F. Stonham, osb, Belmont - GB
F. Butlin, osb, Ampleforth - GB

The Work of the AIM International Team

StonhamThe number of monastic communities served by AIM has increased dramatically since its humble beginnings fifty years ago. This increase has been particularly marked since the 1980s and today there are over 500 monasteries in the developing world that are in regular contact with AIM. The building up of this relationship is due, above all, to the existence and work of the International Team, whose primary task it is to be in contact with these communities. The rapid growth in monastic foundations and the resulting needs of monasteries has had a defining role in the development of AIM’s vision of itself and of its mode of service towards the worldwide Benedictine and Cistercian family.

ButlinThe monastic encounters of the 1960s and 1970s, such as those in Africa (Bouake), in Asia (Bangkok and Kandy), and the creation of EMLA (Encuentro Monástico Latino Americano) in Latin America and the Caribbean were all sponsored or organized by AIM. The appointment of Père Marie-Bernard de Soos, the founding prior of the monastery of Dzobegan in Togo, as Secretary General of AIM made an enormous difference to our work and vision. He undertook a series of visits to monastic communities throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia in order to build up a personal relationship with them and to learn of their real needs. He was assiduous in keeping detailed records of his visits and thus creating a fund of information about these monasteries and their life from a practical as well as spiritual point of view. His notes constitute an important part of the archives of AIM today.

As a result of the work of Fr. Marie-Bernard, it became clear that the aid provided by AIM needed to go hand in hand with some kind of accompaniment of young foundations in poorer and developing countries, what at that time was known as the Third World. This friendly, fraternal accompaniment would be the work of the Equipe International, a group of monks and nuns who would have special care of particular areas in the newly emerging monastic world. In the days before the recent dramatic advances in communications through the Internet and e-mail, this was done by means of the inadequate postal services available in most countries.

Over the years through the visits by members of its International Team, AIM has provided a means of monitoring the needs of monastic communities so that it can help them with advice drawn from the experience of working with a wide variety of communities, bearing in mind, of course, that there are great cultural differences between the many regions, countries and individual communities with which we work not to mention the historic nuances of each order and congregation. Respect, affection and the genuine desire to support communities lie at the heart of this unique mission of AIM, so very different from and independent of the official support given by the Cistercian Orders and the various congregations of the Benedictine Confederation.

A certain limited amount of economic assistance has also been possible, as recorded elsewhere in this book, but the main concern of AIM and the International Team has gradually become more and more focussed on formation, above all the building up of communities from the human and monastic point of view, where resources, both economic and human, are limited. This is not to say that the economic help given so far has been small or insignificant. In the past it has been possible to grant donations for all sorts of projects, from building to farming, water and electricity, vehicles and libraries, forestation and income-generating industries, health and social services. Some projects have been aimed at helping the local people, as well as the monastic community, attain some level of self-support and economic independence. However, today the funds available for this are much less, because of the economic downturn throughout the world, which has had a devastating effect on the economies of monasteries in the developed world as well as other benefactors.

For larger projects AIM are often able to redirect a request for help to another foundation or charity, so that it is monastic and human formation that takes up a large portion of our funds today. Members of the team, depending on the time they have available for this work, visit their specific areas to lead or take part in workshops, retreats, courses and regional or local meetings. From our experience it would seem that these visits with a purpose are highly appreciated by the communities and individuals involved. From my own experience of having lived in a small monastic foundation in Peru for twenty years, I can say without exaggeration that by far the most helpful and enjoyable visits we received in all that time came from two members of AIM, Bishop Philip Behr and Fr. Jacques Coté. A small group of monks or nuns, living far from home and a long distance away from any other monastic community, can feel very isolated and alone. For young people in formation, it is essential that they see other monks and nuns and so come to realise that they belong to a vast worldwide family, different to the mendicants and active orders and congregations but nevertheless the family of those who follow the Rule of St. Benedict.

StonhamButlinMany of the communities helped by AIM are relatively small and often isolated, both by distance from other communities in the region and from the motherhouse, usually on another continent. There is also the cultural divide, which can be even greater. By this we mean that a small foundation may be thousands of miles away from the founding house, immersed in another culture and speaking another language or perhaps several languages. We also refer to new monastic foundations that find themselves immersed in a local Church that has no experience, knowledge or understanding of monastic life and tradition. Bishops request monastic foundations, but with no idea of what they are really asking for and without the means of giving any real support. Particularly in the case of male foundations, bishops are usually looking for priests to help with pastoral, educational, social or missionary work and invariably try to off-load parishes and schools on unsuspecting monks, causing internal disruption within the community and an uneasy conscience among its members. There seems to be more respect for and understanding of enclosed women’s communities because Carmelities, Poor Clares and others have been in the developing world, particularly in Latin America, for the past 500 years.

A visit or retreat from an AIM member can often help a community in such circumstances discern the way forward. It really does help to have someone come in from outside, in a fraternal and non-threatening way, to assist a community in coming to serious decisions concerning its future and the way it should engage in the life of the local Church and contribute in a specifically monastic way to the building up of God’s Kingdom. The great thing about AIM is that we assist communities is a totally disinterested and unconditional way, simply because we believe passionately in the monastic life and in its implantation throughout the world, especially in those countries and regions where, until very recently, it was an unknown aspect of the rich tapestry of the Catholic Church’s life. In this and other chapters of the book, you can read the testimonies both of those who have worked for AIM and of those who have received visits and help of all kinds.

The International Team is a relatively small group of just seven members. Of these only four are allocated continents and regions for particular care and concern. Although many languages are spoken in the countries and monasteries we visit, for practical reasons the basic languages used by the team and by the communities themselves are English, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Whereas some members of the team work full-time for AIM, others can only afford the time their other commitments in their monastery or order permit. Although basic expenses for travel are paid all of us give our services with a loving and willing heart gratuitously for the Alliance. As the exceptionally simple and basic centre house and Secretariat have been based at Vanves (Paris) from the start, it is here that our four annual meetings are held. These last two to three days and about half the time is spent discussing recent visits by the team around the world, the problems and needs encountered, and the various projects for which funding is being asked or has already been given. We are always struck by the affection and commitment with which members of the team accomplish their service for AIM, the knowledge the team has of monasteries and local churches and the professional attitude of our members. Occasionally, a visiting superior or expert joins us for part of the discussion. This is particularly necessary when studying large projects about which the team does not have professional knowledge or expertise. It could also be said that the team members are the public face of AIM.

Since its inception in 1961, AIM itself has grown and developed in unexpected ways. It was wise to change the initial A from aide (aid or help) into an A for alliance, as this reflects the changed reality of the monastic world and of our work. As can been seen from statistics shown elsewhere in this book, the balance of the membership of the monastic orders has tipped decidedly away from Europe and North America to the southern and eastern continents. The result has been a movement of monastic personnel in the opposite direction and the understanding that the monastic world is no longer made up of “us and them” but only of “us”, a worldwide family of sisters, nuns and monks who follow the Rule of St Benedict and support each other in every possible way.

It should also go without saying that AIM not only gives but also receives. Visits by the International Team have resulted in the sharing of the riches of that spiritual treasure, the fruit of God’s merciful grace and love, which poor or fragile monasteries, many of them small or recent foundations, can give in return for the help received by older and more established monasteries in the Old and New World. This is done in part by the publication of the AIM Bulletin and in part by talks given and articles written by members of the Team. We can bear witness to what we have received from this wonderful and very special ministry.

As stated above, workshops, courses and retreats are led by members of the AIM International Team, but monks, nuns and sisters have also been recruited for this work from monasteries around the world. AIM-USA and the American Benedictine sisters have a special outreach programme for African Benedictine sisters, to whom they have sent a number of sisters over recent years to give courses on the Rule of St. Benedict and various aspects of the monastic life.  The lack of trained people in leadership, management and formation in many communities, throughout Africa in particular, has been a serious hindrance to solid growth and development especially when numbers are large and the membership is young. As we all know, AIM has very limited resources for meeting these needs, however, there has been an ever increasing degree of initiative taken by monasteries working together at a local and regional level. A good example is the former UBM (Union of Benedictines in Mexico), now called the UBC (Benedictine and Cistercian Union), which for years has organised excellent summer courses on monastic, theological and other themes,  which attract up to a hundred sisters, nuns and monks from all over Mexico, usually with financial assistance from AIM. This sort of association is reflected in many other countries and regions throughout the monastic world.

In fact, as an outcome of the large international monastic gatherings in different parts of the world, which owe much to the encouragement and interest of AIM, a series of permanent regional associations have been set up in Africa, Asia and Latin America with a view to sharing experience and mutual support especially through joint courses in both initial and on-going formation. This formation includes not only specifically monastic, spiritual and theological subjects, but such practical courses as financial training and farm management. 

There follow a number of short articles about some of these associations, however here are some additional details. In 1987 the first two meetings of young Benedictine men and women of East Africa were held at Nairobi and Peramiho. The first attracted about forty participants from Kenya and Uganda, the second some fifty Tanzanians. At both there was a sharing of experiences of monastic life and a reflection on key aspects of living the monastic life such as Lectio Divina and Community with specific reference to the African context. As a number of formators also attended these meetings, there was a follow up specifically for formators to focus on particular problems regarding formation in East Africa.

In 1991 AIM organised the first English-speaking pan-African monastic meeting at Harare, Zimbabwe, on “The Formation of People in the Benedictine Tradition”.  About sixty participants took part including superiors, formators and community representatives, assisted by Fr. Mark Butlin, AIM’s English-speaking assistant for Africa and Asia. As a result of this meeting, regional meetings began to take place and courses organised, focussing especially on formation. Thus the Benedictine Union of Tanzania (BUT) came into being and, to this day, runs workshops and courses.

The Indian Sri Lankan Benedictine Federation, with a present membership of some forty communities of men and women, has met regularly for nearly thirty years. It owes its origins to the Asian monastic meeting that took place in Kandy, Sri Lanka, around 1980. It serves as a forum for the sharing of life experiences and has led to the creation of a mobile monastic institute to provide a joint monastic formation programme with two-month sessions over a three-year period taking place in a different house each year. It also runs yearly workshops of a week to ten days for novices and juniors.

In 2007 there took place in Vietnam the first meeting of superiors and formators from the Cistercian and Benedictine monasteries of that country sponsored by AIM. In the seven day workshop some seventy representatives of over 1,500 monks and nuns discussed the whole process of monastic formation in Vietnam today, starting with the social, economic and cultural context from which vocations come and the question of monastic identity. These are just a few examples of AIM’s involvement with the setting up and organisation of regional and national monastic associations. They now exist throughout those parts of the world on which the work of AIM is focussed.

In Latin America and the Caribbean there are three regional conferences made up of all Benedictine and Cistercian men and women. SURCO (Conference of Monastic Communities of the Southern Cone) brings together monasteries in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. In addition to meetings and courses, there is the publication of a high quality review, Cuadernos Monásticos, as well of monastic and patristic sources translated into Spanish. CIMBRA (The Brazilian Conference for Monastic Interchange), on the other hand, is limited to just one country, Brazil, which is as large as a continent in itself and unites Cistercians and Benedictines of all possible tendencies. It is interesting to note that there were Benedictines in Brazil from 1582 and that there is a very large and dynamic monastic presence in that country today. The third Latin American association of monasteries is ABECCA (The Benedictine and Cistercian Association of the Caribbean and the Andes), which covers Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and the Andean republics, rather a vast area, for the most part with few communities following the Rule of S Benedict. These three regional groups come together every four or five years to celebrate the EMLA (The Monastic Encounter of Latin America). These groups and meetings have long had the support of AIM and members of the International Team always take part.

To conclude, the work of the International Team, in spite its small size and limited resources, has grown as rapidly as new foundations have sprung up all over the developing world. In the future it might well be that this work will develop in new and exciting ways and may well involve more volunteers from more countries and communities. In a way, all that is encouraged or financed by AIM is also the work of AIM and that is precisely what AIM tries to do through the members of the International Team, encourage and strengthen the Benedictine and Cistercian presence throughout the Church and throughout the world. And we acknowledge and give thanks for that aspect of the Opus Dei, the Work of God, which is the monastic life. Now strengthening and encouraging monastic communities works both ways and it is true to say that we receive far more than we give. For all this we give thanks to almighty God as we celebrate our Golden Jubilee.