioresses of nearby communities. Mother Marie Mühlethaler, president of the Benedictines of Notre-Dame du Calvaire, provided a presentation on the community on Mount Olivet in Jerusalem, urging us to send Sisters there to keep the monastery vigorous. Mother Françoise-Noël Fleurbayx, Prioress General of the Regina Apostolorum Congregation, gave us an update on the status of the community in Bethlehem. After fifteen years, I had the good fortune to re-connect with Mother Martina Ravaillault, abbess emerita of Sainte-Croix. Mother Martina was an appointed delegate, then representing France even before there was a CIB.
At Solesmes, we were admitted to the cloister of the Abbey of Sainte-Cécile. Both Abbess Clara de Sazilly and Abbot Philippe Dupont of Saint-Pierre Abbey welcomed us. We celebrated Holy Mass with the community after which one of the nuns gave us an interesting presentation on the role of Dom Prosper Guéranger and his influence on the formation of the Abbess Cécile Bruyere and the foundation of the nuns’ community in 1866. In the floor of the Abbey Church is a small tomb containing his heart. It is recorded that he said, ‘Leave my heart with the Sisters’. We walked to Sainte-Pierre Abbey, Solesmes, where one of the monks gave us a presentation on the evolution of Gregorian Chant. We then joined the monks for Vespers and experienced first-hand their rendering of Gregorian Chant. In close proximity to Sainte-Croix, is Saint-Martin Abbey in Ligugé, France. On September 21st, the final part of our journey took us to two other communities, one of monks and one of nuns, at Saint Benoît Abbey of Fleury, in Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, France, founded in 630. In 1067, a crypt was built in the basilica to accommodate the remains of St Benedict, reputed to have been transferred there from Montecassino in 672. We had sufficient time for quiet reflection and prayer for all of our Benedictine sisters and brothers. After Vespers with the monastic community of monks, we were welcomed by Abbot Étienne Ricaud to a festive dinner. The Subiaco Congregation of the English province was holding their meeting in Fleury and we met many other abbesses, prioresses, abbots and priors from other parts of the world. A truly delightful evening! Half of us stayed the night in Fleury while the others travelled a short distance to Monastère Notre-Dame in Bouzy-la-Forêt, France, where Mother Marie-Caroline Lecouffe is prioress. This small community saw to our every need. After a delightful lunch including many French delicacies, it was time to say au revoir.
The CIB held its closing ritual of prayer including the passing of the CIB candle to Region I (Italy) who will be hosting the next meeting. We returned to Jouarre where we made ready for departures to our countries on September 23rd , but not before the warm final farewells to the community at Jouarre.
Many memories remain with me of this time in Region 3. One in particular is the noticeable prayerfulness of the communities we visited. The beauty of their liturgies had to come after much time devoted to practicing to make sure their hearts were in harmony with their voices. These ancient monastic communities are a testimony to the meaning of persistence and resolve. After untold disasters in the Region – from the French Revolution through World War I and II, the nuns here have rebuilt their lives. The challenges they currently face seem slight in comparison to the untold suffering, dispossession and displacement they have experienced in their lifetime. May the blood of their martyrs serve to make the soil fertile once again for the renewal of monastic life in France.