On 10th March this year, 25 people from around the world gathered for a 90 day intensive course in Rome. They came from China, England, USA, Nigeria, India, Australia, Tanzania, the Philippines, S. Africa and Germany. There were representatives from the Benedictines, Cistercians, the Camaldolese, Grace & Compassion sisters and missionary congregations too. And all of them were hoping to learn more about being a monastic formator, that is, someone who helps those at the beginning of their monastic journey to understand and live the monastic life and its purpose.
You may think it odd that novice masters, vocations directors and junior masters need to be taught how to do their job. But when someone is asked to take on the work, often the only relevant experience they have is memory of their own noviciate.
First time parents know the problem. Having been a kid once is not much preparation for looking after a new child. So what do new parents do? They get advice from those who have been good and experienced parents before them (we would call that ‘the tradition’). They update this with advice from professionals and recommended reading (so do monks). And they talk to those in a similar position, which is what this course is especially good for.
Good monks and nuns tend to stay in their monasteries, so this was a rare chance to meet others from different cultures. Some find their difficulties come from being a recent foundation, others find they arise because they have deep roots in a cultural landscape that is changing faster around them than they are comfortable with. We found that in every place and every generation the monastic way of finding and handing on wisdom has to re-shape itself around its core understanding, engaging with the needs of the Church while not being dragged off-course by the powerful currents of the World.
A typical week included as many as 20 lecture or activity sessions from a single presenter on topics such as the Desert Fathers, Human Development, Monastic History, Discernment, Lectio Divina and Teaching Others How to Pray. (I knew the names of most of the contributors already, since the Abbey Shop sells their books!) And there were outings to key sites in our history, to stir the imagination and the heart. We visited Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict, Subiaco, his first monastery and Monte Cassino his second. We celebrated mass at the tombs of St Benedict, St Peter and St Francis of Assisi. We were in St Peter’s Square to greet the newly elected Pope Francis, and concelebrated with him on Maundy Thursday. And we visited some extraordinary monastic communities, ancient and new, to discover how they did things - and why.
One thing is certain, the future of monasticism depends a great deal on the skill and wisdom of men and women like these doing this work all over the world. Say a prayer for them!
Fr Jeremy Sierla, Ampleforth Abbey, England [MFP 2013]