To Benefit All

In Praise of the Carta caritatis(1)

Dom Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori,

Abbot General of the Cistercian Order



Just before the solemnity of Christmas, on December 23, the exact 900th anniversary of the approval of the Carta Caritatis will occur. During this year we have much meditated on and studied this ancient document, which is in reality the birth certificate of our Order. With surprise, and a little contrition, we have realized how necessary it is for our awareness of and for the vitality of our identity, of our Cistercian charism, grafted onto the fundamental charism of St. Benedict.

[…] It is pointless to celebrate and study, to organize symposia, if then one does not live it out, if the impulse that the Holy Spirit puts into the foundational texts do not impel is to live out our vocation with more intensity today, in the present situation of the Order, of the Church, and of the world.


Desiring the good of all

Perhaps we should focus our attention most on the catholic dimension, in the literal sense of “universal,” with which our first fathers conceived of fidelity to their monastic vocation. All seems summarized for me in a phrase in the first chapter: “Prodesse enim illis omnibusque sanctae Ecclesiae filii cupientes – Desiring to benefit them [that is, the abbots and monastic brothers] and all the sons of Holy Church.”

The Carta goes on to explain the realms in which and modalities with which one desires to make explicit and effective this desire for the good of the Order and the whole Church, but I think we must first of all appropriate this desire for the good and its universal reach, because this is like the breeze that can give (and give back) meaning and vitality to all that our vocation enables us and asks us to live out. […]


The center that unifies and emanates

The Church was born from the open side of Christ, as Eve was from the open side of Adam. The Fathers of the Church meditated on this mystery a good deal. And the first Cistercians seem to have drawn the Carta Caritatis from the very contemplation of this mystery that unites charity, the Church, and the salvation of the world. This document’s insistence on charity and the salvation of souls is thus centered on the ardent desire (cupientes) to benefit (prodesse) all the children of Holy Church. This is the definition of the charity of Christ that is expressed in the paschal moment in which he offers himself for the salvation of the world, giving birth from the Cross to the Church, bride of the Savior and mother of the saved.

[…] To be aware that our vocation and mission as Christians and monks and nuns always emanates only from this mystery that helps us not to be dissipated, to lose none of our life, of our thoughts, of our words and actions, of our efforts. If in monasteries there is often much toil to manage time and activities, to live our human relationships in harmony and mercy, especially to manage the weaknesses in which we seem to sink, this comes above all from a lack of attention to the central mystery of our and everyone’s salvation. If, instead, the center is clear and we prefer it, then all that we are and live can emanate it.



The word that we must underline in the Carta Caritatis, then, where it speaks of the ardent desire to serve all the children of the Church – and all human beings per se are the children of the Church, because the Church is called to be a Mother that transmits the life of Christ to all mankind – the word that defines the fruitfulness of our life and vocation, then, is the Latin verb “prodesse,” which literally means to “be for,” hence to help, serve, be useful, be a good for others.

The ardent desire to benefit all is the desire that God has especially given to the human creature, made in his image as Father and Creator, and blessed to be fruitful in generating: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Gen 1:27–28).

We are not truly human if we do not desire to transmit life, if we do not desire to benefit others more than ourselves. In Christ we are given to be fully human, fully fruitful through the universal motherhood of the Church, whether through matrimony or in virginity. This fruitfulness is always possible, because it is a fruitfulness of grace, brought about by the Holy Spirit itself who, carrying out the impossible, made the Virgin Mary’s womb fruitful to bring the Son of God to light in our humanity.


Like a grain of wheat

In the current situation of the world and of the Church, and of our communities, many doubt that there is still any possible fruitfulness in our life and vocation. How is it possible to be fruitful by diminishing, and sometimes even dying?

The Church constantly comes to remind us that what is not possible for our own powers and capacities is always possible for the faith and love which, in hope, cast the situation in which we find ourselves into the ground as a seed. What makes even death fruitful is the love with which we cast our lives into Christ’s bridal gift to the Church so that it can generate children of God in the whole world.

But this is not just the secret of the fruitfulness of death: it is above all the secret of the fruitfulness of life. Whoever considers himself fruitful without dying to himself remains sterile, even if in the eyes of the world everything seems to ensure his success.

[…] At the time of the approval of the Carta Caritatis, Citeaux had generated twelve monasteries. There were thirteen of them, then, like Jesus and his twelve apostles. They knew they were still small and weak, but they sensed a force that was making them grow, that was pushing them forward. They were aware, above all, in the light of the Gospel, that their success was not tied to their power or number, but was all contained in the desire to give their life for the Kingdom of God. mindful of St. Benedict’s counsel to the abbot, that he must concern himself more with benefitting than with dominating – “prodesse magis quam praeesse” (RB 64.8) – their desire was not to win, to conquer spaces of power, but to be of benefit, for the Church and in the Church, by sacrificing themselves, losing their lives in the service of Christ, for the life of the world. The life of the world is that all human beings become children of God.

[…] Prodesse. We must reappropriate this little word, the only one that can make our life and our communities beautiful, happy, and useful, in whatever circumstances they be found, along with the whole Church, with all its treasures of grace but also its human weaknesses.

[…] Prodesse omnibus, to benefit all: How does this desire and this vocation judge our often instinctive and perhaps self-referential way of judging our problems, our crises, and of seeking solutions to them? Are we truly animated by this desire for the good of all, or do we think that the solution will be what only helps us? Do we have the faith that poverty, too, weakness, and even death, when lived out in Christ, can benefit the whole world?

[…] How beautiful, how necessary and urgent it is, for all our communities, with all the monks and nuns that compose them, along with all the people united to our charism, that we be able to return to formulating this word with our life, this word transmitted by our fathers, “prodesse,” as in this ancient manuscript of Stična, contracted and yet entirely stretched and expanded, “like a bridegroom coming from his wedding chamber” (Ps 19:6), that is, like Jesus who is born from the Virgin to benefit all human beings with the gift of his presence, his love, his salvation!


(1) An extract from the good wishes for 2020 sent by Dom Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori to all Cistercian communities.