Mgr Francesco Follo
Permanent Observer of the Holy See to UNESCO

The Synthesis of Mission and Culture:
Communion and Hospitality

MgrFolloSince 2002 Mgr Follo has been permanent observer of the Holy See to UNESCO and the Latin Union. He is also delegate to ICOMOS (International Council for Monuments and Sites) and a member of the scientific committee of the periodical Oasis (a specialist periodical in intercultural and interreligious dialogue). His interest lies in the link between the proclamation of the Gospel and monastic circles. In this article he shows how such a link can exist and be developed.

It is well known that one of the most characteristic values of the Benedictine tradition is hospitality. In every abbey the guest-house welcomes visitors fraternally and gives them accommodation and welcome. No less wellknown is it that monasteries, in both East and West, have always been and still are spiritual oases and centres of missionary and cultural influence. For this reason I have thought it useful to present them as a luminous model of places where the synthesis between faith and culture is admirably realised both in history and in hospitality. Besides this, monasticism is a plurireligious phenomenon. It is present in Christianity as in Buddhism and Taoism, but no less so in Sufi fraternities. This is an important factor for one particular reason: monastic communities know the meaning of authority. In this case we are dealing with non-violent authority wielded in the service of people who are more than equals, they are brothers. It must be recognized that any monastery can provide shelter from violence. Nevertheless, a monastery is organized according to ‘rules’ and the respect for these rules, when it is accepted – and it would be a strange situation if a Benedictine did not accept the Rule of St Benedict – it is a strong guarantee of peace. The monastic community, even if these exist all over the world and in all religions, is always a small community and makes no claim to incarnate the only truly human form of living, the only cultivated form. However, to consider it is far from useless, even though it is only one model and not unique[1].

In the time of St Ephrem the Syrian (4th century) Syrian monks went to evangelise the Bedhuin and built monasteries in oases as missionary centres. Legend has it that the monastery of Mar Elian in the oasis of Qaryatayn on the way to Palmyra was founded at the spot where the oxen drawing the cart of the sarcophagus of St Elian, Ephrem’s master, came to a halt. This place, entrusted to the community of Deir Mar Musa, has remained sacred to Christian Arabs in the desert and to Muslim Bedhuin till today. The works of the poet-theologian show that the Aramaic-speaking population of Upper Mesopotamia saw the Arabs as the descendants of Ishmael, rebels whom even the two great empires, Persian and Eastern Roman, could not subdue. The pre-Islamic Christian Arabs still had no written literary language and so depended for the holy scripture and for the liturgy on literary languages on the borders of the desert, Greek in the south (the present southern Syria and Jordan) and Syriac in Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia. Arab Christian kingdoms came into being on the edges of the desert, providing strategic protection between the indomitable nomads and the peaceful territories of the two empires. Till today the majority of Christian Arabs of the south of Syria and Jordan belong to the Byzantine rite, and those of Syria and Mesopotamia to the Syriac, Assyrian and Chaldean rites.

We must also remember the missionary and cultural work of the holy monks Cyril and Methodius. In the framework of their evangelizing mission:

In order to translate the truths of the Gospel into a new language, they had to be sure to gain a good grasp of the interior world of those to whom they intended to proclaim the word of God in images and concepts that would sound familiar to them. They realized that an essential condition of the success of their missionary activity was to transpose correctly biblical notions and Greek theological concepts into a very different context of thought and historical experience. It was a question of a new method of catechesis. To defend its legitimacy and prove its value, Saint Methodius, at first together with his brother and then alone, did not hesitate to answer with docility the invitations to come to Rome, invitations received first from Pope Nicholas I in 867 and then from Pope John VIII in 879. Both Popes wished to compare the doctrine being taught by the Brothers in Greater Moravia with that which the holy Apostles Peter and Paul had passed down, together with the glorious trophy of their holy relics, to the Church's chief episcopal See.

Previously, [they] had been engaged in creating a new alphabet, so that the truths to be proclaimed and explained could be written in Old Slavonic and would thus be fully comprehended and grasped by their hearers. The effort to learn the language and to understand the mentality of the new peoples to whom they wished to bring the faith was truly worthy of the missionary spirit. Exemplary too was their determination to assimilate and identify themselves with all the needs and expectations of the Slav peoples. Their generous decision to identify themselves with those peoples' life and traditions, once having purified and enlightened them by Revelation, make Cyril and Methodius true models for all the missionaries who in every period have accepted Saint Paul's invitation to become all things to all people in order to redeem all. And in particular for the missionaries who, from ancient times until the present day, from Europe to Asia and today in every continent, have laboured to translate the Bible and the texts of the liturgy into the living languages of the various peoples, so as to bring them the one word of God, thus made accessible in each civilization's own forms of expression[2].

MadagascarIf one studies the subsequent history of Western Christianity it becomes clear that in this spirit monasteries of all kinds, not only Benedictine, were born and remained missionary centres and schools of elevated culture. The Irish monks who with St Columban left Ireland to re-evangelise Europe cannot be forgotten. In the sixth century St Gregory the Great made use of monks for his work. Mention must be made also of the English monk whose name the Pope changed to Boniface (born at Crediton in Devonshire in the southwest of England in 680, died at Dokkum in Frisia in Germany in 754). To him is due the building of several dioceses and monasteries, among them Ohrdruf (near Gotha), the missionary centre for Thuringia, and the Abbey of Fulda in Germany.

Nevertheless, I will make use of Benedictine hospitality to illustrate the cultural work and missionary fervour typical of monasticism. The attitude of the practice of hospitality, simultaneously prudent and welcoming, is also indicative of an openness to dialogue in human relationships.

All guests are welcomed at their arrival as though they were Christ. The superior or the brothers go to meet them with all the attention prescribed by charity. First of all they pray together and then they exchange a greeting of peace. But this greeting of peace should be given only after prayer, to avoid the snares of the Evil One. Christ, who is received in the guest, should be worshipped. A passage of holy scripture should be read to the guest. Then all attention and care should be lavished on him. The greatest care and solicitude should be shown in the reception of the poor and pilgrims because in them Christ is more especially to be found (RB 53).

Chapter 61 of the Rule of St Benedict, entitled ‘The Reception of Monastic Guests’ deserves still more attention. Clearly a monk who comes from afar is not known personally, just as the community to which he belongs, and its beliefs, cannot be known. Nevertheless, no hesitation is shown, and no notice taken of the faith and orthodoxy of the pilgrim. A comparison between the Rule of St Benedict and that of the Master on the subject of hospitality shows immediately that the latter contains a serious preoccupation to discover the honesty of the traveller, always suspect of being a robber, a parasite or someone who could harm the community through his beliefs or his conduct. On the contrary, St Benedict expresses himself thus:

If a monk arrives from a distant country to ask to stay in the monastery as a guest and is content with the customs which he there finds and does not upset the order in the community with excessive demands but is content simply with what he finds, he should be welcome for as long as he wishes. Furthermore, if with a spirit of humility and charity he makes a few observations or a few reasonable suggestions, the abbot should reflect that it may be God who has sent him for exactly that task.

The monks do not ask for any document or profession of orthodox faith; the common monastic vocation suggests a prompt and fraternal welcome. Prayer should uncover the spiritual identity of the guest rather than a suspicious examination. It is again the expression of an admirable broad-mindedness to consider the visiting monk a spiritual master, humbly listening to his opinions and considering him an instrument of the Holy Spirit. According to the teaching of St Benedict, the attentiveness of the monks for their guest extends not only to material aspects. It includes also the expectations of each, respecting his ideas, his human and spiritual journey, his religious search. The monks receive and listen to those who will pray with them, but do not impose on anyone their own faith or choice or way of life.

This spiritual hospitality finds its source and model in the Gospel message: during the whole of his life on earth Christ welcomed those who came to him. He welcomed them as they were, rich or poor, Jews or gentiles, faithful or sinners. Besides, the Gospel shows us that Jesus was particularly attentive to ‘stray sheep’, to those who were badly regarded or rejected by the current public opinion: Samaritans, tax-collectors, lepers, gentiles, etc. The Church has proclaimed and lived this message through all the ages. On the one hand the Church is human and some of its representatives are not always faithful to the teaching and example of the Lord. On the other hand, the Church is also divine, and, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, always practises hospitality to all, notably those who are suffering, as the life of the saints and numerous Catholic institutions of yesterday and today bear witness: schools, hospitals, dispensaries, hospices and monasteries. That is how, adopting this spirit, missionaries go all over the world and spread the message of Christ. They build schools, hospitals, dispensaries, hospices, monasteries and churches, places where dwells the presence of God, the supreme host. T.S. Eliot summed this up with the phrase, ‘Without churches there are no houses’[3]. From all this it is clear that there is constant interchange between faith and culture.

The Mission of Hospitality is Compassion

To welcome someone is to be attentive to that person, to what he lives and to what is most profound in him; it is to respect his personal and private journey, his culture, his philosophical and religious convictions. It is in this perspective that the Second Vatican Council called us to dialogue: to enter into dialogue with believers of other religions and also with non-believers does not mean renouncing our fidelity to the mystery of Christ and the tradition of the Church. On the contrary, it is to live out this fidelity by respecting the values of other cultures and other religions. If hospitality takes its source in God who is love, the Lover and the Beloved (cf. St Augustine), this hospitality is the sacred principle of all friendship and every human community, like every mysticism. In this light another person is not merely something different from oneself, he is a little of oneself, and icon of Christ, reflection of the Father, gift of the Holy Spirit.

IndeMission is Hospitality which reconciles all People

The Church is not merely the guardian of traditions, even if they are very venerable. The Church has the duty to take up all values in their different manifestations, values religious, cultural, humane, universal. It is not merely possible but also desirable and necessary to take them on in the name of our faith and our fidelity to the life and teaching of Christ as his apostles, always following the saying of St Paul, ‘Examine everything and accept what is good’ (1 Thessalonians 5.21). To welcome and assimilate into ourselves diversity of customs and values enables us to participate in the reconciliation of all people in Christ. In this way the Church will be able, now and always, to work towards more universality, given interior fruitfulness by the Holy Spirit of God as guide. By means of the Church every person is led progressively to come face to face with Christ, to accomplish what St Paul called ‘the total Christ’. True hospitality helps us to realize in depth what we do not manage to accomplish on the surface. Hospitality means realizing the fiat of Mary, her openness and her disponibility as divine Host.

Mission as Hospitality which brings about a Reciprocal Enrichment

It is a question not only of witnessing to the love of God for all people, but also and above all of sharing this love with them. To welcome another means to understand that person, to love that person for what he is. This implies a deepening of our faith, but also a discovery of the faith lived by the other and the way it is lived, the way in which they it is perceived. In this we can ourselves give account of our hope. Only this love can deliver us from ourselves, from all our instincts to control, from all ideology and all dogmatism.

But there can be no true understanding among people without a sharp sense of the Truth which transcends us all. How can anyone, whoever he or she may be, a finite and limited being, claim to possess the truth of an infinite Reality? Rather one must allow oneself to be seized, possessed and captured by it, in order to live our lives through a shared love. It is essential for all to go beyond ourselves, to go to meet this truth and this love in the image in which we were created and towards which we inevitably return. ‘Whoever lives by the truth comes to the light’ (John 3.21). It is when we welcome truth in ourselves and live it in ourselves that the truth becomes real.

The Sign of God in the History of the Mission as Hospitality

Confronted by idolatry, but naturalism and various forms of spiritism, and by false mysticism, we must together witness to the divine transcendence as the one guarantee of the grandeur of humankind on this earth. We must be sure to respond together in faith to the many problems and different challenges which the contemporary world throws up at us. In the matter of hospitality we must work together. With a shared unity and each of us according to our gifts, and strong precisely by our differences, we must construct a world more just and more fraternal, a civilisation of love which has discovered that truth is a symphony.

Beyond a faith constructed of conceptual formulations which often clash, Christ alone is the faith which lights our path, he alone is the way which leads us to him, he alone is true love and hospitality, who became man as son of Mary, host and guest, to reconcile all beings through him and in him. So when we truly open ourselves to him in dialogue, the Holy Spirit takes over this dialogue and becomes its guide. If there is dialogue, there is hospitality, which changes each participant. To make use of a proverbial expression, which is also the title of a book by Louis Massignon, I continue, ‘Hospitality is sacred’, and indeed it takes its origin in God. It is essential in the search for truth in human converse, it is the basis of the final judgment. It becomes – or should become – not merely a rule of life for Benedictines but the quintessence of the Beatitudes for everyone.

TableauI rely on the conception of hospitality perceived and lived by Louis Massignon. In ‘The Visit of the Stranger’ and ‘The Faceless Man’, just as in the hospitality of his friends the Moslem Arabs, he discovered the sense of the sacred and of the transcendent. This hospitality, received and given, became the pillar of his life, his thought and his action. For Louis Massignon it is founded in God himself, in the meaning of the Trinitarian life, ‘where God is at the same time guest and host’. The Stranger, the ‘totally Other’ made himself for eternity the host of our humanity in this true holy land which is the womb of the Virgin Mary. She is the figure of saved humanity where the meal of hospitality is celebrated, served between God and men, and by men among themselves. This hospitality is at the same time both spiritual and material. It shows the welcome of God and of his Word, but also the welcome of God to our brothers, beginning with the poorest and most deprived.

Such hospitality is not difficult to recognize in those who receive it critically (‘critically’ in the true sense of the word, ‘to judge’), races and nations no less than religions and cultures. For us it has a primordial obligation which must be fulfilled in truth, respect and reciprocity. It is essential in the search for truth in human life. ‘The first contact between two civilisations, primitive and hostile, is the principle of hospitality, which implies that the stranger, even though hostile, has something to give us.’ Louis Massignon also writes. ‘A meal in hospitality is the extension to all humanity of the Last Supper, during which a certain outlaw, condemned in our place, offered the bread and wine of divine hospitality.’

[1] Naturally I refer only to Christian monks, both to avoid too wide a field of discussion and to spare me expressing banal views on the phenomenon of non-Christian monasticism, which would need a knowledge to which I can lay no claim.
[2] John-Paul II, Encyclical Letter Slavorum Apostoli, 10-11.
[3] Choruses from the Rock.