EVERY BENEDICTINE community occupies a unique place in the ancient "family tree" known as the Benedictine Confederation. St. Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, belongs to the branch of that tree known as the Benedictine Congregation of the Annunciation, formerly known as the Belgian Congregation. Monasteries come into existence as foundations: a group of monks is sent out from a mother abbey to create a daughter house, which eventually becomes an independent community. Over the centuries monasteries have have banded together in congregations: that is, groups of monasteries related to one another through a similar language, culture, purpose or historical ties. When a new monastery is created it belongs to the congregation to which its mother abbey belonged. It usually remains part of that congregation after it becomes independent.
SO MUCH for historical ties. What, practically speaking, is a Benedictine congregation? How do the different congregations relate to one another? How does St. Andrew's Abbey relate to the other monasteries of the Congregation of the Annunciation?
PREPARE yourself for a shock: from the perspective of canon law there is no such thing as "The Benedictine Order." Are you surprised? You should be. After all, everyone knows that O.S.B., the letters which Benedictine monastics (sisters, nuns and monks) sign after their names stand for Ordine Sancti Benedicti - the Order of St. Benedict. However, there is no Benedictine "Order." There were Benedictine monks and nuns long before anyone spoke of religious orders: in fact, for several centuries, Benedictine monasticism was the only form of religious life in the Western Church. Benedictines are thus much older than the concept of a religious order.
THE TERM "religious order" usually implies an international structure in which common observance is maintained through submission to a single authority figure, usually a "superior general." Benedictines have never had such a structure. That is, there has never been a single abbot who could claim jurisdiction over all Benedictine monasteries. Only the Holy Father in Rome can claim that privilege. Benedictine abbeys are fiercely independent. They are required to be financially independent both of their congregations and of the diocese in which they live. They must be capable of "making it on their own." Therefore, instead of an order, Benedictines are united in a "Confederation of Congregations." Each of the unique Benedictine congregations has its own constitutions, its own abbot president, and its own approach to living out the Rule of St. Benedict. Each of the Benedictine congregations functions in a real sense a unique "order."
THE DIFFERENT Benedictine congregations are very loosely linked to one another through the Benedictine Confederation, presided over by the Benedictine Abbot Primate, who is elected by the Benedictine abbots of the world for an eight-year term. However, the Abbot Primate is not the head of a religious order. He has no jurisdiction over the abbot presidents of the congregations, and thus no jurisdiction over individual abbeys, (except for a small and rapidly-decreasing number of communities which have not yet joined congregations). His role largely is to facilitate communication between individual Benedictine communities and between the Benedictine congregations. In a very real sense part of his responsibility is to safeguard the autonomy and the unique gifts possessed by the different Benedictine congregations and the abbeys which compose them. The role of the Abbot Primate is to promote harmony while protecting legitimate diversity.
EACH of the different Benedictine congregations enjoys the same autonomy, the same right to self-government as a religious order. Each of the "branches" on the Benedictine family tree is thus self-governing and self-sufficient. Each congregation respects the others; but each represents a different facet of the many-faceted jewel which is Benedictine monasticism. For example, the abbeys of the English Benedictine Congregation all run high schools and parishes. English Benedictines thus tend to emphasize the importance of monastic priesthood, and understand monasticism as completely compatible with teaching high school and serving as a parish priest. Benedictine monks of the Solesmes (French) and Beuronese (German) congregations, by contrast, do not usually teach in schools or serve as parish priests. They try to undertake work which does not require leaving the cloister. The monks of the international St. Ottilien Congregation are missionaries. The abbeys of the American Cassinese and Swiss American Benedictine Congregations often run seminaries and universities.
WITHIN the Benedictine Confederation there is thus great diversity in regard to the details of living out the Rule of St. Benedict. There are obvious differences between monasteries and between congregations with regard to certain external elements of monastic life. For example, most Benedictines wear the traditional black habit. However, in some monasteries the traditional habit is worn only in choir or on Sundays; in other abbeys it is never worn. But what Benedictines have in common is more important than the things which distinguish them. The different congregations all have in common the Rule of St. Benedict and a large body of monastic practice and custom. Especially important to all Benedictines is the emphasis found in every monastery on the liturgy celebrated in common, on lectio divina (contemplative, prayerful reading of the Scriptures) and on hospitality.
WHATDOES membership in an international congregation mean to the monks of Valyermo? The principal area where this affects the life of St. Andrew's Abbey is through the practice of canonical visitations. Since the early middle ages it has been customary for monasteries to undergo "visitations" by an abbot from another community every few years. According to the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Annunciation, visitations must take place every four years in every monastery. A canonical visitation is an opportunity for the whole community to share with a concerned abbot from outside their monastery any matters which concern them. Everyone in the community has the right (indeed, the obligation!) to share with the Abbot Visitor what he regards as the strengths and weaknesses, the sources of rejoicing, and the causes of concern in his community.
THE ABBOT PRESIDENTof the Congregation of the Annunciation, Abbot Ansgar Schmidt of St. Matthias Abbey in Trier, Germany, has made it his policy to follow the example of his predecessors in conducting visitations himself whenever possible. This is no easy task in our congregation. One must be very proficient in at least French, German and English, and able to speak at least politely in Flemish, Portuguese and Polish as well! The former Abbot President, Celestine Cullen of Glenstal Abbey in Ireland conducted the most recent canonical visitation at Valyermo, and endeared himself to the community through his wisdom, charm and wit.
ANOTHER formal connection with the congregation is established every four years, at the General Chapter of the Congregation. All the monastic superiors and one elected delegate from each monastery of the congregation gather at one of the European abbeys in order to update and modify the Constitutions of the Congregation, to elect or re-elect the Abbot President every eight years, and to act on other important matters which require the vote of the General Chapter. At this meeting, which lasts nearly two weeks, representatives of the different monasteries share with one another the stories of how their communities are faring, and offer advice and reassurance.
SAINT ANDREW'S ABBEY is privileged to be a member of such a diverse, international congregation. In a country that finds it hard to be bilingual, the monks of Valyermo are forced to be sensitive to many different cultures, traditions and tongues. The Benedictine monasticism lived out in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains is tied in very practical and visible ways to the strivings and hopes, the work, and the prayer of all the monks and nuns of the Congregation of the Annunciation.
MONASTERIESof the Congregation of the Annunciation which may be visited on the Internet include the following:
INFORMATION on other monasteries of the Benedictine Confederation with links to their Homepages as well as information on monastic history and spirituality may be found at the The Order of St. Benedictine site maintained by St. John's Abbey, Collegeville. An EXTREMELY USEFULonline Atlas of the entire Benedictine Confederation is available at OSB International.
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