Contribution of
Dom Mauro-Guiseppe Lepori,
Abbot General of the Cistercians



LeporiI have been asked to speak briefly about the Cistercian Order to which I belong, and I would like to do this by reflecting on the path which I think we are treading. I have been Abbot General for six years. The Cistercian Order numbers about 2,500 members, monks and nuns, and since the year 2000 we have succeeded in holding a mixed General Chapter. The nuns form one third of the Order. The Order is present in Europe, America (Brazil, Bolivia, USA and Canada), in Africa (Eritrea and Ethiopia) and in Asia (namely Vietnam).

In Europe and America there is a crisis of vocations; in Africa there are still few vocations; by contrast, in Vietnam the Order is flourishing, with more than a thousand members in about fifteen communities. However, it must be stated that in Europe and the USA there are some flourishing communities. Our communities in Vietnam, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Bolivia are confronted by fairly hostile governments, whose corruption or ideology threatens our communities, especially in the matter of education.

In the course of these years I have come to realize that both lack and abundance of vocations constitute a challenge, no less the former than the latter. It is rather like anorexia and bulimia, which basically need to face up to personal problems deeper than these contrary external phenomena. This deeper level is a matter not of the number of vocations but of fidelity to a unique vocation on the part of individuals and communities, the Cistercian and Benedictine vocation, and in essence the Christian vocation to follow Christ on the path of the Gospel in monastic life according to the charism of St Benedict.

During these six years we have suppressed two of the thirteen Congregations of which the Order was composed. At the moment I am Commissary of one Congregation and President of another, and some twenty monasteries are directly dependent on the Abbot General.

I have not been spared worries and moments of depression, and sometimes of anger, on being confronted with individuals, even of the Holy See or among bishops and even within my Order, who have wanted, and have sometimes succeeded, in imposing a pattern of power or simply of narrowness of spirit which have caused considerable damage, both human and spiritual, by fastening on fragile and precarious situations which needed caution and humanity. With my Council and the General Chapter I have come to realize that in certain cases it would have been better to confront these situations from within the Order, without a need to have recourse to agencies or persons who often lacked a sense of the Cistercian monastic vocation. I shall not enter into details, nor do I wish to engage in polemic. I say this only in order to give a background to the positive experience of these years which I intend to illustrate.

I have said that the Cistercian Order, no less than every Order and indeed the Church as a whole, faces challenges, today as always, of precariousness and fragility. I said this because an Order which is very numerous, which is young, is no less vulnerable that one which is less numerous and less strong. When there is a noviciate of fifty young people to form, without the means of so doing, when experienced formators are lacking, especially in the matter of accompanying each young person on his or her path, this too is a fragility, and an important one. Someone who is not well formed, who is without a spiritual companion, will be found to be twice as fragile when there is a waning of the natural strength of youth, both physical and also spiritual.

St Benedict often speaks in his Rule of the infirmitas of body and soul, that is, a lack of firmitas, firmness, a capacity to stay upright, to move forwards; he speaks to us also of imbecillitas, etymologically, lack of a stick to stand up straight and move forwards. He speaks to us also of fratres fluctuantes (RB 27), which seems to me a pretty good definition of a modern human being, of today’s youth, which lives in a fluctuating way, on the waves of fashion, the waves of the internet, of superficial knowledge, unverified information, of rootless and unstable experiences. That is it, the fragility which we must confront in ourselves, in our communities, in people who come to us or to whom we are sent. The great human fragility of today’s world is a fluctuating superficiality, by which an individual depends continually on movement of the surface of things, like a cork on the waves of the sea.

GroupeThere you are! This fragility is not the result of the number of vocations or the youth of a community. Of course numbers reinforce it, or hamper a solution. It is often said that the large number of vocations in developing countries is a phenomenon similar to that in Europe or the USA during the first half of the twentieth century. This may be true, but we must not forget that the European or American young people of those times had not grown up in the ‘fluctuating culture’ experienced today by the youth of every continent. I do not want to idealize past ages, which had their own major fragilities, human, psychological, spiritual, religious, although more stable, more entrenched in family, social, ecclesiastical circles, less superficial and haphazard than those of recent decades.

If the problem is one of infirmitas, or imbecillitas, of floating on the surface, the challenge lies more than ever in formation, and especially in formation by accompaniment. It is a matter of offering someone who has difficulty in staying upright and moving forwards the necessary support and accompaniment. The challenge is more than ever pastoral, just as in the time of Christ: ‘seeing the crowds he had compassion on them, for they were tired and battered like sheep without a shepherd. So he said to his disciples, “The harvest is rich but the workers are few, so pray to the Lord of the harvest to send workers into his harvest”’ (Mt 9.36-38).

Perhaps these are the workers that God seeks in the Prologue of the Rule (v. 14). Not, or not only, missionaries to send into the world, but elder brothers and sisters who know how to accompany each other, and others, towards an interior stability and firmness, humble and merciful, which allows the whole flock to move forwards despite the fluctuating fragility from which we all suffer. These are the synpectae, that is, seniores sapientes fratres who are formed and are sent by the abbot to console the fratrem fluctuantem (Rule 27).

It seems to me that this is an important task, most urgent and a real challenge in our Order and the Church as a whole, and for society. This is what is meant by mercy or the most urgent charity in today’s world. There exists a formal intellectual formation, but often an accompaniment is lacking, which would make a life of communion with God and brothers and sisters a deep and lasting experience. In the charism of St Benedict this is essential. Of course instruction exists, but little wisdom; communal life exists but little fraternal communion, little sharing of what is really profound in our life and experience.

On this matter, it seems to me that in my Order, full of limits and fragility as it is – especially with regard to the Abbot General – a priority has emerged in recent years, already stressed by my predecessors, for the formation of formators. This formation is achieved not only and not principally by learning techniques and contents, but through experiencing fraternal meeting and communion in which superiors, formators and also every monk and nun called to be in any way a support for their brothers and sisters, makes the experience of being fratres or sorores fluctuantes consoled, supported and accompanied by seniores sapientes fratres. This experience gives stability and the capacity to advance and accompany others in their own turn.

Our monasteries in Vietnam have made and are still making enormous efforts for formation, not only by sending students abroad but also by creating institutes of philosophical and theological formation for the whole Congregation. But they are also more conscious, and feel in their hearts, that the great need is accompaniment in monastic and community life. This is why we are even now preparing for next year a week of formation for all superiors and formators on this very theme of accompaniment. This will be an encounter in Vietnam with participation of abbots and abbesses both Vietnamese and European. The purpose is not only to form Vietnamese monks and nuns, but also and especially to help us Europeans towards a better understanding of their culture and spirituality. Benedictine and Bernadine Sisters will also take part.

I must recognize that for me the great surprise of these years has been to discover the extent to which meetings of the Order have been moments of grace, unexpected and palpable grace, exceeding our expectations, stronger than our corresponding fears and our divergences of opinion, style, mentality and culture. This has been a great surprise, not only for me but for everyone – in particular that most recent General Chapter last October. There was a programme of themes on which we knew clearly that we would be divided, and we feared friction between the diverse sensibilities and cultures, because in the course of the five years since the previous General Chapter various incidents, disagreements and difficulties of relationships had not been lacking. Personally, just like others, I had made mistakes, I had failed in charity and especially in attention to the sensibilities of others. As it turned out, right from the beginning, there was a breath of the Holy Spirit which changed everything which I had feared, into a profound experience of unity, reciprocal listening and profound mutual understanding.

Perhaps it was because this surprising phenomenon began, or began to show itself, after the opening meditation which I made on the gospel reading of the Disciples on the Way to Emmaus and some passages of the Rule of St Benedict. I perceived that Christ made himself present among us also, and made our hearts burn within us by his presence and his word. I said, ‘We must envisage all the framework, community, liturgical, pastoral, and formative, which makes up our Cistercian vocation as a representation of this journey of 60 stades, seven miles or 11 kilometres, which separate Jerusalem from Emmaus. Fidelity to the Rule, to our charism, to the vocation of our community, puts us on this journey this very day and this very hour, when Jesus wants to join us and journey with us. It is always a surprise that he joins us, that he speaks to us, and that finally he shows himself to us; but there is also a fidelity which disposes us for this experience, which opens us to this gift of the Risen Christ. This is when we receive the gracious gift of the Passion, hope and gratitude. Even the General Chapter, as all the moments of our meetings, must be lived out as moments of being on the journey on which we believe that Christ wishes to join us, accompany us, speak to us, reveal himself to us, to fill us with a passion, a hope and a gratitude which we know we cannot produce by ourselves or in ourselves or others. It is like being in the Upper Room waiting for Pentecost, because it is the Holy Spirit who is the passion, the hope and the gratitude which Jesus wishes to communicate to us.’

When I said this, on the first day of the General Chapter, I was far from imagining that this would be produced literally, and to a far greater extent than had been envisaged. Basically this occurred in the course of a meeting as Church, simply a repetition or new manifestation of Pentecost. I understood that Pentecost is the permanent source of new vitality in the Church, and so in our Orders. The trouble is that too often we think that our problems, the problems of the Church, our misery as sinners, our conflicts, and all the evil which is in and around us, can be stronger than Pentecost. We often think that Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit, is a source which springs up and then runs downhill. On the contrary, Pentecost is an event, a gift of God, which as such remains always bubbling, fresh and pure, and does not depend either on coherence or on results. Therefore it can be renewed, and neither our advance in years nor our lack of progress can block this ever fresh renewal.

During the General Chapter, seeing this surprising renewal produced a little more strongly every day, I said to myself, ‘Look, often I have lived in the Order as if I were living with an old lady, decrepit, ever more difficult and ugly. I saw only the wrinkles, the physical and moral decadence’. Basically I thought that God looked at the Order in the same way, and saw it more clearly because he sees everything. On the contrary, suddenly I realised, we realised, that God looks at our Order, as he does at the Church, as a spouse beautiful, young and full of life. The real problem of the crisis in the Church, in religious institutes and all Church communities is that we look at ourselves too much in a mirror, instead of allowing ourselves to be seen by God and allowing ourselves to be seen as we really are, our beauty which remains fresh in his eyes. Nevertheless, it is granted us to perceive this beauty especially when we meet together, that is to say, when we are visible Ecclesia, an assembly called together by God. For us this is principally during the General Chapter, but secondarily and equally in all the forms of meeting of our monastic family. Between Chapters we have two meetings of the Synod of the Order, which bring together the Presidents of the Congregations, joined by five elected synodal fathers and five mothers. In addition, since 2010, every two or three years we have week of formation course for the superiors of the Order. This takes place in July, with fifty participants, that is, about half the superiors. There are also courses of monastic formation for young or not so young monks and nuns who are in formation, coming from all over the world, in collaboration with the Atheneum of Sant’ Anselmo. This can count on a good participation of students from Benedictines, Trappists and other monastic Congregations. Each of these encounters is the occasion of renewing the experience of which I was just speaking, the experience of the Spirit who surprises us, of Christ who comes to join us and travels with us, who speaks to us, comforts us and renews our vigour and hope for continuing the journey.

During the July course for superiors we have understood and experienced that to make them fruitful it is necessary that that we should help each other to hear the Word of God together. Each day we began our work with a period of lectio divina shared in language groups, on the Gospel of the day. For everyone this has been a very positive experience, and we have decided that the more official meetings also should embrace this method. It means that we immediately find agreement for the symphony of different themes to be handled, discussed and decided. It is also the correct note for engaging on a dialogue between diverse cultures and sensitivities, and for us to enrich one another. I become ever more convinced that it is only on the basis of the Gospel and the Rule of St Benedict that we can live out such cultural differences, such differences of styles of life and psychologies, in a symphonic mode of mutual enrichment. During the course for superiors, for which the principal theme was mercy, I asked each of the six language groups to prepare a chapter on Chapter 37 of the Rule, ‘The Young and the Old’. After some hours we met to listen to the results of the labours of each group. Each group had prepared an extremely interesting chapter, each of them entirely different. Each group had read St Benedict in a way which was both original and enriching for the others.

AulaCinqueI understood just how important it was to profit from the symphonic richness in every area. But in order to effect this it is essential that everyone drink at the sources of our vocation, of our charism. Essential also is the time and the instruments to enable us to share what the Spirit is saying to each Church, to each family in the greater family of the Order.

At the same time, this sharing requires humility, the humility to recognize that we need one another. Communion, even before sharing our richnesses, is born and nourished by the sharing of our fragilities. And today’s situation of precariousness is certainly a help to this. When I was a young abbot I experienced General Chapters which were battle-fields. The objective was conflict, victory over the adversary. Certain Congregations were, or felt themselves to be, stronger and capable of gaining power (what power?). One way and another, the blessing of fragility came to all of us, the need to recognize that no one is really strong, and that consequently it is utterly ridiculous to want to be stronger than the others. Of course, this temptation remains and always will remain, but in general the climate has changed – not only because women have become part of the General Chapter. We know that in general men have a stronger tendency to ‘play politics’, to discuss theoretical problems and questions; women on the other hand are more attentive to persons and communities, and this encourages communion and a family spirit.

However, renunciation of allowing power to prevail over service and communion results also from attention to Christ and nourishment from him. A thirst for power which goes to the lengths of promoting division, or rather abandoning the overriding desire for communion, is in fact a form of idolatry. Any idolatry can be conquered only by adoration of the one God, present among us. Just like the Risen Lord in the Upper Room, on the shore of the Lake, when at the moment of recognition all fears and worries disappear in the companionship of disciples. When we fix our eyes on Christ alone we pay much more attention to one another, and a sympathy between ourselves comes to birth in a way which would otherwise be impossible.

After the General Chapter we naturally returned to our communities and our problems. But a greater desire had been born to help one another, and I notice this also as Abbot General. During the Chapter and during the course for superiors, our awareness was strengthened that we could make no progress on our own without mutual help. We all need to feel that we are accompanied and supported by seniores sapientes fratres et sorores. For some years now, informal groups of superiors have been formed and meet regularly, keeping close links to help one another in the pastoral charge. In the course of my journeys and visits, or in the care of the most fragile communities, I know that I can count on the help of other superiors of the Order. To be the object of fraternal attention is, in many situations, the most important solution, quite independently of what one can or cannot do, in helping the community to continue to exist.

In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis has a thought which has been a great consolation for me in my ministry and in the life of the Order. It is in the passage where the Pope reminds us that time is superior to space. He writes, ‘giving priority to time shows a concern to begin a process rather than to possess a territory’ (#222-225). This idea brings tranquillity, but is also fruitful and stimulating, because it helps us to discern the small steps of our ministry, which are never insignificant or useless if they begin and promote a process of life whose horizon is not a position of power to be attained but the eternity which grace and love are even now initiating. Wherever a process of beginning life, even tiny, is visible, we find peace by entrusting ourselves in faith and hope to the work which God alone can bring to completion.