(Conferences at the General Chapters, October - November, 1999)





Nine years have now passed since my election as Abbot General.  If God, the General Chapters and I myself  remain willing, by the next Mixed General Meeting I will have exceeded the average length of the Abbot General’s stay in office; in fact, the last 8 Abbots General remained in office for an average of 11 years and 8 months.  During this time I have had occasion to make 69 international voyages and 403 visits to communities, without counting the communities in Italy.  Those of you who were present at the time will recall that at the 1993 General Chapters I presented my vision of the Order as I perceived it then.


My evaluation at that time was positive and continues to be so today.  It was precisely because the situation was positive that, discerning the Lord’s will, I took the liberty of inviting each and every one to go a step further along the path of renewal.  I would like now to return to those same topics.  What was said in 1993 retains its value, at least according to my own view and judgement.  What I will say today, as we cross the threshold of the third millennium, will serve to fill out the picture and look at some aspects in greater depth.


1. Statistics and Interpretations

It is an easily proven fact that the population of monks has been gradually decreasing for some years now.  The number of monks reached its high-point in 1958 with 4400 persons and from that date began slowly to decrease.  In the year of my election as Abbot General in 1990 there were 2797 monks; today there are 2512, that is to say, 285 fewer.


The nuns’ situation is different.  They reached their peak in 1961 with a total of 2010 persons.  From that date on, the total began to drop off gradually, slightly rising and falling in turns.  In 1990 there were 1876; today there are 1863, that is to say, 13 fewer nuns.  This more stable monastic population among the women enables us to foresee an increasingly active role on the part of the nuns in the life of the Order.


It would seem that the drop in numbers, especially among the monks, will still continue for some years.  One reason in support of this claim is the high average age of some communities of monks; this means that there was a notable influx of vocations at a given moment in the past, i.e. at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s.


The regions with the highest average age at present are Canada, the Isles and Holland.  The regions with the lowest average age, on the other hand, are Africa, ASPAC and REMILA.  This holds for both monks and nuns.  This  means, moreover, that the latter three regions have a higher number of young people in formation.  It is easy enough to guess what these figures mean for the future of the Order which continues slowly to shift towards the south and the east.


2. An increase in Foundations

The increase in the number of foundations in the Order these last years reflects the above statements.  Since 1980 the monks have made 11 foundations (Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Taiwan, Spain (2), Indonesia, Lebanon, Ecuador) and 2 prefoundations (Algeria and Nigeria).


The nuns, for their part, have made 15 foundations (Chile, Japan, Nigeria, Angola, Venezuela, Indonesia, USA, Korea, Spain, Zaire, Ecuador, China, Philippines, India, Madagascar) and 1 prefoundation (Norway).


In the last 20 years, then, the Order has made 26 foundations and 3 prefoundations with the following geographic distribution: 4 in Europe, 1 in North America, 8 in Central and South America, 6 in Africa and 10 in Asia.


Along with the above, we must also include the incorporation of Kurisuamala in India, the foundation projects of Sept-Fons, Klaarland and Hinojo, and the annex houses of Huerta (Monte Síon) and Laval (Meymac).  For the sake of being exact, we must also mention the closure of Orangeville, a foundation of Oka in Canada, and the existence of various monastic projects in China.


It is easy enough to realize the influence these new foundations have in the renewal of participants at the General Chapters.  It is not only a matter of new members, but also of new experiences, new points of view, new life.


In this context, I would like to share with you a few ideas that have been finding their way into my heart over the last few years.


The first of these ideas is in reference to the criteria of discernment for making a new foundation.  The Constitutions mention community growth, the desire of participating in a monastic manner in fulfilling the mission of evangelization as the contemplative presence of the Church, and other signs of Providence.  Special attention is to be given, in all of this, to the Second Vatican Council’s invitation to establish monastic life in the new Churches.  Lastly, the General Chapter urged that possibilities for foundations be carefully examined, not only prudently but also boldly and generously (C.68).  The Statute on Foundations groups all of these considerations together by referring to various signs of divine providence and then adds a few practical aspects: the community’s capacity for making a foundation (personnel and economics), the possibility of vocations, local conditions, the counsel of third parties.  Be that as it may, it is nonetheless a matter of discerning God’s will (1 and 3).


Our legislation, then, offers us two kinds of criteria for discerning a foundation.  These criteria can be presented as follows:


-The natural criteria of human prudence: number of persons, personal capacities, economic means, possibility of vocations, local conditions, seeking the counsel of experienced people...


-The theological criteria of divine prudence: to help a local church express its contemplative dimension, witness to the Gospel through one’s prayerful way of life, offering a place in which to live and grow monastically...


Obviously, these two series of criteria are not exclusive one from the other, rather they must mutually complement each another.  One might ask, however: which takes precedence?  We can perhaps find the answer in the Constitutions themselves when they speak of : confidence and generosity.  Without a strong dose of generosity and bold confidence, I think it is impossible to discern the signs of God hidden in the signs of the times.


Now then, what are the main motives for making a foundation?  The motives coincide with the criteria of discernment, and the main motives are to be found in the theological criteria of divine prudence.  While it is true that many concrete problems in foundations come from not having sufficiently taken into account the criteria of human prudence, nonetheless, a foundation that is not based on the criteria of divine prudence will lack the “meaning” needed to sustain the motivation of the founders, foundresses and communities that undertake to found.


The second idea is with reference to the teachings we can glean from new foundations.  History and experience show that foundations teach us some important lessons which can be presented in a synthetic way as follows:


-A sense of what is essential: the basic values and observances are experienced without adornment, in all simplicity, with the possibility of adaptation as indicated in the Constitutions.

-Radicalness: it is necessary to leave everything behind in order to follow the Lord, in a foreign country or with people coming from other countries.

-The value of poverty: not only material, but also intellectual and liturgical poverty, or poverty in terms of formation... freely embraced, even if dictated by necessity.

-Trust in Providence: since insecurity (economical, political, vocational...) is part of daily life.

-A sense of the Church: an intimate bond is formed with the local church which a foundation both serves and makes manifest.

-Revaluation of the Tradition: in order to be firmly rooted, sound doctrine and experience approved by the centuries.

-New ways of adaptation: many things are found to be relative (food, clothing, certain behaviors and structures).

-Inculturation: it is less a matter of implanting than of germinating, fostering dialogue and discerning values and counter-values.

-Vitalization of the motherhouse: thanks to its own fruitfulness, for the sake of opening new horizons and of being challenged by what is different.

-Cenobitism: is often fostered by the demands of a small community, which requires no little virtue.

-Catholicity: a communion is created between geographically distant churches.

-Rejuvenation of the founders: given the fact that a new habitat often favors a new rebirth.

-Ways of founding: experience teaches what is best and the Statute on Foundations provides orientation.

-A sense of the Order: one learns to act locally and to reflect universally.


The capital importance of foundations for the Order of the present and of the future cannot leave us indifferent.  For this reason, we can raise the question if it would not be better to reserve the approval of foundations exclusively to the General Chapters (Cf. St. 84.1.C.a).  And, on the other hand, what does it mean concretely, on the part of the superiors who approve a foundation, to encompass the new offshoot with fraternal care (C. 69; Statute on Foundations 9)?  We must all feel responsible for the consolidation of new communities, but this does not mean placing an artificial control on the expansion of the Order.  It is not easy to strike a balance between consolidation and expansion.  I am of the opinion that a certain amount of “ferment” can help us avoid immobility disguised as prudence.


3. A Shift of Centers

The founding activities of recent years, as I have indicated,  likewise allow us to speak of a certain shift in the Order.  To put it more concretely, at the Order’s birth in 1892, 80% of the communities were in Europe and 20% outside of Europe, the percentage between monks and nuns being about the same (79% and 21%).  Current data offers the following figures:


-Communities of monks in Europe: 51, with 1326 persons (average age of 63) of whom 145 are novices and simply professed.

-Communities of monks outside of Europe: 49, with 1186 persons (average age of 57) of whom 199 are novices and simply professed.


-Communities of nuns in Europe: 37, with 1121 persons (average age of 62) of whom 87 are novices and simply professed.

-Communities of nuns outside Europe: 30, with 742 persons (average age of 55) of whom 142 are novices and simply professed.


Once again – taking into account the higher number of persons in initial formation, the lower average age and the higher number of foundations outside of Europe – it hardly seems presumptuous to affirm that, if the present situation continues to obtain, in less than 10 years the OCSO will be a predominantly non-European Order.


This situation will very likely entail several consequences.  One of these will be a new balance between fidelity to the tradition and creativity based on the tradition; perhaps rather than speak of “creative fidelity,” we will for a time speak of “faithful creativity.”  It is also likely to bring about a re-discovery of roots, recognizing the fact that these are what hold up the tree, not the leaves, flowers and fruit.  Moreover, the original charism, by being lived out and interpreted in other cultural milieux, will bring to light facets and possibilities little known until now.


Throughout this process, younger communities have to show prudence by being open to the time-proven experience of older communities.  And the glory of older communities will consist in the fact that sons and daughters become in their turn teachers.


4. A Few Challenges

In 1992, on the occasion of the first centenary of the OCSO, I wrote a circular letter in collaboration with the Permanent Council.  In this letter, we took a look at our past, present and future.  The present was characterized by positive signs and challenges to address.  Rereading what was said there, I find that it fully retains its value.  A few of these realities were taken up again in one of my conferences at the last General Chapter in 1996 in the form of three “utopias”: integration within the Order, Cistercian communion, the association of lay-people in the same charism.  Lastly, in the circular letter of 1998 I articulated the challenge of anthropology.


As we come to the end of this second millennium, the Lord of history invites us to respond in a creative way to what the following facts require of us:


1. The need to re-structure the work, economies and buildings of some communities that in past years were very flourishing but that now have a very high average age and no vocations.  Sooner or later decisions will have to be made, and we know that necessity is not a good counselor.  It is preferable to make choices and decisions before they are forced on us by necessity.  It would a lack of responsibility within the context of salvation history to allow monastic communities to die in a world so urgently in need of re-evangelization.


2. The situation of structural poverty and economic crisis affecting certain monasteries of the “Third World” and the need for on-going help from the Order.  Such situations will likewise entail the need to seek, find and establish an economic and work structure adequately adapted to the local reality.  When the help required is beyond the capacity of the motherhouses, there will be need to obtain means of assistance coming from the rest of the Order.  Thus, solidarity will be the new name for poverty.


3. Discernment of the values and counter-values of local cultures, of generational cultures, of the cultures proper to each gender (men and women) and of the culture predominating world-wide.  Only in this way will it be possible to bring about in a prudent way the needed inculturation of our patrimony which reduces the distance between different generations, masculine and feminine culture, strong and weak cultures.  The phenomena caused by a monopoly on cultural globalization that does not respect differences and the cultural nationalisms that close themselves off from anything that is not their own merit special attention


4. Openness to “liturgical rites” for the celebration of the Eucharist and the Opus Dei other than the Latin rite.  The foundation in Lebanon and the incorporation of the monastery of Kurisumala in India have introduced the Maronite and Syro-Malankar rites into the Order.  There is much to be gained from all of this, not only with regard to symbols and ceremonies, but also in the areas of theology and spirituality.  A future up-dating of the Cistercian Ritual will not be able to overlook this reality.


5. Dialogue with the Cistercian Family in order to mutually draw nearer and better understand each other, all of which could lead to new and effective forms of communion.  The celebration of the 9th Centenary of the foundation of Cîteaux signaled the beginning of a new phase.  It seems best for now to put the emphasis on dialogue with the Presidents of the various Cistercian Congregations.  Moreover, we need to rediscover the symbolic importance of the community and Abbot of Cîteaux and their role as a mediator within the Family.  Perhaps it is now the vocation of the Abbot of the “New Monastery” to be the unitatis Familiae vinculum bringing us together once again, we who are still far off.


6. Sharing formation resources with those monasteries most in need in this respect and which at the same time have the most young people in formation.  An important task for the Regional Secretaries and the Central Secretary for Formation will be to continue putting the wisdom of the old world at the service of the new, without forgetting that genuine newness renders the wise wiser still.  On the other hand, we are all aware that intellectual impoverishment is a terrible epidemic.  Several Brothers who were specialists in various branches of knowledge and who served the Order well for many years have died recently.  What can we do to fill this void?  Our future is built on the present by means of a careful formation, which holds true for the monks as well as for the nuns of the Order.


7. A special invitation to the Order on the part of Churches immersed in the Islamic world following the witness of the martyrs of Atlas.  These minority Churches, lost in the Muslim ocean, especially in the Maghreb, need to show that Christian action is ordered to contemplation, that evangelization is not proselytism and that the God of the Kingdom is more important than the Kingdom of God (at least according to the meaning we usually give to this Kingdom!)...  When the time comes to discern a foundation in these circumstances, will the likely absence of native or local vocations be a decisive criterion?  I believe that here there is no little need for generosity and bold confidence in order to discern the signs of God hidden in the signs of times and places.


8. Association with lay groups in view of sharing the wealth of the Cistercian patrimony has continued to grow during the last years.  It is easy to account for this in the context of a globalized world and in a Church which is fundamentally a communion.  Perhaps it would as yet be premature to draw up a “Statute of Confraternity.”  Nonetheless, it seems that the time has come to offer some “pastoral orientations” that would help communities committed to or about to commit themselves to this kind of association.  Such orientations would have to establish criteria to determine whether a community is sufficiently mature to open itself to this kind of charismatic communion, criteria with regard to formation, criteria for safeguarding our respective identities and criteria for the links to be established among those involved.


9.  Extreme situations that call for prayer, sacrifice, understanding and help on the part of everyone.  I am referring especially to:


-Marija-Zvijezda (Banja-Luka, Bosnia): the community survived the war of 1993-1996.  There remain only 5 solemnly professed monks with no possibility of vocations.

-Our Lady of Bela Vista and Nassoma y’Ombembwa (Angola): without stable monasteries and in the middle of the state of war between the government and the UNITA forces.

-Our Lady of Mokoto and Our Lady of Clarté-Dieu (Democratic Republic of the Congo): the monks’ community is dispersed to various monasteries of the Order, while the nuns’ community is physically divided between Africa and France.


5. Spirituality of Communion

I would like now to say a word about a reality as ancient as the human being yet which appears today in a new form.  By this I mean the spirituality of communion.  It is not exactly a challenge, but rather a state of mind or “mood.”  Acquiring this attitude, however, may in fact prove to be very challenging.  In the Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata, the Holy Father, entrusting the consecrated life with the task of promoting the spirituality of communion, says: The Church entrust to communities of consecrated life the particular task of spreading the spirituality of communion (51).  This invitation is entirely consistent with our cenobitic life and the mystery of koinonia which is at its very root.


To be true experts of communion and to practice the spirituality of communion as “witnesses and architects of the plan for unity which is the crowning point of human history in God’s design is beyond our ordinary strength; it is at one and the same time a task and a gift (Vita consecrata 46).


Ecclesial communion has to develop into a spirituality of communion, that is to say, a way of thinking, speaking and acting which enables the Church to grow in depth and extension.  In this way, the charisms of consecrated life help the Church to grow ever deeper its own being, as a sacrament of intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race. (Ibid. 46).


The spirituality of communion must be lived out in four dimensions: within one’s own community, in the Order, in the local and universal ecclesial community, and in the midst of the world, above all in those places where this world is most torn and divided.


Within the context of the Order there are particular groups characterized by a wealth of internal solidarity: autonomous communities, filiations, regions.  Their existence is simultaneously a factor of solidarity and of division: division ad extra with respect to others in order to create a solidarity ad intra with respect to ourselves.  Finding a healthy balance between these two realities will always be a delicate task.


Clearly, this spirituality of communion, expressed in a dialogue of charity and communion in the charism, must be a new incentive for our charismatic association with lay-people and for seeking out forms of union within our torn Cistercian Family.


Our Order in general and our General Chapter in particular, bringing together people from so many different cultures and countries, is a sign and an instrument of the trinitarian communion reflected in humanity.  It is likewise a privileged place for living the spirituality of communion beyond the merely local level.

D. Bernardo Olivera

Abbot General