Synaxis is a Greek word meaning "meeting". It was used in the early monastic writings to designate the gathering of monks either for the Eucharistic celebration and moments of common prayer, or for other types of meeting. It was felt to be a quite appropriate name for the meeting of Cistercian women and men that took place at the Abbey of Cîteaux from March 17 to 19, 1998, just before the celebration of the 9th centenary of the foundation of that abbey, on March 21st.
The "Cistercian Synaxis" was a gathering of monks and nuns belonging to all the branches of the Cistercian family. But what exactly is the "Cistercian family"? To give an answer to that question, we must go back in history.
The Rule of Saint Benedict did not envisage any form of federation between monasteries. It simply dealt with the life as it was lived within each monastery, under a rule and an abbot. The monastic reform of Benedict of Aniane, in the context of the Carolingian Reform of the Church, was the first in the West to introduce a relationship of dependence between one monastery and another; and the great Reform of Cluny brought that experiment to its extreme consequence by making all the foundations of Cluny dependent houses of the founding abbey so that all the monks of these foundations would make their profession for Cluny and would have its abbot as their own abbot. Cîteaux, through its Carta Caritatis, was unique in establishing a structure that would preserve the autonomy of each individual monastery while, at the same time, not only maintaining bonds of charity between houses, but also giving a juridical expression to that communion through the institutions of filiation, visitation and the general chapters. Cîteaux was the first monastic "Order" in the strict sense.
As a consequence of a long series of historical situations, today the monasteries that live according to the Cistercian ideal belong to various Orders and Congregations. There are also a few monasteries not belonging to either an Order or a Congregation. While representing a large variety of expressions of the Cistercian charism, all these communities of women and men have definitely something in common. If we look for an expression that could be used to mention all of them together, the one that comes immediately to mind is that of "Cistercian family".
In fact it is to the "Cistercian family", even without mentioning any Order or Congregation in particular, that Pope John Paul II addressed a letter on the occasion of the 9th centenary of the foundation of Cîteaux.
There were at Cîteaux, for the Cistercian Synaxis of March 17-19, a) sisters and brothers belonging to various congregations forming the "Cistercian Order" (which used to be called "Holy Order of Cîteaux", or "Common Observance"), b) the "Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance" (commonly known as "Trappists"), c) the "Order of the Cistercian Bernardines of Esquermes", d) the "Cistercian Congregation of Saint Bernard" in Spain (known as "Las Huelgas"), and e) the "Bernardines Sisters of Oudenaarde". There were also two lay women representing groups of lay people associated with Cistercian monasteries.
The meeting had no official character, and its members did not have any mandate to make decisions or even officially to "represent" their Order or Congregation. The main purpose of the meeting was to spend some time together as sisters and brothers, and to get to know each other better. The atmosphere was excellent, right from the start. The decibel level in the dining room, that seemed to get higher and higher at each meal, was a clear manifestation of the liveliness of the communication.
We got to know each other first of all through the informal contacts, but also through some presentations in plenary assembly, and reflection in small groups. Dom Mauro Esteva, Abbot General of the Cistercian Order, explained to us the structure of his Order, composed of Congregations having each its own Abbot President and its General Chapter. Dom Bernardo Olivera, Abbot General of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, used some statistics to explain the evolution of the Order during the past decades, showing a constant increase in the number of monasteries, in spite of some decrease in the overall number of monks and nuns, and a gradual transformation from an Order that, only a few decades ago, was still almost entirely European and mostly French into a multinational and multicultural Order where communities of Africa, South America and Asia/Pacific have more and more importance. Both Abbots General mentioned the progress made since Vatican II in the participation of the Nuns in the central institutions of our Orders, especially at the General Chapters and in the other juridical bodies like the Synod of the OC or the Central Commission and the Permanent Council of the OCSO.
Mother Josephine Mary, the Prioress General of the Cistercian Bernardines of Esquermes, explained the historical evolution of her Order, which can trace its beginning to the abbey of Annay founded in 1196, and has maintained its Cistercian identity through many vicissitudes She stressed both the suffering of the past and their joy of being recognized as authentic members of the Cistercian Family. Mother María Jesús Fernández described the evolution of the Sisters of the Cistercian Congregation of Saint Bernard, comprising 26 monasteries, several of which - like Las Huelgas - go back to the XIIth century. After becoming a Federation in 1954, they recently became a Congregation with its own General Chapter and Abbess President, and are particularly related to the OCSO through a Decree of Association from the Holy See. Sister Noëlla Ghijs explained to us who the Bernardines Sisters of Oudenaarde are. For many of us, they were known only through the few pages (in very small print) dedicated to their list of addresses in the Elenchus Monasterium of the OCSO, at least till they became better know to some of us through the great kindness and generosity shown by their sisters of Rwanda to our nuns and monks of Zaire during the tragic events of two years ago.
It became evident to all participants, listening to these interventions - which were simultaneously translated into French, English, Spanish and German - not only that all these experiences expressed legitimate and authentic manifestations of the same Cistercian charism, but also that the diversity itself was a great wealth.
The Pope's letter to the Cistercian family was to be made public on March 21st, but since it had been communicated to us a few days before the Synaxis, we read it during the opening session. That listening to it in common was a powerful experience. We then reflected on it in small language groups and we all recognized ourselves in the form of spirituality it described. The recurring reference to the Rule of Saint Benedict throughout this letter - what could be more Cistercian? - struck many of us. One passage of the Letter was perceived by all as a challenge and a mission:
In this celebration of the foundation of Cîteaux, I heartily encourage the communities that form the great Cistercian family to enter together into the new millennium in true communion, in mutual confidence and in respect for the traditions inherited from history (nº 7).
This new expression of the Cistercian charism given in our days by lay people is not absent from the Pope's preoccupation. Indeed, he wrote in his letter to the Cistercian family:
One part of that message is an invitation made to the Superiors General "to to form a commission with the mandate of continuing the work of this Synaxis, and the promotion of everything that advances our communion." It is hoped that such a body will be later on given a more official status by the respective General Chapters.
On March 20th, the participants in the Synaxis, after voting the above-mentioned message, went together to visit the monastery of Molesme (now a private property) and that of Clairvaux (now a high security jail). The writer of this report did not take part in that excursion, as he did not attend the great festivities of March 21st at Cîteaux, because he flew to Nigeria on the 20th, to represent the Order (O.C.S.O.) at the Beatification of one of our monks, Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi. At Onitsha, on March 22nd, he was one of a crowd of more than two million people attending the Beatification Mass celebrated by John Paul II.
After reading the Pope's letter at Cîteaux, it was good hearing him mention again the "Cistercian family" at the very beginning of the ceremony of beatification. Indeed, the rite of beatification began with the following words:
Rome, Easter 1998
Armand Veilleux, ocso