Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB
President of AIM
Journeys in Latin America
June – July 2017
In the course of these last months I have received the gift of a first visit to Latin America, to two countries, Peru and Columbia, whose beauty is unrivalled, and to which the embedding in ancestral customs lends great nobility and depth. I was able to visit several monasteries and take part in the meeting of ABECCA.
Journey to Peru
A visit to Lima is far from giving an approach to the enormous diversity which is Peru. The great difficulty for this country is to co-ordinate the different characteristics of its regions with the varied cultures, and to insert oneself into the perspective of a globalisation which reduces the differences to the level of a first evaluation of its economy. How, then, can one construct a national identity which the capital represents?
The political power is fairly conservative. International trade is trying to find its profit in the exploitation of a country which at the same time both resists and allow breaches to be made. Despite this, the development of Peru is incontestable. It is undergoing one of the strongest developments of the whole region. Although in terms of GNP it is placed in the top third of economies on the planet (50th place), in terms of GNP per inhabitant it is only in 85th place. Peru remains marked by poverty, by the weight of the informal economy (60% of the active population) and by social, ethnic and geographical disparities. The macro-economic situation is healthy, for Peru has founded its expansion on the primary sector (mining, fishing, agriculture), with plenty of agreements of free trade and a legal and fiscal situation favourable to investors.
The country is numbered among the five principal world producers of silver, copper, zinc, tin, lead and gold. Despite efforts at diversification, the financial health of country is dependent on the mining sector. It should also be noted that Peru is one of the two principal producers of cocaine – after Colombia.
It is said that 85% of the population is Catholic. The Peruvian state signed a Concordat in 1980 proclaiming its autonomy with regard to the Catholic faith and recognising other believing minorities. But in fact the state acts as a Catholic state, and even if considerable work is done to maintain a form of laity, it is difficult to see exactly what this means. It is interesting to see how monasteries function in such a context.
Situated outside the town, the monastery of Pachacamac is settled at the foot of several little mountains which surround it, making a magic circle. Founded by the monastery of Belmont, of the English Congregation, some fifty years ago, it lives the monastic tradition in the classic manner, dividing life between work, prayer and hospitality. In the same countryside there are other monastic foundations. There are the Tyburn Sisters at Sechura, and also the Sisters of Morropon, more apostolic, and finally the communities of Ñaña and Chuchuito, whose character is special, and to which I shall return.
At Pachacamac there are seven monks, all Peruvian except one Englishman who came to Peru with the first foundation, which at that time was at Piura. Aspirants knock at the door, and some of them were present during my stay; several of them were to enter in the near future. The monks live in a very remarkable atmosphere of silence. The timetable is 04.40 Vigils, 07.00 Lauds and Mass (separated by lectio), breakfast, 12.00 Office in the middle of the day, 12.30 lunch, 17.30 Vespers, 19.00 supper, recreation and Compline.
According to the prior, Dom Alex Echeandía, the monastic reality is not integrated into the Peruvian landscape. The religious life, as in many other countries of this continent, was predominantly apostolic and missionary, to the extent that clergy and laity had no idea of what monks were, or even what they looked like. This was also the case with certain bishops. A work of deepening and communication is required. Dom Alex conceives monastic life as a place to touch the depths of the faith and thus permit a development of this faith in the deepest sense. He thinks that the Church of Peru needs this and that the Peruvian soul has a contemplative dimension, which he is working methodically to develop at Pachacamac.
Besides this, Dom Alex is a remarkable iconographer. He leads sessions in his monastery and sometimes accepts requests from outside.
Ñaña and Chucuito
Even if I did not visit all the monasteries in Peru because they are too distant from one another, nevertheless I got to Ñaña, which is not too far from Lima, and met there in the little monastery founded fifty years ago by the Belgian Congregation the President of that Congregation, the superior of the founding monastery, Wavreumont in Belgium, and two Belgians who look after both this community and that which they have founded on Lake Titicaca, near Puno at Chuchuito. In these places the Belgian brothers have thrown themselves into a project which they share with the laity who are part of the community in order to come as close as possible to the population, notably the poor, and become a dialogue-partner with the Andean culture in different forms. The two monks who run this project are Dom Bernard and Dom Simon-Pierre. The former is the prior and the latter has written several fine books, discussing liberation theology from the outside. Although the monastery of Ñaña is this year celebrating its golden jubilee, the foundation at Chucuito is going to celebrate its own twenty-five years of presence in this place. The question of the future rises inevitably. One possibility is the sending of monks and nuns from other monasteries of the world, if only to pass the time and in this way support the project which, it seems to me, has value as a sign for Latin America. A book has just been published to attest this experience and make it better known.
I also had contact with a community of Claretian Sisters who have just arrived to take the place of Cistercian Sisters at Lurín. The Cistercians were too advanced in age, and most returned to their monastery in Spain, though one joined the community of Ñaña, where she is pursuing her vocation. At Lurín there are only eight sisters, but all very young, in huge buildings. How are they going to live there? It is too early to say.
How could one go to Peru without taking the time for a excursion to Cuzco and Machu Picchu? I had the chance, and I must say that despite the brevity of my stay it affected me deeply by being immersed in the depths of the culture which is so perfectly attuned to nature. To find oneself in these places for a few days is to live a profound spiritual experience which incontestably marks a stage in one’s life.
Journey to Colombia
One month later I found myself in Colombia. I was accompanied by a translator, Nathalie Raymond, who had spent ten years as professor of historical geography and director of a project in South America, and had just spent six months in Vietnam giving courses in French and English at the monastery of Thien Binh. These contributions had brought her close to the AIM and her collaboration is precious.
The atmosphere at Bogotá is very different from that of Lima. The countryside is very green, even in the most urban areas. The inhabitants seem to be serene despite the reputation for violence and illicit trafficking which sticks to them. Circulation remains fairly fluid, and even the drivers are skilled: they do not take unnecessary risks. But as soon as I arrived at Bogotá I set off for Medellin in order to reach Guatapé. Dom Humberto Ricón, prior-administrator of Guatapé, was waiting at the airport. The countryside is really beautiful, the sun had risen, everything was smiling and singing throughout the journey. I fell under its charm. Conversation flowed, thanks to Nathalie, who translates everything with efficiency and discretion.
Guatapé, Santa María de la Epifanía
We passed along the tourist lake of Guatapé, where there is plenty of aquatic activity, past a gigantic rock, the Piedra d’El Peñol, a great tourist attraction of the area. We arrived at the monastery, whose architecture is remarkable for its sobriety and good taste. It is a recent construction, dating from after the transfer of the monks from Bogotá in 1976, fleeing the turmoil of the city, and setting up in 1968 at Usmé. The church is built on a basilical plan, its walls painted ochre. The whole atmosphere is calm and serene. The monks sing the Office according to Schema B of the Benedictine liturgy, and an organ discretely accompanies the chant.
Supper passed very simply, and then dish-washing and a time of community recreation in which I had some contacts. After Compline I went rapidly to bed and went immediately to sleep, for a night interrupted by several disturbances.
On Thursday 6th July the bell rang at 4 am. The Office of Vigils is at 04.30. The community takes its time over the Office and everything sounds just right. Vigils are followed by an hour of lectio or personal prayer, then Lauds at 06.45, followed by the Eucharist.
The monastery is situated in the Colombian Andes, at 2,000 metres above sea-level, surrounded by forested reserve at the foot of the Guatapé dam. Twenty-four monks, aged from 25 to 86, live there, following the Rule of St Benedict. In 1968 a group of ten monks of Envigado near Medellín was sent to Usmé in the south of the town of Bogotá. In 1987 the monastery was raised to the status of independent priory, and they held the first election of a prior. Dom Lorenzo Ferrer was elected, who had led the community since its foundation. At Easter 1992 the community took the decision to look for another place to live. After some time of temporary lodging, land was bought in the municipality of Guatapé 50km from the town of Medellin, with a mean temperature of 20 degrees. The monastery is 4km from the principal park of Guatapé.
The first stone of the monastery was laid on 11th July, 1995. The plans set out a traditional monastic arrangement: a church of a basilical type with its cloister on the side where the other monastic rooms were placed. The monastery is conceived for a capacity of thirty monks and a dozen guests, and includes some sectors for the welcome of larger numbers of groups of guests for the liturgy or for a day of silence and prayer. In 1998 the monastic buildings were blessed under the presidency of the diocesan bishop with the participation of the neighbourhood and many friends. The community was able to move in during March. On 31st July, 1999, the monastery was raised to the status of an abbey, and on the 31st August the first abbot of the monastery was elected, in the person of Dom Guillermo L. Arboleda T. A new stage was opening for the community in this blessed place.
During the evening recreation I had a long talk with one of the older monks of Usmé, who entertained us with stories of the heroic past.
Friday 7th July, the monastery of Envigado, Medellín
That day we set off for Medellín by the mountain road and found the town as we came down. We arrived at the monastery of Envigado past the walls of the old college which had belonged to the Benedictines, and which is now an independent structure. The quarter has the name ‘Benedictine’. We soon arrived at the monastery. The monks have opened a new college just beside the walls of the community so that the whole forms one unit.
The monks will not be able to remain in their buildings, and have opted to construct a new monastery more adapted to their needs and quieter, in another part of their property; they had rejected the possibility of going outside the town and leaving their college. The chapel is underground, the refectory and kitchen on the ground floor, with the monastic cells on the third and fourth floors. It is possible to see the whole town from a terrace on the roof, an impressive sight. We visited the library, which has a couple of lay employees.
A visit to the college gave us the opportunity to make contact with some of the teachers and several classes. We visited the library and the museum, which proudly displays a collection of pre-Colombian objects and a play-area for the students.
The Office is celebrated according to the B schema. We shared the prayer with the community, but unfortunately could not stay long, and returned to Guatapé in the evening. It is clear that their approach is quite different from that of Guatapé: the college plays an important part in the activity of the monastery. Dom Guillermo remains the superior of this community and delegates his power to the local superior, visiting the brothers regularly.
There are four monasteries of monks in Colombia: Guatapé, Envigado, Tibatí and El Rosal. There is also a Camaldolese monastery to the north of Medellín and a community of the Tyburn Sisters in the town of Guatapé. Guatapé is the most traditional in its approach to monastic life. With regard to manual labour, the resources of Envigado and Tibatí are absorbed in their colleges, and those of El Rosal in a major production of woodwork and milk.
There is certainly a difficulty about vocations. This is above all linked to the mentality of young people nowadays, marked by instability and insecurity. In addition it is difficult for them always to be doing the same thing. There are also many deep wounds and a great, sapping fragility.
Colombia is a country with a devotional faith. Masses are full; there are plenty of seminarians and priests: in the diocese where Guatapé is situated there are 300 seminarians in three seminaries and 600 priests, of whom 200 are on missions outside Colombia. Despite this, monastic vocations are rare. Should one link this to what I thought about Peru? The conquistadores came with missionaries and the monastic reality did not arrive in this era; apart from Brazil it is quite recent in Latin America. Furthermore, it is difficult to find well-prepared superiors and formators.
ABECCA, the Benedictine-Cistercian Association of the Caribbean and the Andes, organises every four years a meeting of those responsible for monasteries where there are several talks. This could be a good focus for the development of monasteries in this region. It is worth noting the interesting experience of an exchange between Guatapé and Pachacamac: the young monks of Pachacamac have just spent several months at Guatapé for their monastic formation.
In the same way, the new monastery of Costa Rica (a diocesan monastery) has taken Guatapé as its ‘godfather’. It would be interesting if this sort of initiative became more widespread so that one could see what dynamic such exchanges produced. Apart from this, the monasteries of Colombia used to meet up each year with two or three delegates from each monastery. Would it be useful to repeat this experiment?
The Sisters of Guatapé
A word on the nearby monastery of Benedictine Sisters of the English Congregation of Tyburn. They are located in a place even more isolated than Guatapé, deep in the mountains. The road to the monastery is in very bad condition. The monastery is built on the same plan as Guatapé, by the same architect, with a basilical church, very simple and in very good taste, even though it is a little unexpected in this context in the middle of nowhere. There are five sisters, of whom three are Peruvian, one Spanish and only one Colombian. We visited the house and admired the view over the mountains from the terrace of the church. The monastery receives a good number of people for personal, silent retreats.
In the male monastery there is a good number of people at the vigil Mass; the church is so full that some have to stay outside. There is great variety among them. One gets the impression that the Colombians are a Catholic people, but the reality of secularisation is catching up with the Catholic countries of South America, and in addition evangelical communities provide severe competition for the Catholic Church.
Monday 10 July
In the afternoon I showed the community a powerpoint about the AIM. This was followed by a discussion at evening recreation. An opening onto the life of the communities of the Benedictine family is an important element in encouraging mutual effort. Is it always a happy surprise for monks and nuns across the world to find that they belong to such a vast network, whose impact is so real. Then First Vespers brought us to the Festival of St Benedict.
Tuesday 11 July
For the Mass the prior gave the homily, which he had asked me to edit – an unusual situation, but a fine expression of fraternity. It was my last day at Guatapé, and in the afternoon I took some time for myself, going out for a walk. This is my way of taking leave of a place to which I am attached. At the evening recreation there were farewells, photographs, mutual thanks and promises of return, with the customary good wishes.
Meeting of ABECCA
On Wednesday 12 July I arrived in Bogotá at the conference centre where ABECCA was to be held, the Servants of the Heart of Jesus. ABECCA is a monastic association which brings together the monasteries of the Benedictine/Cistercian family of the north of Latin America and the Caribbean. The first meeting was in the evening. Dom Oscar Rivera, abbot of the monastery of Porto Rico, was interim president, an office which had been held by Mother Stella Venezia of Nicaragua. As she was no longer superior of the monastery of La Paz (Juigalpa) she had to resign from the office of President.
Thursday 13 July
A talk by Dom Alex Echeandia, prior of the monastery of Pachacamac in Peru. He spoke about the Benedictine/Cistercian identity: ‘What values can one renounce without losing one’s identity?’ Discussion was in groups followed by a plenary session. In the afternoon Sister Mahislen, of the foundation of Vittorchiano in Venezuela, spoke in a masterly way about the relationship between monastic life and mysticism. This was followed by a very rich discussion.
Friday 14 July
Dom Marco Antonia Maldonado, of the Trappist monastery of Jacona in Mexico, gave us a reflection on ‘How should we communicate our identity and make use of the cybernetic culture in our monastic values today and tomorrow?’ In the afternoon an apostolic sister, Marta Inés Restrepo spoke to us about an education for chaste love for the men and women of today. She has studied psychology in Europe and continued her formation of the Institute d’Etudes Théologiques at Brussels, following Françoise Dolto. However, she gave us a balanced synthesis of her own. In the evening I presented the AIM. One of the participants underlined how much the presentation of monastic work came across as lamps lit in the night across the world. Everyone was called to develop the brotherhood and solidarity between monasteries, new and old, rich and poor in their various forms.
Saturday 15 July
El Rosal, of the St Ottilien Congregation, at a distance of two hours by bus. I travelled next to Dom James, prior of the monastery of Cuba, who talked to me about his foundation. He himself comes from Togo and it is a great change for him to find himself in Cuba. His witness impressed me and filled me with admiration for founder-monks like himself who are obliged to live such a great self-denial. The development of the foundation is going slowly. The President of the Congregation, Dom Jeremias Schroeder, came to Cuba the previous week to inaugurate their new buildings.
We visited the lovely monastery of El Rosal, in which I stayed for the end of my travels. After that we went to the Cathedral of Salt in the town of Zipaquira. This is a huge mine of salt in which has been dug a nave worthy of the greatest cathedrals and two lateral naves. The atmosphere is unique. It would be splendid to have time for recollection in such a strong place, but we were both in Latin America and surrounded by tourists: silence and recollection are not exactly the rule there.
Sunday 16 July
After the Office and breakfast came the official meeting of ABECCA to plan for the future. Dom Oscar Rivera did not wish to continue his mission as president which he had so well filled in the interim. After a good discussion Dom Alex Echandia of Pachacamac was elected President of ABECCA, while Mother Mari Luisa Ordaz, superior general of the catechist sisters of St Mary of Mexico (Hermanas catequistas de Maria Santissima) accepted the office of vice-president, and Brother Javier Esteban Lopez of Tibati that of secretary. Dom Oscar accepted the office of treasurer. This dynamic team seemed very promising for the future.
At the end of the morning we left for the monastery of Tibatí, where we were to celebrate Mass in the great church of the college. The monks there run an academic complex which has an excellent reputation in the region and from which have come a good number of those responsible for Colombian society. After visiting the house we had a meal in the great school refectory, since the students are absent at the weekend.
In the evening I went back to the monastery of El Rosal with the prior and one or two other monks. We shared the evening meal with the community and having celebrated Compline there we quickly withdrew to our rooms for a restorative night. The priory of El Rosal belongs to the German Congregation of St Ottilien. The monastery was founded in 1924 by the community of Güigüe in Venezuela, first in the north of Colombia near the town of Pamplona. Not until 1957 did the monks decide to move to a more suitable place near Bogotá They moved to El Rosal in 1961, and currently the monastery is composed of monastic buildings and a guesthouse of seventeen rooms. The guests are numerous and varied. The Office is celebrated according to the Roman breviary. This peaceful visit gave me good contact and another view of monasticism in Colombia.
For the Prior the objective is to create a family life in which, for example, the guests are integrated into the refectory. There is a dimension of openness and suppleness which the community judges to look to the future. Several candidates are waiting to enter. The woodwork shop is productive, though it employs several salaried workers. The community is reasonably large and lives well. It remains inevitably marked by its German origin, but is eager to foster dialogue with the Colombian population.
During my stay the superiors of the Congregation in Latin America and North America had a meeting at El Rosal. I am glad to have met them. I had the pleasure of speaking with them and acquired some information about the situation in Venezuela and the situation of the monastery of Newton in USA, where there are now Korean brothers from Waegwan, taking the places vacated by the elderly American monks, who moved elsewhere.
This journey was highly significant for me, never having been in Latin America before. Its discovery was most informative, and I took an immediate liking to all the places I visited. The meeting of CIMBRA (Brazil) will take place in November 2017. On that occasion I will continue my discovery of that continent and of its monasteries, while waiting for the opportunity to go one day to the Southern Cone which also has a group of monasteries, and to participate in 2019 in the great reunion of EMLA, the meeting of all the monasteries of Latin America, in the Argentine. Let us stay united in the heart of the great family which we make up, for the good of all our monasteries in the grace of God.