“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”—attributed to American author Mark Twain.
Is monasticism dying or even dead? I occasionally have heard variations of that question since arriving in Rome four months ago. If you visit certain monasteries or read reports or see statistic charts, it may appear that monasticism is seriously on the decline or even an endangered species.
Certainly in Europe and many other parts of the world there is a steady decrease in numbers in many monasteries, and what the future holds for some might be less than encouraging. There are also creative movements underway to deal with fewer or aging members. One such experiment I will describe below
Saint Benedict of Norcia, who lived from 480 to 547 AD, is considered the father of western monasticism. An Italian by birth, Saint Benedict’s homeland has been the springboard for many monastic foundations, new Orders and movements throughout the centuries. Today this is not so much the case and religious practice in general is at an all time low.
Can anything be done to change the tide? I have no idea of the answer to that question, but as a Christian and monk I feel obliged to be optimistic and hopeful, even in the face of what may appear to be “certain death” for some intentional communities that once were flourishing but no longer are.
I recently visited an aging community that had been declining in numbers in recent years but eventually found a creative solution to their “problem,” if it may be called that. It is just one example and doubtless there are others that could be cited.
The Benedictine Abbey of Santa Scholastica at Civitella San Paolo, about an hour from Rome, in a beautiful rural setting, was founded in 1934 with the help of Cardinal Ildephonso Shuster, who lived from 1880 to 1954. He was a Benedictine and his career included being abbot of the Abbey of San Paolo fuori le Mura (Saint Paul outside the Walls of Rome), and later became Archbishop of Milan and then a cardinal. Shuster was eventually beatified by the Catholic Church.
Under Shuster’s initiatives, the monastic community at Civitella San Paolo came into being with the arrival of Benedictine nuns from the Abbey of Dourgne in France. By about 2010 the San Paolo monastery numbered fewer than a dozen, living in a fairly large complex of buildings.
There has been a long standing friendship between the Civitella San Paolo nuns and the monastic community of Bose in northern Italy. The friendship included brothers of Bose assisting the Civitella nuns with their annual olive harvest. More recently, after a series of mutual visits and discussions with the members of the Bose community, an alliance was formed with the nuns of Civitella and the Bose community.
In 2013 some sisters of Bose came to Civitella San Paolo, in order to fully share the life of the nuns already there and simply to be of assistance. Today the five remaining nuns of Civitella San Paolo work closely with the six Bose sisters in residence. The two communities live a common monastic life of public and private prayer and lectio divina, as well as work, which includes maintaining the extensive abbey buildings. I sense they carry on well and do an admirable job of keeping the premises in good order and clean.
Other work at Civetella San Paolo includes bookbinding and the cultivation of vegetables and flowers. A beautiful olive grove and a vineyard are also part of their outdoor work. A delicious white wine is produced by the nuns under the label, “Quam Bonum,” Latin for, “How Good,” with a reference to Psalm 132, which in Latin begins: “Ecce quam bonum et quam iucundum habitare fratres in unum!” Literally,
“How good and pleasant it is when brethren live in unity.”
This short and lovely psalm is traditionally sung at Tuesday Vespers in the Benedictine Divine Office. It also is considered the quintessential psalm for those who live in community, thus an apt motto for the Civitella San Paolo Benedictine experience.
Hopefully all of us, in one form or another, connect with some community, which may include, for example, a monastic community, a parish, oblate membership, one’s family, prayer group or other “communities.”
Sometimes when people tell me of their trials, I ask them about their connection with a living “community,” as something they should consider as important and a help in life’s trials. Interacting with others inevitably carries some stress, but hopefully community is an assistance in “helping to carry one another’s burdens,” as Saint Paul describes it in Galatians 6:2. Or as the poet John Donne wrote, “No man (one) is an island.” I think it is something important as we go through life.
The monastic community at Civitella San Paolo also does some translating and publishing of books, as well as the usual monastic occupations of cooking, cleaning, laundry, library work and having a monastic guesthouse that is kept busy, especially on weekends.
While maintaining a certain amount of autonomy, the two groups at Civitella San Paolo, composed of Benedictine nuns and sisters from Bose, seem to be forming a strong common life, under one roof, as a school of God’s service. I am sure there are tensions or misunderstandings at times, with the need to let go of certain things and adopt new ones, but this is the give and take of any community, including family life. To refuse to change is a sure road to stagnation and death.
What can other communities learn from the experiment that seems to be working well, of Santa Scholastica Abbey, Civitella San Paolo near Rome? First, that creative thinking needs to be encouraged, probably always, but certainly in these times, of fewer vocations in many parts of the world. It also means not rushing to shut down houses with fewer than ten members, for example, thereby adopting a certain “fait accomplis” attitude or stance. The French phrase “fait accomplis” is usually translated as “something that has been done and cannot be changed,” or “accomplished fact.” That should never be the definition of a monastery!
Too quickly deciding to close a community, in this case a monastic community, can be a mistake and one can pray that struggling communities find creative solutions. This should hopefully include what seems to be resisted in some corners, of uniting or amalgamating houses that together might comprise a more viable option than when left as separate entities. I also see some communities that are doing better with numbers generously offering assistance to less numerous or aging communities, and this is encouraging too.
All of this, of course, entails a certain amount of compromise, which does not have to mean watering down, but of giving way to perhaps unfamiliar structures and practices, or returning to ones that that may have been put aside decades ago. The hope may have been for something better or for attracting new vocations, but in fact over time proved to be inadequate in the face of present circumstances.
A tiny example of this from the Civitella San Paolo community is their having now adopted the Divine Office as composed by the community at Bose. That meant giving up the more traditional Benedictine structure of the Office, which the Benedictines there knew well, with certain invocations to be expected, for example, for beginning and ending the Offices, as well as certain hymns and responses.
For me personally this would be a big change and sacrifice, as small a matter as it may seem. After praying a Benedictine-structured Office for the past forty-six years, I would find it very hard to adopt another form, as nice as the Office of Bose is. Yet the Benedictines at Civitella San Paolo were willing to do this and the Office is very prayerfully chanted from what I heard when visiting there this spring.
I presume that there have been many other sacrifices on the part of both groups now living together at Civella San Paolo, in their efforts to form a coherent and feasible community. Let us keep them in our prayers and plan to visit them during your next stay in the environs of Rome!