Guillermo L Arboleda T., osb
Aspects of Monastic Communion
in Latin America and the Caribbean
The celebration of this AIM Jubilee is a special occasion on which to remember and give thanks, to sing Alleluia for God’s work of salvation through this organism of the Benedictine Confederation, together with our Cistercian brethren, in favour of monastic communities of all continents. Originally a secretariat for the missions, “Aid for the Implantation of Monastic Life”, its evolution by way of “Aid among Monasteries”, finally defining itself as “ Alliance among Monasteries”, allows us to affirm that AIM has been a channel of Divine Providence for all the monasteries of the Benedictine Confederation and of the Cistercian Orders throughout the world. This has come about through the experience of universal monastic communion not only for those for whom this service was created. What has just been stated seems to me to suggest the central theme of this celebration, “From Aid to Alliance”. The whole point of remembering and giving thanks is, with our desire to be faithful to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to ask the question about the role today of this organism of the Confederation.
The AIM Secretariat exists to serve monastic communities, it encourages and makes effective the communion between them by means of very concrete services towards those monasteries most in need. Nuns and monks from Latin America and the Caribbean, both Benedictine and Cistercian, in these past fifty years have walked together a way of communion, counting on the support of the Secretariat of AIM, which, in turn, through the interaction between monasteries of our continent and others, has gradually matured in its own identity as “Alliance Inter Monasteres”.
You have invited me to this celebration to speak about monastic life in Latin America and the Caribbean. I feel that I am the spokesman for all our communities when I say “Thank you”. Thanks be to God and to our brothers and sisters in AIM who have accompanied and supported our monastic life in Latin America and the Caribbean. I am not sure if in what I am going to say I will also be the spokesman for all of them. I doubt it, because the appreciation of one person is unlikely to express the feelings of such a large and diverse group. In order to be more objective, I have asked the presidents of our three regions as well as individual monks and nuns about the present situation in our monasteries.
As the title of my talk indicates, I will present some “notes or aspects” about the experience of communion among the monastic communities of Latin America and the Caribbean, which have been accompanied and helped by AIM over these past fifty years. This is not an academic study nor is it an exercise in statistics. Rather, I will look at some significant moments on our journey of monastic alliance, recalling our history in order to give thanks.
To begin with let me present the three groupings that bring together the Benedictine and Cistercian communities of Latin America and the Caribbean: SURCO, CIMBRA and ABECCA. A quick look that their beginnings will help us understand this interesting process of communion.
The life of SURCO, the CONFERENCE OF MONASTIC COMMUNITIES OF THE SOUTHERN CONE began in 1966. (1) The Prior of Cristo Rey, Tucuman, Argentina, invited the Benedictine and Cistercian superiors of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay to study the new paths that the Second Vatican Council was opening for monastic life. (2) Meeting in the Abbey of Santa Maria de los Toldos from 3rd to 5th March 1966, they also agreed to find some form of union among their communities. It is important to note that already there appeared the tension between autonomy and association, a constant theme in the monastic tradition. Hence they decided on “a dynamic union in which each monastery maintains its freedom while unifying forces in a common ideal.” (3) From the chronicles of this meeting it is clear that there was not much knowledge about AIM, as they discussed the possibility of becoming associated to this organism. In the discussion some were optimistic about having recourse to AIM while “others show themselves to be reticent, for they feared being tied to some distant authority which is unaware of the problems we face (not to be compared to those of Africa) and whose sphere of competence and influence in our internal matters is far from clear”. (4)
In the second meeting of superiors that took place in the Monastery of Cristo Rey, Siambon, Argentina, from 20th to 24th June 1967, and at which a delegate of AIM, Fr. Paulus Gordan, was present, it was decided on his advice to form a “Conference of Monastic Superiors of the Southern Cone”. During the fourth meeting, from 17th to 21st November 1969 in the Monastery of the Santísima Trinidad, Las Condes, Chile, having obtained a decisive vote from the delegates present, it was decided that the Conference would no longer be only for superiors and the title which it still has today was chosen, “Conference of Monastic Communities of the Southern Cone”. (5)
CIMBRA, the BRAZILIAN CONFERENCE FOR MONASTIC DIALOGUE, began in 1967 and was known as “The Conference of Morumbi” about which more will be said later. Dom Basilio Penido explains to us the difficulties of this beginning, since the Brazilian Congregation did not know how to react to this desire for a deeper communion resulting from the Council. Some were unhappy about the changes being brought about. “Above all they were not confident about the many meetings taking place at that time, fearing that they would bring about reforms. (6) During the Abbots’ Congress of 1967, immediately after the Morumbi Meeting, the Brazilian group went though its first crisis and almost collapsed before the tempest. In the end it managed the initial consolidation of CIMBRA. “Some of the leading superiors in Brazil were worried about the type of association it was thought to form. They said quite sincerely that, as well as being useless, the meetings and the founding of an association would weaken the force of the principle of autonomy of the monasteries, which is so characteristic of the Benedictines.” (7) In the end, after many tensions and much discussion, CIMBRA was formed, initially as a “Commission” because of the fears mentioned, but in 1977 this was changed to “Conference”.
ABECCA, the BENEDICTINE AND CISTERCIAN ASSOCIATION OF THE CARIBBEAN AND THE ANDES, was the last of the three to come into being. In the history written by Fr. Jesús María Sasía OSB, which goes from 1975 to 2000, (8) the author gives us 22nd July 1976 as the exact date of its foundation, during the first formal assembly of the Association that took place in the Monastery of Tibatí, Bogotá, Colombia. At this meeting the first statutes were approved. But this date was rather a point of arrival for the communities of SURCO and CIMBRA. Dom Basilio Penido, writing about the origins of UMLA (Monastic Union of Latin America) mentions the presence in the Abbots’ Congress of 1967 of Prior Placido Reitmeier of the Monastery of Tepeyac, Mexico, who “was present at all the meetings of the Latin American group, which led to him to initiate, after the Congress, the “Benedictine Union of the Caribbean”. (9) In the second Monastic Encounter of Latin America (EMLA) that took place in Tibatí and organised by the monasteries of Colombia and Mexico, the Association of the Caribbean and the Andes came into being. To be honest, at the time there was even talk of setting up a pre-Congregation. Although for a number of years in the assemblies of the Association, there was discussion about the possibility of forming an independent congregation, this plan was never formalised. However, what did come into being was ABECA, which from the very beginning included both Cistercian and Benedictine monasteries in the region. It was only at the 8th Assembly that took place in Puerto Rico in 1993 that the extra C was added to make the Cistercian presence more explicit.
The three monastic groups of the continent (by which we mean Latin America and the Caribbean, not South America) have, since their creation, celebrated frequent meetings and assemblies. It must be said that these are more regular with SURCO and CIMBRA because they are more homogeneous in nature or simply closer geographically. In the ABECCA area there has been no little difficulty both in regularity and participation in assemblies and other activities. This is due to the vast geographic area covered as well as the much greater cultural, monastic and linguistic diversity. Spanish, French and English have to be used. This has given rise to alternative solutions that have helped integration. In Mexico we have the UBC (Benedictine and Cistercian Union), formerly the UBM (Benedictine Union of Mexico) that organises regular meetings for formation and learning. Likewise there have been meetings of communities in the Andean zone, in Colombia and in other countries.
At the end of the 3rd EMLA held in Buenos Aires in 1978, Dom Basilio Penido proposed the creation of an organization that would bring together the three existing monastic groups. This is how we began speaking of UMLA (Monastic Union of Latin America). The presidency rotates every four years among the presidents of the three areas with the responsibility of calling an EMLA (Latin American Monastic Encounter) and organising it every four years. This has taken place since 1978. (10)
From the 1966 Abbots’ Congress, during which the existence of the AIM Secretariat was approved, many Latin American superiors present for the first time, encouraged by news of the Pan-African Meeting at Bouake, Ivory Coast, wished to do something similar in Latin America. They created a small commission to promote dialogue among their monasteries and organised a Latin American Monastic Meeting in Brazil. This took place from 31st August to 5th September 1967 in Sao Paulo, at the San Geraldo retreat house. Hence the name: “Morumbi”. However, this meeting has not been listed among the EMLAs because most of the participants were from Brazil and only seven from elsewhere in Latin America. But it was the first meeting of CIMBRA and a foretaste of the EMLAs. In the words of Dom Basilio Penido, “it determined the future of monastic life in Latin America.” (11)
During the 1970 Abbots’ Congress in Rome, Abbot de Floris, President of AIM, spoke of the meetings to be held shortly among the monasteries of Africa and Asia. In one of the sessions following this announcement, the then Abbot of Olinda, Dom Basilio Penido, forcefully asked the assembly when there would be a meeting of the monasteries of Latin America. He was applauded by all, especially by the superiors from Latin America and was immediately supported by Abbot Primate Rembert Weakland, who also promised to take part in the meeting he hoped would happen soon. During the same Congress the Latin American superiors agreed to hold the Meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1972. And so it was that between 22nd and 30th July of that year the first EMLA was held. (12)
The moment I have just recalled is especially significant in the history of relations between the monasteries of Latin America and AIM because it is the moment at which two things came together: firstly, the process which the pioneers were going through in their search for ways of union among themselves and, secondly, the early experience of the Secretariat in its help towards the monasteries of Africa and Asia, open as it was also to those of Latin America.
The path of monastic communion on our continent has gradually been strengthened as a result of meetings in each area and of those at continental level. I will concentrate on the EMLAs in order to explain some “aspects” of this journey of communion in which the presence and help of AIM has been constant.
Fr. Martin de Elizalde OSB, former Abbot of Lujan and now Bishop of 9 de Julio, Argentina, in this chronicle-summary of the 5th EMLA, that took place in Mexico in 1986, writes: “The EMLAs have come to be part of our life of communion. From the first, celebrated in Rio de Janeiro in 1972, what is evident is the unity we already share in the search, albeit in different ways, as we experience the same hopes and desires (…), which open out into a far wider forum, through the participation of the Abbot Primate, the cooperation of all the Orders, of the Secretariat of AIM and even superiors of founding houses in Europe and North America.” (13) Inspired by the Holy Spirit through the new ecclesial consciousness resulting from Vatican II, monks and nuns of Latin America have also felt a strong call to search for communion among themselves and with Church.
From that first EMLA in Rio in 1972, the Encounter of all those assisting has been with diversity. Belonging to different congregations, founded by North American and European monasteries, more recent in SURCO and ABECCA, of longer foundation in Brazil, monks and nuns know a great deal about . However, it was quite another thing experience these things first hand from the very first meeting in which nuns in traditional habit and veil met with monks in mini-habits of all colours, and venerable abbots in full habit and shining pectoral crosses met with sisters in lay dress, perms and ear rings. Yes a meeting with diversity: men and women, contemplative communities and others with a great deal of activity outside the cloister, monks and nuns totally committed socially and politically with others very much against this, young and old, small communities and large ones. That is why, at the end of the first continental meeting, there was an obvious difficulty, indeed more than that, the impossibility of coming to any conclusions from the conferences and the contributions of the working groups. This motivated the Abbot Primate to state, “ For us Benedictines it is almost impossible to come to a conclusion. But this pluralism is a rich treasure. How wonderful to meet together and discuss all manner of things and yet come to no conclusion.” (14)
The first EMLAs were particularly intense on account of the novelty of such an event in the monastic world of Latin America, but also because of the general situation that was being lived by the Church throughout the continent after the Second General Conference of the Episcopate in Medellin. The discernment of the bishops on “The Church in the contemporary transformation of Latin America in the light of the Council’, with the options taken there, constituted a special impulse of the Spirit, a real earthquake for monks and nuns. The general themes of the EMLAs reveal this preoccupation for the integration and relevance of the monastic life to contemporary Latin America. (15) Likewise, looking at the list of themes, you sense the urgency felt by monks and nuns to respond to challenges of the Church as a result of the Council and Conference of Medellin. It looks as though they were unwilling to leave any aspects of their lives unexamined, always taking into account the socio-political situation of Latin America and attempts at insertion into the local Church and the relationship to the poor.
The reflection on monastic life at this specific moment of the continent’s history was an important question on the identity of monks and nuns and the role that monasticism could play in the process of liberation in Latin America. (16) In all these debates we could see the pluralism and diversity mentioned above. As also stated it was impossible to reach any conclusions on which all agreed. However, it cannot be doubted that the confrontation of such diverse visions of monastic life and the mission of the monastics in the Church was a useful means of getting to know and value the vast and rich tradition of Benedictine and Cistercian monasticism and a real experience of communion as the meeting point of diversity.
At the second EMLA of 1975 held at Bogotá, Abbot Primate Weakland mentioned in his opening speech that there was now less anxiety in the Confederation about monastic identity and that people were growing tired of the introspection that resulted from the urgency of “aggiornamento”. He said that from this crisis now ended there was left the clear understanding that monastic life exists as part and parcel of the Church and that the question was now how to contribute to the life of the Church. His own reply to this question was by kenosis and koinonia. (17) Nevertheless, among monastics in Latin America the search for an answer to questions about the place of monastic life in the Church and of how we should be Benedictine in Latin America was still a live issue.
In this respect it is worth quoting the impressions of Abbot Primate Viktor Dammetz. In his conference, “The Benedictine Presence in the Third World”, given to the North American abbots at St. Vincent in June 1980. Talking generally about Latin American monasticism, he observed,
“The monasteries of Latin America have been shaken by the terrible tensions that the Continent has known. They live face to face with poverty, or rather, with the contrast between rich and poor, a source of great tensions, and they have to ask themselves the meaning of Benedictine poverty in such a context. Confronted by dictatorships, by revolutions that turn their countries upside down and by liberation theology, they ask themselves what they should do, what is the role of Benedictines in Latin America, what part they should play in a Church that tried to define its mission in Medellin and Puebla, what is its task. If I had to synthetize the impression I have received in visiting the monasteries of Latin America, I would say that nowhere else have I found Benedictines searching for an identity with such intensity. To tell the truth, this search for a Latin American way of being Benedictine is a bit of an exaggeration. During the discussions at the 3rd EMLA in Buenos Aires in 1978, it was necessary to remind the participants from time to time that many of the problems they face are not particular to Latin America but are problems that exist in other parts of the world as well.” (18)
If we read the chronicles of the EMLAs, casting a cursory glace at the themes touched upon, we can see how the intensity grew weaker, the atmosphere of the meetings became gradually calmer and the reflections and discussions more focussed. This allows us to see, as well, how monastic pluralism and diversity came to be more accepted. It is worth reading another quotation about this. “… the most powerful experience of the 5th EMLA was perhaps that of sharing the discussions and workshops with the same spirit. This was due in part to the long time we have known each other and become friends, in part to the general evolution of the Church on our Continent, in part to the depth at which we dealt with the various themes. All of us present found ourselves in agreement, very far from the disagreements of the past, coinciding much more when evaluating present situations or making proposals and projections about the future. One could appreciate, at the continental level which the UMLA offers us, what we had already found in our SURCO Assembly of April 1986: a gradual convergence of ideas, understanding for the specific monastic way, respect for the plurality of forms.” (19)
In the first EMLAs, with a special intensity, and in those that follow, when things were calmer, in the joint reflection there appear, explicitly or implicitly, those central elements that make up the monastic charism: Liturgy-prayer-contemplation, Lectio-study-formation, Solitude-hospitality-communion, fraternal life-work-solidarity. But at the same time, in all the meetings, we have been working on a reading of the signs of the times, trying to give a reply to the Lord’s call in the situations in which the Church herself lives on the Continent and all over the world. (20)
From the invitation to the 9th EMLA in Chile, the organizers asked the participants above all to take “an “ad intra” look at our monastic life, taking into account the social and ecclesial reality of Latin America with the rapid changes that are taking place,” a look within, with humility and without complexes. I say this because, without being judgemental, the impression we get from reading the documentation available from the first EMLAs, as we have said, was the an almost anxious desire to define our proper identity in the face of the challenges given us by a new post-conciliar ecclesial consciousness and the urgency of a clear commitment to the transformation (liberation) of society in Latin America. However, looked at now from a distance and in hindsight, it was bound together with the temptation to search for an important pastoral role and to relativize the essential elements in the living of our very charism.
The last EMLA, in Belo Horizonte in 2006, was a significant moment in this long road to communion. In a serene and fraternal atmosphere and conscious of our ecclesial responsibility to live to the full the charism which we monastics have been given in gift, we reflected from the standpoint of diversity as richness on Benedictine peace and in prayer with the local Church we prayed for the peace of the Continent and the whole world. And this time, without heated arguments, we agreed not on detailed thematic conclusions but on a message “to all the sons and daughters of St Benedict in Latin America and the Caribbean”. I think it is worth quoting a few paragraphs:
“Our meeting in Belo Horizonte has been under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit so that monastic life may give that unique gift which the Lord offers to the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean with its specific charism and so make of the sons and daughters of St Benedict builders and agents of peace, “Disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ so that our peoples have life in Him.”
“ We invite all our brothers and sisters to walk in the ways of peace. That living according to the vocation to which we have been called, putting nothing whatever before Christ, in continuous prayer, in attentive listening to the Word, in work and hospitality, let us allow the Spirit to give peace to our hearts and strengthen the communion in our monasteries. Let us make every effort to reach that stable peace which makes us like God and opens us up to the vision of his face.”
In 2010 the 11th EMLA should have taken place and it was ABECCA that was to organise it. However, because of a number of difficulties it has been postponed until 2013. For a moment it was even suggested that we should hold a “virtual” EMLA, because of the costs involved and taking into account the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Good arguments, without doubt, but thank God we didn’t opt for the virtual version!!
The EMLAs and other regional meetings have truly been a school for communion. It is true that not all members of monastic communities have had the opportunity to participate, but there have been representatives from all the monasteries at most of the meetings. This has made possible the building up of very valuable fraternal relations and a real and reciprocal friendship between communities. Now through electronic means, as well as web pages, it is much easier to exchange news chronicles and to keep in contact. But I would like to underline, above all, the powerful witness given to their communities by those who have taken part in the EMLAs. This has been a providential means for accepting diversity and to take advantage of the many gifts of the Spirit present in the monastic world. This is true of every single community and goes way beyond the actual EMLAs themselves. Likewise, as noted elsewhere, the EMLAs have been a wide open forum in which the Confederation and the two Cistercian Orders have been present, through the word of the Abbot Primate and that of the Abbots General of the Cistercians, as well as through the communication and presence of members of the AIM Secretariat, who have never been missing. All this has favoured a wider, universal experience of communion. But I must insist, all this is possible through the powerful word and witness of those who meet with each other.
The idea of the plurality of the monastic vocation and the acceptance of its diversity as a richness for all has strengthened more and more our common understanding that the Spirit has given the Church a great and unique gift in the monastic life. We are also more and more aware of the demands placed on us by the Spirit in living the monastic life in the context of the social and ecclesial reality of our Continent. The situation of growing poverty and scandalous social inequality calls communities to a coherent and transparent witness by living a sober and austere life in every aspect and by a real acceptance of the poor and solidarity with them. As I see it, this understanding (consciousness) is ever more clear among the monks and nuns of Latin America and the Caribbean and manifests itself in practical ways in all our communities. It is a conscientiousness that brings about creativity in replying to the Lord’s call, without the need to take over the place that belongs to other charisms in the Church or to renounce those conditions that are necessary for us to live our own vocation. And this too shows itself in diversity. For example, if in the 70s it was proposed in certain monastic groups, at least in theory, to “move the desert to the city” in order to share more closely “the reality of the poor”, it is also true that with the passing of time many communities have sought other moves that guarantee their silence and solitude, as they saw themselves surrounded by urban slums that in some cases even took over their land. I think of my own monastery, which moved from Usme-Bogotá to Guatapé, of the nuns of the Monastery of Encuentro in Curitiba (Brazil), of the Cistercians of Chile who moved from Miraflores to the outskirts of Ranagua, of the Benedictine of San José del Avila, Caracas, who moved to Güigüe (Venezuela). The there are those who are planning to move, such as Ponta Grossa (Brazil), whose original founders came from Sao Paulo, who are planning a move, just like the community at Envigado in Colombia. At the same time, there are recently founded communities effectively inserted among the working class of the large cities, yet with a real monastic presence and an effective life of solidarity and hospitality and of work together with their neighbours. Here I am thinking of the female communities of Pan de Vida, Torreon, Mexico, and Mosteiro do Salvador in Salvador-Bahia, Brazil. Others, founded in the countryside, have had to move closer to the city on account of the academic studies of their young people: such a monastery is that of the Incarnation that moved from Tambogrande, Piura, to the outskirts of Lima, Peru. At the Monasterio de la Pascua, Canelones, Uruguay, the monks are still a quiet presence in the farming community, sharing with the people their work, prayer and Lectio Divina. Meanwhile, the historic monasteries of Brazil, anchored in vast city centres, face the challenges of their ancient tradition, their venerable cloister walls and the needs of an ever-changing environment.
This preoccupation for insertion into the local Church has always been present among the monasteries of the Continent and has guided the joint reflection of monks and nuns. In this respect we can say that today, discretely and without showmanship, conscious of our responsibility to the Church, in all our monasteries we try to share with all the People of God what the Spirit has given us for our life and holiness by means of the monastic charism. Here again we see diversity. Most of our communities, both Benedictine and Cistercian, founded after the Council, with simple and moveable structures, can live this communion through sharing the liturgy and in their guesthouses, and with further services in the local community in some cases. Other monasteries are committed to society through education, with their schools and faculties, some of them being cultural centres in the great cities, above all in Brazil. Now some of these communities find themselves in difficulties in trying to fulfil their commitments because many young monks do not have the vocation to teach nor interest in research or in having a direct relationship with the surrounding world of culture. It is also true that among new vocations the general tendency is a call to a monastic life “intra-muros”, in the words of Abbess Vera Lucia, President of CIMBRA.
Abbot Benito Rodriguez, president of SURCO, in a letter he wrote me, had these important words to say, “ In most of our monasteries you could say that the monastic values received from the founding generations have already taken root, resulting in a healthy equilibrium between the tradition received and the concrete reality of each community. We value what we received from those who went before us and we keep an open attitude to what God is asking of us today.” It cannot be doubted that the way each community has developed and monastic unity throughout the continent has made it possible for us all to feel that we belong to the monastic tradition. Such a diverse and multiform way of living this tradition is the synthesis of the origins of the houses and their congregations on the one hand and the social, cultural and religious background in which the foundation was made. This rich and diverse heritage is still maintained in the monasteries that make up the Congregation of the Cono Sur, where you can still see signs of the monasteries and congregations that founded them. Today we note a more open, universal attitude, less jealous of autonomy and regional differences. So then, if at the beginning of this continental monastic dialogue that we have been talking about, there were worries about the possibility of association, even in the case of AIM, for fear of “depending on some distant authority”, today, without abandoning this basic principle of our life, you can sense a calmer and less anxious attitude. There have even been processes that would have been deemed inacceptable in other times. For example, the monastery of Ponta Grossa has passed from the Brazilian to the Subiaco Congregation after discerning that the life and mentality of the community were more in tune with the latter. Another example is the Monastery of Santa Rosa in Rio Grande do Sul, which for the moment is comes under the local bishop. In the Subiaco Congregation there seems to be little interest in the proposal of the formation of a South American province separate from the Spanish Province. Both Latin Americans and Spaniards consider it a great advantage to meet and discuss in our Chapters although it is inconvenient to have the Visitor crossing the Atlantic.
In the 2nd EMLA in Bogotá in 1975, Dom Basilio Penido, Abbot of Olinda, said, “I can’t foretell the future, but I have the impression that the community of the future will have to be smaller, based on a deep union and friendship among the brethren, a true friendship that leads to a commitment to stability in the community as expressed by St Benedict.” (21) He certainly hit the mark! Although it is true that new vocations are still coming to our monasteries, in many of them numeric growth has stagnated and consequently you can see the average age rising with the aging of communities. As for stability, mentioned by Dom Basilio, in Latin America and the Caribbean we are living through the same experience as in the rest of the monastic world, because the lack of stability and perseverance are not just distinctive traits among Latin Americans as has often been stated. Instability and inconsistency are simply the characteristics of Man in modern society and that is true of the old as well as the young. For this reason we need to pay so much attention to the discerning of vocations because monasteries really do provide the sort of stability that is lacking elsewhere in society. What Dom Basilio noted 30 years’ ago is still true today: many knock at our doors because they want to “live in peace”, in what you might call a retirement home for those aged 25 and over. In the northern hemisphere it could be that retired people are looking for a geriatric clinic with some spiritual input, obviously less expensive option!
As far as initial and permanent formation are concerned the balance is positive, according to the presidents of the three regions. As well as having well-educated monks and nuns, national, area and regional meetings encourage and prioritise this important task.
CIMBRA has begun a school for formators. The help of AIM has been useful and efficacious. Sr. Patricia Henry, President of ABECCA writes, “In the UBC we meet once or twice a year. We are able to offer formation courses thanks to AIM. In my years in UBC and ABECCA I have seen that the opportunities for formation offered by AIM have been of great value and the whole region has benefitted from them.”
Monastic work has been a recurring theme for reflexion in our regional assembles and at the EMLAs. The maxim from the Rule of St. Benedict continues to challenge us, “They are truly monks who live from the work of their hands.” The idea of responsibility towards work, real work, has been strengthened as monks and nuns have reflected on the Lord’s call to us from the social reality of the Continent. To live from the work of our hands is the seal of authenticity for monastic witness in the heart of the Church and a concrete sign of communion with the poor, not only because we share with them the struggle to survive but also because it opens up a real possibility of helping those most in need. In the foundation charter of my own monastery at Usme, now Guatapé, as also in that of the Monastery of the Resurrection at Ponta Grossa, the ideal of living from the work of our hands is well defined and in both cases there appears the norm to distribute to the poor “all that is left over from the needs of the community”. (22) Although in these two monasteries, which I know well, the economy continues to be somewhat precarious and only just allows us to survive, it is true to say that we do share in a very simple and fraternal way with the poorest of our immediate neighbours. Often it is they who help us with a branch of bananas or a sack of oranges. What I say of these two monasteries is reflected in most of the monastic communities on the Continent. A very precarious economy, difficulties in finding a work that will guarantee the survival of the monastery and that fits into the monastic way of life. In some cases it has been possible to establish a viable business but the amount of work, the administrative obligations, competition in the marketplace, etc., have absorbed the energies of the community thus destroying any healthy equilibrium in that fundamental monastic threesome: prayer, work and lectio divina.
Abbot Benito, President of SURCO, makes an interesting point. “The ideal of living from the work of our hands is carried out above all by our monasteries of nuns, thus allowing them to live a simpler lifestyle. In monasteries of monks I think that this is more of an exception, which often leads us to become disconnected from the reality of ordinary people. I get the impression that some communities are living in economic circumstances that are far from secure.” This testimony speaks for many of the communities in all three regions of Latin America. At least we are looking together for ways to confront this reality. Abbess Vera Lucia, President of CIMBRA, informs us that GRAM (Group for Reflexion on Monastic Administration) is already working in Brazil to respond to this urgent necessity.
In this area, too, we find pluralism and diversity, for as there are monasteries whose economy is just about on survival mode, there are others that enjoy greater stability, others that are rich … and just a few who can be described as super-rich! However, these latter have suffered great problems at community level and have lived through painful situations that have caused scandal in the local Church, on account of their great wealth, for the irresistible temptation that this has been for some of its members and for the irresponsible acquiescence that encouraged such wealth. I presume, and hope that the rich monastic communities of Latin America and the Caribbean pass on much needed help to the poorer communities by way of AIM or the solidarity funds of their own congregations, if they exist, in such a way that “ the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing”. I know that what I am saying could upset some, but this recalling of monastic communion in Latin America demands it. I have often asked myself why many of our poor communities have to look outside for help, often for small amounts, when nearby there are rich monasteries that could help them. Perhaps it is best to leave this subject alone. It is a tabú, and we are touching on the limits of the mystery!
Some years’ ago, during an ABECCA meeting, a monk who is not a native of Latin America, bordering on disrespect, dared to ask, “Is it possible to be a monk today in Latin America?” And he was not afraid to express serious doubt on the issue. Thank God today we can affirm that monastic life is alive and well in Latin America and the Caribbean, not because of the great things we have accomplished but because men and women living in monasteries are searching for God with communion with their brethren. The presidents of the three areas, in their replies to me, simply affirm that, “in our houses there is a dignified and careful celebration of the liturgy, the cultivation of Lectio divina to which quality time in given in the daily timetable; with the difficulties we have already noted, we try to live by our work, and we receive those who come to the monastery to share with them our life, our prayer and the Word of God”. Without doubt, as St Benedict states in the Rule, we are often lukewarm, lax and negligent, as in other parts of the world, yet nevertheless monks and nuns on the road to conversion.
Many of you will be asking what are the distinctive characteristics that define Latin American monasticism. Latin America is a pluri-cultural world with great differences and variety. Therein lies its richness. But there is no such thing as Latin American monasticism, just as there is no such thing as European or any other geographic or cultural form of monasticism. What does exist is Christian Benedictine-Cistercian monasticism, and this is trans-cultural. We natives of Latin America and the Caribbean are just monks and nuns. And I cannot see any point in trying to find things the make us either different or original. Rather we should look to daily faithfulness in the life of each community and to the attentive listening to the call of the Spirit from the socio-ecclesial reality in which we find ourselves. It is in these that we can read and discern, in each community and in our regional and continental encounters, the new paths that the Lord is calling us to follow in each generation.
In the final message “to the sons and daughters of St Benedict in Latin America and the Caribbean” at the end of the last EMLA, which has already been quoted, we presented a synthesis of the call of the Spirit to our communities today, a call that constitutes a whole programme of life designed to focus our attention on what is fundamental to our vocation and helps us to look with confidence to the future:
“So that the peace of God might flourish in our communities and encourage the hope of our peoples,
- that our silence open us up to hear all men and women and permit us to accept with thanksgiving diversity as a gift
- that our guest houses may continue to be spaces for meeting and reconciliation
- that our communities, faithful to the Gospel and to tradition, continue to encourage ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue
- that our communion of life, in simplicity and solidarity with the poor, offer an alternative to the current model of relationships based on competition, exclusion and individualism
- that our austerity in the use of material goods and our care for nature “like the sacred vessels of the altar” be a response to consumerism and all violent attacks against mother earth and the whole ecosystem.”
Throughout this paper I have constantly though discretely mentioned the help given by AIM to our communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. Now I would like to highlight this. As I said at the beginning of my conference, the service of AIM has been to accompany monks and nuns of the Continent along the way of communion, something which has had a positive effect on all our communities. To this end the presence of members of AIM at our continental and regional meetings has been truly positive. In a discrete way they have encouraged our reflexion. Reports on monastic life on other continents, so well made and complete, given at our meetings have opened up for us a window on the unity of universal monasticism. Likewise, of great importance have been the visits to our monasteries by members of the International Team. I have already spoken of the power of the word and of personal testimony, which have been at the heart of these visits, As for us “Black Benedictines”, this accompaniment of our brethren from AIM has made it possible for us to experience the reality of the Confederation and so has strengthened the feeling of belonging to it. Equally useful have been other services of AIM: the economic help provided to have these meetings, for courses and other formation activities, for buying of books and subscriptions to revues; grants for study and for building programmes. AIM has also been a providential and efficient channel in developing sharing and solidarity as, on the one hand, communities in need find the opportune help they seek while those communities and charities, which contribute to the work of AIM, discover the joy of giving.
I also wish to underline the importance of the AIM Bulletin in this service of communion, of bringing communities together. Although the same information can be found on the net, let us hope that it never becomes a merely virtual publication but will always be present in our libraries and reading rooms. The same goes for the revue “Cuadernos Monásticos” so important in building up a spirit of unity among the monasteries of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as for the formation of its monks and nuns.
What I have said speaks of the important role of AIM today and in the future. Your fraternal accompaniment is and will be of great value so that the monks and nuns of Latin America and the Caribbean can respond to what the Lord is asking of us today, as was clearly formulated at the end of the last EMLA in Brazil, quoted above.
The Latin American Church, after the Aparecida Conference, has begun a Continental Mission. The participation of monks and nuns in this mission is vital and irreplaceable. Our fundamental contribution is and will always be fidelity to our own vocation. Here I would like to recall the words of the recently elected Abbot General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, Dom Bernardo Olivera, at the 1990 EMLA in Argentina. We were reflecting on “Monastic Life and Evangelization in Latin America”. Dom Bernardo reminded us of what the Council taught us in Perfectae Caritatis 7, speaking of “the mysterious apostolic fecundity” of the institutes dedicated to contemplation. He asked us, “Do we, the monks and nuns of Latin America, believe in this mysterious apostolic fruitfulness of our life which is dedicated exclusively to the search for God?” That question is still true today.
In his inaugural discourse at Aparecida, Pope Benedict affirms that “only those who believe in God know what reality is and can respond to it in an adequate and truly human way. Those who exclude God from their horizon falsify the concept of reality.” With this affirmation he replies to the criticism of a religious individualism or flight from reality that can be and is often made of the priority of faith in Christ and of life in him. Similarly, in the Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, it states, “ The Church needs more than ever the witness those who dedicate themselves to “putting nothing whatever before the love of Christ”… this form of life shows the world of today that which is most important, indeed the only thing necessary: that there exists an ultimate reason for which life is worth living. That is God and his infinite and inscrutable love.” (23) This is the witness we are called upon to give in the heart of the Church, not only in Latin America and the Caribbean, but also throughout the world. And the role of the Alliance for International Monasticism is to be of service to the truth of that witness, the fundamental reason for its existence and work.
(1) I follow the paper of Marcelo Rojas, “Twenty years of the Conference of Monastic Communities of the Cono Sur: facts and ideas”, Cuadernos Monásticos 77 (1986): pp 207-232.
(2) Ibid, p 209.
(3) Ibid, p 210.
(4) Ibid, p 210;
(5) Ibid, pp 211-218.
(6) Basilio Penido, “Origens of the UMLA”, Cuadernos Monásticos 54 (1980): p 346.
(7) Ibid, p 349.
(8) Cf. History of the Association of Benedictines and Cistercians of the Caribbean and the Andes, 1975-2000, by Fr. Jesús María Sasía OSB of the Abbey of San José de Güigüe, Venezuela, Offset.
(9) Penido, Op. cit., p 349.
(10) Ibid, p 352.
(11) Ibid, pp 346-347.
(12) Ibid, pp 345-352.
(13) Martin de Elizalde, “The monastic encounter in Mexico (5th EMLA, 13th to 23rd July 1986)”, Cuadernos Monásticos 79 (1986): p 464.
(14) Rembert Weakland, ‘Final Intervention”, Cuadernos Monásticos 23 (1972) p 260.
(15) “Monastic Life Today in Latin America”, “The Presence of monastic communities in Latin America today”, Re-reading the Rule of St. Benedict in Latin America Today”.
(16) Cf. Cuadernos Monásticos 35 (1975): pp 367-370.
(17) Rembert Weakland, “New Horizons”, Cuadernos Monásticos 35 (1975): pp 385-391.
(18) Viktor Dammertz, “Benedictine Presence in the Third World”, AIM Bulletin (1981) p 16.
(19) De Elizalde, Op. Cit, p 464.
(20) In Rio de Janeiro in 1982 we reflected on monastic formation in the light of the documents of Puebla and in San Antonio de Arredondo, Argentina, in 1990, on monastic life in the evangelization of Latin America. In these two EMLAs we find an echo of the Third General Assembly of the Bishops of Latin America held at Puebla in 1979 and of the task given to the Church of a New Evangelization. In Mexico in 1986 we did an evaluation, 20 years after the date, of the impact of the Council on monastic life in Latin America. In the light of the Documents of the 4th General Assembly of the Latin American Episcopate that took place at Santo Domingo in 1992, monks and nuns in the 7th EMLA of Sao Paulo in 1994 reflected on Monastic Life and Lay People as protagonists of evangelization. The 8th and 9th EMLAs in Mexico (1998) and in Chile (2002) reflected on Monastic Life at the beginning of the Third Millennium and a Re-reading of the Rule of St. Benedict at the dawn of a new Millennium. The last EMLA in Belo Horizonte in 2006, as a result of increasing armed conflicts in various parts of the Continent as in other parts of the world, monks and nuns reflected on, “Benedictine Peace, Gift and Challenge”.
(21) Cf. Cuadernos Monásticos 35 (1975: p 371.
(22) For Ponta Grossa see Chronicles in Cuadernos Monásticos 58 (1981): pp 361-362.
(23) Verbum Domini, 83.