Over the weekend of September 29 – 30 this year I attended, along with two other members of our Sant’Ambrogio curia, the Fourth International Congress on Christian Mysticism. This event is one of bringing together scholars, and those less than scholars, like myself, to listen to lectures, some study of an important document, engage in discussion and enjoy the creation of God in a splendid place, like Assisi in Umbria.
Taking advantage of the event, we three monks of Rome began our journey to Assisi on September 28, a Thursday. The train ride to Assisi was uneventful. From Rome it takes just a little over two hours to reach Foligio, where we changed trains and took the final one to Assisi, just a fifteen minute ride away. The trains of Italy are magnificent for reaching nearly anywhere. This fact alone deserves a future essay.
From the Assisi “Santa Maria degli Angeli” train station, near the church of that name, we took the public bus up the hill to the historic part of Assisi, where many churches and shrines dedicated to the memory of Saints Francis and Clare are to be found.
The beauty of Umbria, in which Assisi is located, never disappoints, and this was certainly the case over the September weekend of the International Congress of Christian Mysticism.
Let me also say that once, many years ago, I was in Assisi in the middle of winter, and it was rainy, windy, cold and generally dreadful. Of course the stunning sites of the Basilica of Saint Francis, the convent of San Damiano, the Basilica of Santa Chiara, are all beautiful no matter what the weather is like!
For the Mysticism Congress we monks and other participants were lodged at the monastery of Benedictine nuns of San Giuseppe, in the center of Assisi. Like other monasteries in Europe that show signs of vitality, youthfulness and likely survival, the nuns of Assisi are composed of members from various nationalities. I am seeing this regularly in communities of nuns here and to a lesser extent in some monastic communities of men.
The Church today is so “international” that religious communities who resist the possibility of welcoming members from other cultures or countries are diminishing in numbers, in some cases rapidly, sad to say. There are definitely vocations emerging from farther afield and courageous communities taking this into account and discerning well seem to be “holding their own” and growing in numbers. This is my personal impression from what I am seeing and what I have been hearing.
The nuns of Assisi have also opened their doors to another Italian community of Benedictine nuns whose monastery was largely destroyed in the earthquakes that have struck Italy in recent times. These seven “nuns in exile” are now at home, perhaps indefinitely, in the lovely city of Assisi with the nuns at San Giuseppe. The abbess at Assisi, Mother Mariangela Yator, originally from the Philippines, is a catalyst in the obviously “alive and well” koinonia (holy community) of twenty nuns. Her no-nonsense approach and obviously terrific sense of humor are wonderful to see.
The sixty or so participants at the recent Congress in Assisi included other Benedictine monks and nuns, coming from Rome and various parts of Italy. There was also a sprinkling of Carmelite friars, a priest of the Congregation of the Passion (Passionists), Franciscan friars of several branches, including the Friars Minor, Conventual Franciscans, Atonement Franciscans, and Capuchins.
A number of other Benedictine abbesses and nuns were also present, as well a Little Sister of Jesus, a monk of the Bose community in Italy, some diocesan monks under a bishop, diocesan priests and bishops, and the rest being laity, both men and women.
Countries represented at the International Congress included Italy, France, Poland, Kenya, Burkina Faso, and the United States. Maybe some other countries as well that I was unaware of. It was definitely an international gathering.
The theme of the two day Congress was “From the Canticle of Creation (of Saint Francis of Assisi) to the Mystery of Creation According to the Papal Encyclical ‘Laudato Si’” (of Pope Francis). This important document about the love and care we must show for God’s creation was the centerpiece of the ten papers presented by various experts in the field of Christian mysticism, religion in general, biblical studies, and humanities.
I was actually the first presenter on Friday morning, with a welcome to all, then words from our Abbot President Guillermo Arboleda. He was unable to be present at the Congress, but asked me to represent our Subiaco Cassinese Congregation of monk and nuns, who were among the main sponsors of the Congress. I was happy to do the presentation, reading a text the Abbot President had written about our Benedictine approach to stewardship of land, living in harmony with natural surrounds, and offering hospitality to people seeking a place apart for silence, prayer and renewal. The reading of the text lasted about ten minutes.
The most famous presenter at the Congress was Capuchin Franciscan friar Father Raniero Cantalamessa, who for many years has been the official preacher of the papal household at the Vatican. Father Raniero was the last and perhaps the most memorable, at least for me, of the speakers. His theme was the mysticism of God’s creation in the light of the Incarnation. He gave his talk just before midday on Saturday, at the closing of the Congress. He was also main celebrant and homilist at the Saturday Mass in the nuns’ church.
I won’t delve here into all the presentations given at the Congress. Each talk lasted forty to fifty minutes. The program indicated the speakers would present for just half an hour, but few of them seemed to be observing the time frame, which was fine, as what they had to say was interesting overall. In fact we had “nothing else to do” during the day, so the longer than expected presentations were not an irritant. We of course ate and prayed as well during the two days of the Congress.
Mass was celebrated on Friday evening in the original Assisi cathedral, called Saint Mary Major, and on Saturday at midday in the nuns’ church at San Giuseppe abbey where we were staying.
Despite a total of eight presentations on Friday and two on Saturday, there were some free moments for walking around the city of Assisi. All the important sites are in easy walking distance from San Giuseppe monastery. Many pilgrims were in evidence in Assisi, since late September is still a very pleasant time of year, though the city tends to be almost a year round destination world-wide.
Our group of monks stayed another day, for some more exploring in Assisi. On Saturday afternoon we went “down the hill” to San Damiano convent, famous at the place where the crucifix in the ruined church conveyed to Saint Francis the need to “rebuild my church.” Eventually the site became home to Saint Clare and her sisters, and now part of the formation house for Franciscan friars minor.
On Sunday morning I was main celebrant and homilist for the nuns’ of San Giuseppe abbey, and afterwards we walked again to the enormous Basilica of Saint Francis on the brow of the hill of Assisi, then returned for our final meal, pranzo (lunch) and visited some with Abbess Mariangela Yator.
Our group of monks, along with two nuns of Monte Mario Abbey in Rome, returned to the Eternal City by train on Sunday afternoon, somewhat tired, but enriched by the experience in the city of Saint Francis.