FEBRUARY 10, 2002 CHAPTER OF FAREWELL
GO OUT AND TEACH ALL NATIONS . . . TEACHING THEM TO KEEP ALL THAT I HAVE COMMANDED YOU (Mt. 28:19, 20). At the time Jesus spoke these words to his disciples on the mountain in Galilee, they would have struck anyone without a strong faith in him as highly pretentious, addressed as they were to devoted and competent, but quite ordinary men, of little education and influence. Indeed, St. Matthew, who recorded them, added that 'some doubted'. In order to take his directive seriously one had to believe it was truly he who appeared after his resurrection and the words he used by way of introducing this program, 'all power is given me in heaven and on earth' (28:18).
None of us would be here today, if the others, the majority of his followers present at the time, did not put their trust in him and take his words quite literally. In spite of all appearances, all human calculation they would obey his summons and strive to the best of their ability to carry out the program he outlined to them. They found the strength and courage to undertake this mission in the conviction, reinforced at Pentecost, that he himself would accompany them as they set out on an undertaking that they knew themselves alone to be unequal to. This conviction that they were not left to their own resources, nor on their own, meant so much to them that Matthew terminated his gospel with the promise made by the Lord to this effect. 'And behold I am with you all days to the end of the world (Mt. 28:20).
The event proved their trust was not misplaced. Though the way proved to be rough, as the Lord had already predicted and demonstrated in his own experience, yet it was fruitful, and accomplished more than they or anybody else could have forseen. Nobody could be joined to their company at that time without realizing they were exposed to very real risk at several levels. Risk of physical danger even of death, risk of social disgrace in the eyes of fellow Jews, and of ostracism by religious authorities and the pain of separation from their associates and loved ones as they went out into the world beyond their familiar frontiers. We know how, taken as a whole, as a community, they succeeded beyond all expectations. Some paid a higher price for this success than others, but all who engaged themselves to witness to the Lord's death and resurrection contributed their share of personal sacrifice. The leaders of the Church and most actively apostolic, were put to death- Peter, Paul, James. John suffered exile on Patmos; others left their country behind and lived in a voluntary exile for the sake of the gospel.
Taken together and individually they became patterns of the flock, and were imitated by succeeding generations of believers. In one way or another every one of the faithful was seen as sharing in the commission to 'go out and preach to all the nations', not just the apostles. Even those who lived the teaching of Jesus in the cities as the virgins and ascetics of the early Church made their particular contribution to this great undertaking by their lives of holiness, preserving the truth of the gospel which others disseminated in more distant places. Those who went out to the desert as the first monks continue to preach by their words and example even today. When our own Order of Cistercians was still in its early development, during the time of St. Bernard, monks were sent out to the most distant part of the European continent and before much longer were implanted overseas, in Iceland and in Syria. When the first monks came to this country it was to an undeveloped world, largely forest and little known that they attempted to settle in. Their first attempt did not successed but thsy were followed, a generation later, by others who established themselves sucessfully after many and prolonged trials, in the same area of Kentucky.
In the wake of World War II, the Holy Father Pius XII urged monasteries to make foundations in the mission countries of the world. This work had already begun in a quiet way in the 19th century with foundations in China and Japan from France and in South Africa from the German speaking community in Bosnia; in the early years of the 20th century Sept Fons also founded a monastery in Brazil the first of our Order in Latin America which,however, after about 30 years was closed down. The pace of distant foundations increased beginning in the 1950's when the first of the African monasteries was founded in Cameroun by Aiguebelle, shortly after our community of Genesse began here in New York. Others followed in rather rapid succession in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
As part of this movement in the 1970's the American Region decided to sponsor a small group of monks from several monasteries in our country who petitioned the Region for support of their project to make a foundation in the Philippines. There are sound reasons for choosing this country as a site for a Cistercian monastery, chief of which, perhaps, is the fact that it is the only Christian nation in the Far East, being about 85% Catholic. The religious history of the Philippines is a highly intriguing one in that its indigenous peoples had a long exposure to the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism through immigration of the Chinese beginning about the year one thousand,and other races, and yet neither of these ever had a significant following. It was quite different with Islam which was brought by immigrants from Brunei, a Moslem sultanate, in the 14th century and which spread considerably and increasingly established itself. Had Magellan not discovered it for the Spanish when he did in 1521, in all likelihood the country would have gone the way Indonesia did and be a Muslim nation today. But King Philip II of Spain was concerned for the spread of the Catholic faith as well as for the imperial power of his rule and the Spanish friars accompanied the king's soldiers. They effectively drove back the Muslims who however, were never totally subdued until the US army managed the task in the early part of the 20th century after years of guerilla warfare.
The Church then has existed in that country since the 16th century and proved to be steadily faithful to its Catholic traditions. Although there were religious Orders present, notably the Franciscans and Dominicans and later the Brothers of the Christian Schools and Benedictines, yet there were no monasteries dedicated exclusively to the life of contemplation in the country. Thus when this appeal was made by this small group of monks to the whole region because none of the monasteries to which the members of this group of monks belonged was in a position to assumre the paternity of a new foundation it received a sympathetic hearing. At a Regional Meeting none of the superiors considered his community in a position to take responsibility for this new venture and so it was proposed that the American Region as a whole assume the role of founder and the oversight of the development of this community. The legislation of the Order did not foresee such a manner of establishing a new house of the Order, but itwas decided that this proceedure fulfilled the requirements set by the Chapter of providing both support and supervision of a new community.
Father Pedro, a Philippino priest and monk of Mepkin Abbey, served as the superior of the small group of six monks. Having been sponsored by the Region the members of the group came together for a period of formation at Ava where they formed a kind of sub-community for a period of six months or so before leaving for the Philippines. After some few years during which the region supplied the funds needed for building and support of the community, it became evident that a mother house should be named whose superior would serve as Father Immediate on a permanent basis and thus provide more continuity in overseeing the unfolding of the foundation. Ava, assumed that role and continues with it to the present.
However, Ava itself has had considerable difficulties in its own growth for a variety of reasons. There has been a succession of superiors there and a certain deficiency of resources needed to provide sufficiently for the various needs in the area of formation and even finance. Other houses in the Region assisted in the building of a more permanent monastery afer some years. The community there has never had a problem with recruitment and has grown rather steadily. Some years ago there were enough members in solemn vows for the monastery to become an abbey. There continue to be adequate applicants desiring to join and the community has a number
Experienced teachers and other sufficiently trained personnel, however, remain a decided lack in the life of the community there. As a result both the economy and the formation of the community require to be further developed. Both pose special difficulties in a country which remains in a condition of emerging from undeveloped economic, educational and political status. Nature itself is not always benign so that the economy of the country has suffered from volanic eruptions of huge proportions and hurricanes have wrought much destruction including the fishponds of the abbey located at the ocean's edge, and storms at sea have led to the drowning of many who depend on water transport in that country of some 7,000 islands.
The Philippine Abbey, being situated in the Far East, belongs to the Aspac Region, that is Asia and the Pacific, which includes Japan, China with Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, and India as well as the Philippines. Thus the Region itself, and the Philippine community in particular represents a meeting of East and West which reflects the situation in the area of national, cultural. and economic affairs. This encounter has been taking place with varying degrees of exchange at different times and in different countries since the 16th century. In recent times there has been a greatly intensified interaction that has been marked repeatedly by violently destructive wars involving our own country in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. But this contact has also been productive of mutually beneficial dealings in commerce, technology as well as in science and education and in some places such as The Philippines, Korea, Taiwan and Japan in government as well. The number of Asian undergraduate and especially graduate students studying in this country at the graduate level is impressive. In the Philippines at the moment there continues to be a restless and violent opposition to the government on the part of rebel Muslim factions. American special forces are aiding in their suppression, but the presence of foreign troops has led to anti-American protests just recently again. The considerable political unrest leading at times to violent conflict has made development more difficult and affects the economy of the country and inevitably of the monastery as well. Further planning, organization and efforts are needed to put the Abbey finances on a more solid basis.
The Philippine Church, on the other hand, has been and coninues to be energetic and influential not only within the borders of the country but in other parts of the Far East. The Korean Church in particular has close ties with the Diocese of Manila where there is an International training center for Pastoral ministry which has prepared many Korean priests for their ministry. The Abbey there has been conscious of its obligations to the Church and others who visit the monastery and has provided a rather large guest-house that accomodates 47 guests.
The Trappistine monastery is situated on the large island of Mindanao where the majority of Muslims live and where the center of the violence is located. That community is a rather recent foundation of Vitorcchiano in Italy. It has made good progress in recruitmet and was made a Priory at the last General Chapter and the Prioress, M. Giovanna, was elected shortly after the Chapter. The Abbey of the Philippines accepted to be its mother house. Accordingly I have been in correspondance with M. Giovanna who has expressed her concern to deal with the issue of formation and need to make the visitation there prior to the coming Chapter.
At the time of assuming the duties of superior in such circumstances, it is very appropriate to reflect on the role of a monastic community in the local Church. This large question has significance for all the houses of the Order, of course, as it did for the founders of our Order who were not exempt from the jurisdiction and pastoral concern of the local bishop. These days when there is a stronger emphasis on pluralism in the Church with a consequent emphasis on the role of Episcopal Conferences this topic is particularly pertinent. The fact too that there is a much keener appreciation of the fact that all Christians are called to perfection and held to an absolute dedication to their life with God as the General stressed in his recent letter, has its particular contribution to this question. It was the conviction that the presence of a monastery in a given Church adds a dimension of fullness to its presence that is otherwise felt as a lack. A monastic community that is devoted to seeking God in himself, to witnessing to his existence and his concern and love for the people he created is a highly significant sign of the Church's primary purpose, namely the salvation and sanctification of her members.
More than this, such a community of believers is a sign of God's loving and caring presence in the world and a symbol of his absolute transcendence. In modern times such visible symbols of God's transcendence and of his caring presence to the world have become increasingly rare. For those who are sufficiently acquainted with the scientific discoveries of modern biology, physics, astronomy and chemistry among others there certainly are numerous indications of God's wisdom, power and beauty. But on the level of society and typical human experience of city life and the techological environment that increasingly dominates its horizon there are rather obstacles to recognizing the active communication of divine life to his human creatures. Accordingly, the presence of a monastery contributes an expression of God's redeeming grace that is all too rarely accessible to the majority of people today.
One very practical consequence of this symbolic function of a monastery is that its members must so live together as effectively to sustain one another in their search for God as their primary and practical concern. It is essential to maintain the tension involved in seeking union with God for the monastic community to fulfill its primary role in the Church. That is the purpose of a number of the basic practices that create the monastic atmosphere: the cloister first of all, the horarium which assures time for assistance at the public prayer of the office and provides for periods of leisure for reflection, prayer, lectio divina and study. The relative simplicity of our life and the location of the monastery in the countryside facilitating contact with nature are so many ways of supporting a life directed beyond the immediate concerns of life in this world to a continuous exchange with God in constant prayer.
Assuring that these lived practices are maintained in a condition of healthy and human condition creates possibilities for members of the community that otherwise would exist concretely only for a few of specially gifted persons. In recent years further research in human growth and development has led to the heightened awareness of the active influence of the exterior elements of one's life in the formation of character and conscious functioning. Not only native talents and endowments determine a person's measure of spiritual and human attainment, but the interaction between the interior faculties and the surround in which the individual encounters other persons and deals with the exterior opportunities and difficulties presented by the society and conditions of life.
Illustrating this fundamental principle and demonstrating the effectual presence of a monastic community in a particular region or even country is the instance I met with in a West-African convent not many years after the Trappistines nuns had established the first woman's Cistercian monastery there. I spoke with many of the sisters in private. The last of the group was a young postulant who had entered but a few weeks before. She came from a distant area in the mountainous region of the country, where life and customs were quite primitive, the Prioress told me. I asked her how she had learned about the Cistercian nuns and their monastery when she lived so far away? I cite her answer in full: 'I grew up in the village and when I was a little girl there was only one way. Then one day two sisters came to live in the village and they stayed; then there were two ways.' She added nothing further, obviously feeling that she had explained her call quie adequately;nor did I feel any need to question her on it further. Indeed, to do so seemed quite inappropriate for she had stated her story with a convincing finality. And in fact, she has persevered in the Order for some thirty years and occupies an important position in her monastery.
The Cistercian charism is the same in its essential and most characteristic fatures wherever it is lived. Anyone who has spent some time in another monastery of our Order soon realizes how thoroughly the basic practices and values of our Order create a way of life and spirit that allows one readily to enter into the life of the community he is visiting or moving into. This remains true even in foreign countries and especially those that share the same language. Still, because it is a charism, that is to say, a gift of the Spirit adapted to each individual monk and each community, there are appreciable differences resulting from local customs and the culture and level of development of a given community that pose a challenge to a newcomer from other and decidedly different society. The most notable differences commonly are those involved in personal relations and the various exchanges that depend heaviy on the interpersonal communications that are so much a part of our way of life.
Every community has the ongoing task of formation especially for the young members but also for all the monks throughout life. This obligation is particularly acute in a relatively recent foundation and poses quite particular difficulties due to limitations of resources. This needs to be arranged for while providing for a regular life of prayer, lectio and work. Basically the task is the same in the Philippines as it continues to be here and in all the monasteries of our Order. The search for God is life long and requires that we remain on our journey back to the Father without stopping part way and settling into attitudes of complaceny and ease. As Benedict points out in his Rule, we serve the same Master wherever we live our monastic vocation. And so as I depart this week to undertake this fresh assignment, I ask the support of your prayers and of your interest in the development of the Abbeyof the Philippines. I might add that I go there while remaining a member of this community and with the intention and desire of returning here when the immediate necessity no longer exists. However, the future is in the hands of God and so how soon or how long that might prove to be remains hidden, and depends on many factors, most of them beyond my own control, to be sure. What remains sure is that only God's grace and the help of your prayers will crown our strivings with success. May He strengthen and bless the work of our hands and purify the intent of our heart. Amen.