Report of the Moderator

Abbess Máire Hickey osb, Dinklage, Germany


On behalf of the Women's Commission I would like to thank Abbot Primate Marcel for inviting us to speak to the Congress about developments in the Commission, and Abbot Primate Notker for confirming the invitation. We have given out a sheet of information about the development of the Commission since 1968. This report takes up where that left off.

The LEX PROPRIA of the Benedictine Confederation was passed and approved in 1982. In this document, the Confederatio Benedictina, taking notice of the movement for women's emancipation which was gathering momentum at that time in many parts of the world, wanted to express a desire to treat those women living according to the Rule of St Benedict as equals of the monks. Accordingly, the form of association of the women's institutes that are joined to the Confederation was named CONSOCIATIO (LP, Normae de consociatione cum Confoederatione). This word means something like "association between allies or partners". It is trying to point towards a relationship of parity between the Confederation and those groups that are "allied" to it. This means that the LP wants to see the women living according to the RB as of equal status with the men, in a relationship of partnership, an image of what God meant when He created humankind in his own image, as man and woman (Gen. 1:27).

The LEX PROPRIA lays down further (Normae No. 4) that through the bond formed by this CONSOCIATIO, fraternal collaboration will be promoted between the monasteries, federations and institutes of Benedictine women inter se, among themselves; and between the monasteries, federations and institutes of Benedictine women on the one side and the Benedictine Confederation and the Congregations of monks on the other.

Something of the parity envisaged by the LP in 1982 has developed between some single monasteries, congregations, federations of Benedictine women and monasteries or congregations of monks. But in many respects it is still a kind of paper parity with our brothers, not yet that which the Scripture means when it says: "Now that faith has come, all who are baptised into Christ have clothed themselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:25-28).

The LP of 1982 put us in a situation comparable to that of the women who got the franchise by law at the beginning of the last century. Most of them had little education, little financial independence, little opportunity to play the part in society which the franchise theoretically gave them, in comparison with their male counterparts. To benefit from the franchise, it was necessary for them to build up organisations of solidarity with each other that would allow them to work together to achieve in practice what the franchise was granting them in theory.

Similarly, in 1982 there was still is a lot to do before the parity given in a word in the LP could become a reality in practice - indeed there still is. The reality of our CONSOCIATIO to date is hindered by a great discrepancy between the two partners envisaged. One partner in the alliance is a one hundred year old clerical and monastic organisation, closely-knit through the institutions of the Confederation, and highly esteemed for its service in various areas of Church and Society. The other partner consists of a multiplicity of congregations (often pretty small), federations, and single, often isolated monasteries of women with little or no influence and with very little of the cohesion that binds the men's monasteries together in the Confederation. Our fundamental task is to build up out of this disparate multiplicity of women's communities some kind of association that would make a CONSOCIATIO within the Benedictine Confederation meaningful in practice Ð a mutual support and enrichment for men and women Benedictines alike. In this process we are concerned to stress that any movement towards a union will respect very definitely the autonomy of each house. Only by doing this will it be possible to be inclusive of the great diversity of expressions of Benedictine life that is to be found among the women's communities.

In some areas of the Church the striving of women for parity with men is still looked upon as a self-centred pursuit of self-realisation, in which women take up psychological arms to establish their independence of men or their superiority over them. These are indeed aspects of the movement. But for Christian and monastic women, the response to the call to Women's Liberation has been not a call to self-centred independence, but rather a spiritual challenge, heard interiorly, to participate actively in the process of becoming the helpmate (Gen. 2:18), the co-worker of our brothers in the work for God's Kingdom that we know we are called to be. We have heard and meditated Jesus' words to the women and to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning: go and tell my brothers (Mt. 28:10 and Jn 20:17). We are not so presumptuous as to believe we have heard the message of the Gospel better than you have. But we do hear our Lord telling us that there are things he wants us to say to his Church, and we are trying to listen intently to hear what they are, and to hear how we are to go about saying them.

The present Women's Commission is pledged in this sense to work towards putting the CONSOCIATIO granted by the LEX PROPRIA of 1982 into practice at all levels of our lives as Benedictine women. We are at the present time clarifying our aims. Short-term, we want to continue to organise regular international meetings of Benedictine women. Some brothers and sisters who have been present both at Abbots' Congresses and one or more of the Symposia organised by the Women's Commission commented on the different approaches. At our meetings, in addition to sharing everyday monastic liturgical life, and enjoying some cognitive and intellectual input, we take quite a lot of time to share at a deep level our thoughts and experiences of aspects of our Rule and tradition.

At our Colloquium last week, for instance, we dealt with the theme "Enclosure". In our meetings up to now, this had always been a very sensitive subject. In the past, the great differences between the ways in which different Congregations of nuns and Sisters live enclosure were often seen as representing rungs on the ladder of authentic monasticism: nuns living in strict or even papal enclosure were regarded as the authentic Benedictines, while those involved in apostolic or missionary work were somehow second-class. In more recent times, an equally narrow tendency in the opposite direction has sometimes set in. The missionary thrust of Evangelisation is seen by some as the touchstone of authentic monasticism. A caricature of life in the enclosure gets rejected as not being authentically monastic, leaving little room for a deep understanding and appreciation of the real aims of this form of life to grow. Fear of appearing judgmental or of touching old wounds had held us back from trying to talk to each other about this theme.

Last week we did it. We did not talk much about Canon Law or about the history of enclosure. In a process facilitated by S. Karen Joseph, we talked to each other about our own experiences and those of our Communities with enclosure. We sought out passages in Scripture and passages in our Rule that we have experienced as a call to seek God in the small space of our monasteries, to learn there to persevere in prayer and stability, and in the use of the instruments of good works that can form us in the good zeal that should inspire monastic life, teaching us to value nothing whatever above Christ himself. We are united in a recognition of the absolute necessity of some very serious form of enclosure for monastic life. A meeting like this helps each of us to return to her own monastery with a renewed love for her own form of enclosure. And it can prepare the way for us to understand each other's forms of enclosure, with equal benefit to those of us living more cloistered forms, and to those living the more apostolic forms of monasticism.

All participants find meetings of this kind particularly valuable. They experience a widening of their Benedictine horizons and a growing sense of solidarity with Benedictine women all over the world. We are all learning to recognise more deeply the essentials of Benedictine monasticism that unite us all, and at the same time to appreciate the profound spiritual values expressed by the differences between us. These meetings will be promoting monastic renewal in the women's monasteries all over the world, helping us to be growing in unity in our witness to the monastic way as an expression of the desire to consecrate one's life totally to God and to follow Christ, preferring nothing to him. We believe that through this evolutionary process a SOCIETAS will be emerging out of our great variety of congregations, federations and communities, which will enable us sooner or later to realise the CONSOCIETAS with the Benedictine Confederation which the Lex Propria of 1982 envisaged.

This is the way the nuns and sisters are discovering at the moment of building up their CONSOCIATIO. It is rather different from the vision that led to the foundation of Sant' Anselmo over 100 years ago. But our faith in our vision is growing.

In the short-term too, we want to clarify our status in the Confederation. The LEX PROPRIA (Normae III.7) recognises the existence of 2 Commissions, one of nuns and one of sisters. This reflects the situation of the women in the Confederation in 1982. This has changed now and will continue to change. We would like to see the LP updated so as to reflect the reality of our situation at the present time. We will perhaps be looking for a name to cover the informal Union of all Benedictine women all over the world. We will be looking at the role of the Abbot Primate in the Women's Commission, and that of the Moderator and the Executive Committee. Between now and 2004 we plan to do some revision of our own statutes, and to request the Synod of Presidents to appoint a small group of Abbots who would work with us to prepare amendments to the LP for approval by the Congress of 2004. This dialogue with the Synod of Presidents will begin today with a first meeting between 6 members of the Women's Commission and 6 Abbots President, along with Abbot Richard Yeo. We hope this may prove to be the beginning of fruitful cooperation between us.

Abbot Primate Marcel spoke at one point during this Congress about a readiness on the part of the Women's Commission to take on more responsibility in matters concerning Casa Santa Lioba. We are united in recognising the great potential of quality theological, liturgical and monastic education in an appropriate setting for the future of Benedictine women's monasticism. Fr Rector's words last week with reference to Sant'Anselmo about formation of the mind and the whole person through study and culture as a prerequisite for spiritual and monastic maturity spoke to our hearts. The Women's Commission would like to pledge itself to support what Sant'Anselmo has been doing for further education of Benedictine women here for a number of years. We would find it appropriate that women Benedictines should be more involved in dealing with all questions involving women's study here Ð academic questions, questions of life-style and pastoral care, and also the financial aspects of study for Benedictine women in Rome. Up to now, we have no clear mandate to involve ourselves in the affairs of Casa Santa Lioba. The wish of Abbot Primate Marcel that we should do so does credit to the confidence he has had in us. It would however be most important for us that any mandate to us and any accountability we would take on would be very clearly anchored in the LEX PROPRIA and in our own Statutes. This is another of the questions we would hope to get clarified in the Congress of 2004, with a view to greater involvement in the long term.

The Women's Commission has no endowments and no regular income. Its projects up to now have been financed by the monasteries, conferences or regions of those participating at meetings, and from AIM. Some of you, too, have been most generous in helping us since 1987 to cover the expenses of those participants at our meetings coming from less well-off monasteries, and some administrative costs too. We are deeply grateful for this help. At our meeting last week we set up a small committee to investigate possibilities of our aiming at some partial measure of financial self-sufficiency. We will continue, at least for some time, to be dependent on some help from you. But we hope by 2004 to have some income from the women's monasteries as far as they can afford it, and perhaps too some regular income from benefactors.

Our meetings have been growing increasingly open to hearing reports about happenings in the different Regions that could call for our attention or intervention. Two years ago, for example, reports reached us from Benedictine superiors concerning serious cases of incorrect sexual behaviour on the part of priests towards young sisters studying away from home, especially sisters coming to Europe from Africa, Asia and Latin America. One of our 2 Commission members for the US, Sr Esther Fangmann, of St Scholastica's Monastery in Atchison, Kansas, President of the Federation of St Scholastica, has researched the matter and reported to the Commission. Herself a Doctor of Psychology and an experienced counsellor and therapist, Sr Esther will be giving a report to you later on this morning. Many of you will already be aware of these issues, many may be a little surprised at their being addressed at the AbbotsÕ Congress. We sisters and nuns have talked openly about them and are deeply concerned at this form of threat to the integrity of those men and women involved, and to the integrity of the monastic vocation. We are aware that it is a fairly unusual theme for a report in the Abbots' Congress, but we find it too important for us to be silent about it when we are invited to speak here.

I thank you for your attention, and ask you to continue to support us with your fraternal interest and your prayers..

Mother Máire Hickey was born in Ireland in 1938 and professed in the Abbey of St Scholastika, Dinklage, Germany in 1977; she was elected Abbess in 1983. She has been a member of the Commission of Benedictine Women since its inception, and was elected Moderator in 1997 (cf.Bulletin 66 p.13).