At the end of September, from 28 September to 1 October, we had the pleasure of welcoming Dom Eamon Fitzgerald, our Abbot General, and his secretary, Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis. Dom Eamon had been Abbot of Mount Melleray in Ireland when he was elected Abbot General by the General Chapter some seven years ago. Soon after that election, he visited us for the first time, taking in a number of our monasteries in the United States. He’s a down-to-earth and very approachable, pastoral man. Fr. Simeon is an American, a monk of our Mother House, St. Joseph’s Abbey, Spencer.
Since his election, Dom Eamon has visited every house of the Order which, with other responsibilities and extraordinary needs of our communities, has taken him that full seven years. He commented that in the past, it seemed to have taken Abbots General five years to make the rounds but, with fewer monks and nuns today, it actually takes longer. There’s more problem-solving and supporting to do. And political and economic conditions around the world have grown more complex, impacting not only the functioning of daily monastic life but its survival. Just consider the complexity of some marginal communities in the People’s Republic of China and the delicate balancing act between the National Catholic Church and the underground Church in full communion with Rome.
Dom Eamon noted that all our houses are juggling the reality of ageing communities and fewer monastic vocations throughout the world. Our calling is something of an anomaly in our very secular culture; even in the United States, where church attendance is relatively high, the younger generation is rather “unchurched” and religion is a “private” matter for most people, a personal interest pigeon-holed into circumscribed hours each week. One passing remark struck me: that smaller communities operating in a smaller monastic plant are having an easier time adapting. Larger communities which have traditionally offered a range of activities or local services often feel constrained not to cut back, even with fewer members or fewer able members. If you were disappointed that we suspended fruit cake baking for one year, that little amount of time gave us time and space to reorder some priorities. In exactly that time, for example, a monk returned as Guest Master to the Retreat House–a monastic presence that had not absent quite a few years.
We now live with new vocational responsibilities. Dom Eamon noted that once the emphasis was on the vertical relationship of the individual monk and nun achieving their heavenly reward in the monastery against the background of a community. Now we have recovered the sense of being called to be a community and work out our relationship with God through our life together. This is certainly true to both the Rule of St. Benedict and the heritage of the early Cistercians. But it’s quite a change of gears from individualism to community! One monk in Europe once said to him, “Why don’t you fellows in Rome just close us down! It hard to vote ourselves out of existence,” referring to the Order’s legislation which requires a community’s majority vote to close a community. But that responsibility and responsible, communal awareness is now part and parcel of our vocation. The discerning does not cease with the decision to profess solemn vows; we must be able to look at ourselves and our total picture critically.
Abbot Joseph was very encouraged to see our adjustments and creative struggles in perspective and receive the concrete support of the Order through the Abbot General. The work we’ve been doing for the past several years since we began talking about “refounding,” the effort put into better interpersonal communications, stewardship of our resources, vocation promotion, quality of life together has certainly been recognized and supported and encouraged. There’s simply no rest without regression–as there is the case in any life worth living.