The XXIe Conference of Interconfessional Religious CIR 13 – 18 June 2019

The Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat in Catalonia Spain

Our Conference consisted of about 50 men and women religious, from the following Churches: Copts, Ukrainian Orthodox (in France working under the Patriarch of Constantinople). Lutheran, Evangelical Protestant, Anglican and Catholics.

We came from USA, Egypt, Malta, Italy, Spain, Catalonia, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and England. We represented Franciscans (Anglican and Catholic), Dominicans, Benedictines (Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran), Missionaries of St. Paul (Catholic) Jesus Brotherhood (Protestant), Sister of Bethany (Anglican), Chemin Neuf (Catholic), Sisters of the Love of God (Anglican), Deaconesses (Protestant), Congregation of Jesus (Catholic), Community of the Resurrection (Anglican), The bearers of Christ (Germany Protestant), Orthodox (Ukraine and France), Copts (Egypt)  and Poor Clares (Anglican).

The group with additions from the Benedictine Montserrat sisters

The theme of this meeting was the Spirituality of Communion. This is something of great interest to those of us who are Religious and belong to the Focolare Movement and have greatly helped by it in different ways. The Focolare movement has as its main aim the fulfilment of Jesus’ words in John Chapter 17 “That All may be One, as I (Jesus) am in you (God the Father) and you are in me”. Therefore it was very appropriate for three of us to be present at the CIR meeting in June at Montserrat. Conrad Sciberras, Missionary of St Paul from Malta and living in Rome; Paolo Cocco ofm from the Venice Region, a Capuchin ecumenical theologian, and myself Jonathan Cotton osb, a Benedictine Parish Priest in the north west of England.

Paolo Cocco ofm, Conrad Sciberras msp, Jonathan Cotton osb

Before arriving I made a note in my diary: There will be about 50 of us there, Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Protestants of various kinds and Orthodox, men and women. Let us hope all this can contribute to the building up of the Unity of the Church.

In his apostolic letter to all consecrated people in the Year for Consecrated Life, November 2014 Pope Francis wrote about Religious: “Be men and women of communion!” and “The old saying will always be true: “Where there are religious, there is joy”. We did enter into communion and we did share much joy. After the meeting was over I found myself repeating and even in my heart singing the Magnificat again and again. Now at the end of the conference I can say that there are a group of men and women religious who have enjoyed a prophetic experience of unity and God willing this lived experience will expand one day to the whole Church.

On a walk in the Montserrat Mountains

Each other year the CIR chooses a different religious institute for the meeting. The criteria for the choice is that we may have a living experience of communion by praying with the local community where we are hosted; by following a particular theme for the event with talks on the theme; and by living together for the 5 days we are together in communion.

Monks at Sunday mass with the choir boys in choir

This simple formula works very well; obviously we “disturb” the host community, but they also have the gift of a group of committed men and women religious coming among them. On this occasion we were guests at the famous Benedictine monastery of Montserrat, the heart of Catalonia and the Abbot welcomed us personally on our arrival. He remembered that he had himself attend one of these CIR conferences in the past, and one of his brothers had pointed out that God would one day ask us if we have prayed, lived for and suffered for the unity of Christians. These words were backed up by the practical welcome into the monastic choir for lauds and vespers daily, and to the Sunday Eucharist among the crowds of people who come each day to this famous shrine and Benedictine monastery. 2½ million people visit Montserrat each year. Furthermore a monk, Fr Charles was deputed to look after us and to attend to our needs. Both he and Fr Barnabas of the Benedictine community spoke to us about the Catalonian Church and the Political situation at present about Catalonia. Both talks were helpful and enlightening, another background context to what we were doing

Montserrat monks singing around the organist in Choir.

Our conference therefore was surrounded by prayer, by prayerful encounters, talks on the subject and much joy and laughter and in an enchanting setting on a spectacular mountain.

Conrad and I visited the famous “Black Madonna” or “La Morenata” joining the long queue on the first night we arrived. We prayed together in Jesus’ name that the Holy Spirit would help us contribute to the unity of our group (cf Mt. 18:19) entrusting our prayer to “La Morenata”.

The talks were all helpful and constructive of our aim which was and remains somehow to become One. After the talks there were language discussion groups which as usual were very helpful both in getting to know others and to promote the unity of the entire group. Also the sharing helped to deepen an understanding of the talk we had just listened to.

One of the language groups: here one of the two English groups

Fr Alexis Mityutn, an Orthodox priest from the Ukraine who had studied in the Orthodox faculty of Paris who is currently ministering in a parish in Toulouse. He was the first to address us about renewal in Orthodox monastic life and parish life. He opened a window into the Orthodox mentality, explaining both the monastic spirituality that underpins the whole of Orthodoxy, for monks, nuns and laity and how they are inter-related. The Fathers of the Church who breathed the life of communion are living teachers today for this spiritual tradition in Orthodoxy and he explained how within their one monastic religious life there was a lot of flexibility. Monks or nuns could become missionaries, or teachers, helping the poor or contemplatives with the support of what the Holy Spirit inspired them to do or they were asked to do by their superior or Bishop. In fact it was implied the possibilities were endless. The variety of religious vocations in the Catholic Church, inspired by the work of the Holy Spirit through a particular founder does not exist in Orthodoxy in the same way. The way Chiara Lubich expressed the nature of Religious Life is that all the religious orders are like different flowers in the same garden, all rooted in the Gospel by the action of the Holy Spirit. The “rooting in the Gospel by the action of the Holy Spirit” is the commonality for all those in Religious or Consecrated life in the Catholic Church.

Fr Charles osb Montserrat and Fr Alexis Mityutn

 

Sister Michaela Koldman, a Catholic Sister of the Ecumenical Community of Jesus Brotherhood with people of different denominations in their community in Germany, gave us a talk on the way to Communion as illustrated by the famous passage in Philippians 2: 1-11. She spoke about being empty of self and allowing Christ to live; overcoming the desperate battle with sin in each person as the way to let Christ be alive in us. She also explained how this same “spirit” helped overcome a descent when the Jesus Brotherhood went down as a group into their shadows and only the reconciliation of Jesus from his emptiness and exaltation lifted them out of that dark place.

Sister Michaela, Jesus bruderschaft

Sister Teresa Forcades i Vila osb is of the Montserrat community of sisters. Her theme was the Glory of God and the Spirituality of Communion. She spoke about the reality of the Trinitarian relationship that Jesus wants us urgently to share as found in John chapter 17. This text is the one that sums up Jesus’ teaching; his final word as he is about to enter his glory (the cross and the glory of God is also the Holy Spirit. Jesus repeats in the short chapter four times a prayer of longing for the whole of humanity; “that they may become one as I (Jesus) and God the father are one”. The unity referred to is utterly intimate, total and yet leaves full space in the relationship to be the other. Her talk was inspirational and she is a very positive force for Religious Life and the Church in the modern world speaking strongly as a feminine theologian. Furthermore her talk led to a lot of animated sharing and reflection together, and in some ways she gave a special tone to the entire conference.

Sister Teresa Forcades i Vila osb

 

Sister Celine Spitz asked the question whether Mary the mother of the Word of God is or is not a path of communion for our Churches. She based her talk on a two year experience of ecumenical encounters in Sweden with members of Catholic, Lutheran and Protestant Churches. The talk was based on the life of Mary as seen in the New Testament, on the Old Testament teaching on Zion, the Holy Mountain and the daughter of Zion and statements of the Creed. I believe in Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary and on the statement of the Domb ecumenical group “On Mary in the Plan of God and in the Communion of Saints”.

Sister Céline Spitz, op.

The one final speaker on our theme was Sister Judith Forrai SLG from the Anglican community in Oxford. Her theme was struggling to understand “What is the Spirituality of Communion?” In her struggle she was enlightening. She quoted St Dorotheus of Gaza (6th Century) that gave us a central point and a direction  to follow: “Imagine the world is a circle; God is the centre and the radii are the different ways human being live. When those who wish to come closer to God walk towards the centre of the circle, they come closer to one another at the same time as to God. They closer they come to God, the closer they come to one other. And the closer they come to one another, the closer they come to God”. She is clear that communion is the work of the Holy Spirit, who creates, is prophetic, drives into the wilderness, sends and guides on mission and above all makes connections which lead to reconciliation and peace.

Sister Judith Forrai slg

 

The experience we enjoyed was much more than the talks. There was also the living together, the visits to various aspects of the Montserrat experience, like the audio-visual presentation, the museum, the meals together, the struggle with languages not understood, the walks over the mountains, the last afternoon and evening with the Montserrat Benedictine Sisters who live in a much smaller set of buildings and where there is much less hustle and bustle that is a constant with the daily visitors to the main monastery. (Though to be fair to the monks of Montserrat, their monastic quarters are a haven of peace).

The Benedictine Sisters Chapel, visiting their garden, some of the food prepared,


Sister Therese op dancing the 9 ways of prayer of St Dominic.

 

One of the best living experiences of communion was helping each other down a narrow, steep and rocky path from one of the ancient hermitages that are scattered over the Mountain on the Sunday afternoon. Three monks accompanied us, and arranged the tickets for the funicular lift to the top. We were able to love each other in practical ways, and that helped to build up the communion.

Coming down the mountain helping each other and great laughter was heard, and relief when they got safely down the difficult steep path.

Relationships with others developed and a growing sense of being in the CIR together for a new future.

No wonder as I reflect on this congress I find myself thanking God and singing the Magnificat in my heart over and over again. I am sure that each of us has their charism from the Holy Spirit that in different ways in different times and in different Churches came on earth. This happened almost always through a particular person, man or woman who is the founder of that institute. The gifts of the Holy Spirit seem to be stronger and more uniting than the divisions are between our Churches. Religious have not just received a consecration from God at their baptism; that consecration is something for all the baptised. What God has allowed to happen in those of us who belong in different Religious institutes is that we have done what Jesus himself did. In John 17: 19 we read; “For their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”  We, men and women Religious and in another sense, priests who are under the Bishop or are ministers in different Churches, have chosen to consecrate ourselves to God extra to the consecration that we already have in Baptism. This is a gift that the Holy Spirit gives and our task is faithfully to respond. We find our communion in that gift, and it is a strong bond, stronger (thanks to the Holy Spirit) than the divisions between the Churches. In that sense we can prophetically witness to the future.

A Dominican, a Benedictine and a young lay girl at the Benedictine Sisters monastery of Montserrat.

 It was something special, a moment both of paradise and of the future of the Church, a moment when certainly I and I suspect many others found a new joy, a new sense of being loved and loving others, a sense of making a contribution for the good of the world we live in, and a re-affirmation of the intrinsic beauty and importance of Consecrated Life in the Church. We have a calling to be disciples of Christ that is one that is not only beautiful but as is stated in the latest document from the Catholic Church “Iuveniscit Ecclesia” (The Church rejuvenates) of May 2016, is “co-essential” alongside the “hierarchy” for the good and renewal of the Church.

Montserrat in the quiet of the evening, visitors gone, lit up by the moon and the street lamps.