Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB
President of the AIM


JPLongeatThis issue of the Bulletin is centred on the family and the life of our communities. The recent Synod on the family and the Post-Synodal Exhortation Amoris Laetitia of Pope Francis encouraged us to examine this question which is not without its importance for the concrete life of our communities. How do monks and nuns think of themselves with regard to the social reality of the family? This can be considered at several levels:

• How is the family a good context for education so that children may find their way in life, including a perspective of religious vocation?
• How can the community of the family serve as a basis of monastic community?
• What about the detachment from family necessary for monastic life while respecting the commandment to honour one’s parents?
• Furthermore, monastic communities are surrounded by oblates, co-workers, associates who enlarge the community links. This feature is developing rapidly; how should it be included in our thinking?
• Finally, the structure of the family is undergoing great changes in the world; has the life and thought of a community anything to say on this matter?

The word ‘family’ derives from the Latin familia. In Rome this term designates the servants and slaves living under the authority of a single master. The term in fact derives from famulus, meaning servant or associate. In later terminology it designates the ensemble composed of the master, his wife and children of the house as well as the servants.

According to the sociologist E. Benvéniste[1], the family is defined in many cultures as ‘having at its head an ancestor around whom are grouped his male descendants and their close family’. This family core enriches all possible links by the integration of women who come from other horizons when the families in question marry outside themselves. In societies of the northern hemisphere the family, in the broad sense of the word, is ‘the union of persons related to one another’. It is present in every society, which does not mean that its form is always the same. In Europe in general a family is part of a household which includes at least two people. It is constituted by a couple, not necessarily married, with the children who belong to the same household, or by a single adult with his or her children.

Across the world other forms of family communities may be found, especially that of the ‘family community’ which brings together a numerous and varied group of relations and in certain cultures includes a dimension of polygamy. This model of family community is found principally in Africa and less in Asia. But very often it can live side by side in the same society with the ‘nuclear society’ described above, perhaps with some variations.

Such a profound change of mentality and structure is not without consequences for the practice of such patterns. In the West a culture based on the individual gives more autonomy to members of the family seeking personal advantage. Nowadays such a spiritual condition is to be found on other continents because of international migration and the inevitable cultural exchanges. It has shaken family stability although paradoxically the family remains one of the values most treasured by our contemporaries as a place of happiness, refuge and relaxation.


The Functions of the Family

The family has several principal functions: it guarantees the development of human societies by reproduction. It guarantees various aspects of society, transmission of patrimony, solidarity, shared production and use of goods, bonds of affection. This is a huge programme which encounters numerous obstacles and leads, not only to fine achievements but also to difficult divisions. Societies express in law the evolutive function of the family.


Relationship between Members

In Asia the social activity of the family is hierarchical. Parents have the duty of providing food and education as well as the prosperity of their children. In exchange grown-up children take over these functions. This creates a stability between them which lays down the duties and rights of each. Parents and children are close knit. Such relationships are taught to the children at home and at school, where respect for others is inculcated as well as the value of labour. In the same way siblings do not all have the same position: the eldest has important responsibilities. In most Asian countries the family comes first. There is a model of the family balanced by equality between the individuals who make up the family community.

In sub-Saharan Africa the members of the same family help one another and share the tasks. There is a definite organisation in which each contributes to the unity of the human community. The fertility of the family is a sign of blessing. Consequently most families have many children, especially since the father is fairly often polygamous. In the heart of the village parents care for all the children, even those who are not their own, Training and education are the same for all and a certain respect for elders and parents is notable on the part of the children. In African customs relationship with the elders is particularly valued.

In the West, in the northern hemisphere the culture of the individual gives autonomy o family members. But paradoxically the value of the family as a place of happiness and refuge is universal. Nevertheless the cohesion of the family is increasingly marked by the phenomenon of divorce and the consequent re-shaping of families, often in complex relationships.


The Family and Religious Life

In a recent lecture whose substance has been taken up in a book on religious life[2] the philosopher Marie-Laure Durand found in the religious life an experience at the forefront of questions about the family in the modern world,

‘I would like to underline the modern quality of Christianity. Religious communities are based on principles which have hardly begun to develop in our society.

Transcending space: You live in a land which is not your own, in a region or country which is not necessarily yours. You can open out the great questions which humanity is asking. What should one do to be happy in a land which is not yours and of which one does not claim ownership?
Transcending blood: You live with brothers or sisters who are not your own blood-relations. How should one rebuild a family which functions as such for each of its members? What should one do to become brothers rather than merely half-brothers?

Not only is the way of life lived for centuries by religious brothers and sisters only gradually being learned by men and women of today, but religious life has a human and spiritual tradition which enables| men and women to transcend ties of space and blood. What is new is the individual. Religious life knew how to live transcending space and blood with persons who had been formed in a certain collective (family, social, political). In today’s world we have to reckon on persons conscious of being unique and autonomous.’


Family and monastic life is, then, the theme of this issue of the Bulletin. Apart from the message addressed to all by the abbots primate and general, Benedictine and Cistercian, you will find here the same pattern as in the previous issue: lectio divina, formation liturgy, history, great monastic figures, art and other features.


[1] Benveniste, Emile, Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes 1 et 2, Paris, Minuit, 1969.
[2] Marie-Laure Durand, Dix idées bizarres sur la vie religieuse, Médiaspaul, 2015. Cf. also Bulletin de l’AIM n° 112, 2016, pp. 37-46.