Benedictine Monasticism and Christian Communication

by +Abbot Jerome Theisen OSB (1930-1995)


My task, I believe, is to offer a reflection on the subject of mission in the church, specifically as the topic relates to monastic communities here and in the Third World. Accordingly I will divide my comments into two parts, one relating to the subject of mission in ecclesiology, and the other relating to the concepts of mission in the Rule of Benedict and Benedictine monasticism.

Ecclesiology and Communication

It is still worthwhile to use the word "mission" though it does not encompass all the dimensions of the drive to communicate the Christian tradition, and it tends to minimize or even to negate the communication that occurs in stable communities of a particular place, such as monastic communities. The word "mission," of course, derives, from the Latin word mittere, to send. The person on mission is the one sent from one place to another. One goes forth to carry a message or to engage in a project. It is true that we can use the word "mission" in a less nautical sense. We can have a mission to the people in our immediate surroundings, and then the sense of movement or travel is diminished.

The word "mission" is still useful, but perhaps a word like communication expresses more exactly what the reality is that we are trying to verbalize. The reality is that the community called church is not an isolated, hermetically sealed unity having no relationship to other realities present in its environment. The church is outward directed; it is dynamically turned toward the world in which it exists. Its very being is to be in contact with the society in which it abides: its peoples, its languages, its arts, its political Structures, etc. The church receives from its milieu and it communicates with its milieu. On the one hand it is not possible to distinguish exactly the lines of the church and the boundaries of the society in which it exists. The church is enmeshed in a society and in a culture. On the other hand it is possible to identify the gathering which we call church. The people of the church have a definite style of life, a ritual action, a way of speaking about God, a memory of significant events, a particular hope, etc. The church is concrete and distinctive, identifiable and describable.

Perhaps "communication" is a better word to use than "mission." This church, this people of God, is communicative; the people of God communicates its reality to others in the immediate area. The church communicates what it is in actuality. It cannot avoid this communication. It is communicative by its very nature. Wherever it is located the church communicates a message, a person, a spirit, a hope, a way of life. It has not only good news but a good posture of values, a good way of being in the world. The word "communication" indicates that the church is outward directed even when its members are not necessarily moving from place to place.

Of course, individual Christians do come and go. Some are sent from one place to another; some simply move from one place to another. It still happens that Christians go to places where there are no or very few believers in Christ. It still happens that some Christians are the original evangelizers in a particular region, but this occurs less frequently now than in the centuries past. It happens more frequently that Christians are the evangelizers to particular people in the same region. Christians continue to evangelize on a one-to-one basis in regions and countries that have long been known as Christian. In other words one need not be sent very far to evangelize someone in an authentic fashion. This happens wherever believers mingle with those who do not believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. In summary, to be a missionary, to be evangelical, to be communicative in a Christian manner, one need not travel very far. One communicates by a way of life; the church communicates by a visible presence in an area.

If one travels a great distance to missionize, to evangelize, to communicate, however, it might not be the case that one is bringing the communication for the first time. One might be sent, or one might go, to assist another church that is already in existence. One goes to a church that exists in another culture or region in order to serve, to assist, and to witness. But first one goes to learn. One learns from the incarnate church that already exists in a particular region; one learns from its theology, its way of ritual, its tradition of prayer, its style of interaction with government, etc. One comes to assist the local church in the areas of need but always according to the local Customs. One comes to witness to a Christian belief and service. One takes on as much as possible the shape of the local church while serving the needs of the local people. One communicates a Christian life; but the communication is effective only to the extent that the local people are able to receive the communication. And they are able to receive the communication only if it accords with their language, mentality, and customs. Service to the local church means evangelical communication according to the norms of the particular culture or region.

The one sent can assist the local church, it is true, but the distant local church can also assist the sending church. This is what some call reverse mission. We may call it mutual communication. The sending church and the church to which one is sent are in mutual communication. As a result they learn from each other; they evangelize each other; they encourage each other; they have a message for each other. For instance, the church of Latin America receives the assistance from the church of North America, but it also has a message for the church of North America; it has a communication about international business practices, about policies of aid in matters of food, war materials, and politics, about consumption and simplicity of life. Churches are in relation to each other; and they learn from each other.

The particular tasks of the church are many. I do not intend to list them here. But there is one that seems more urgent in our times. It is the task of gathering the ungathered. There is the church of the ungathered. There are believers who are on the edge of the community. There are believers who see little point in solidifying their witness by joining others in a common communication and service. There are believers who are scattered and wandering. The local church must gather these wherever they exist lest they wander off the edge of Christian community and lose hope.

Missioners or communicators can bring service to another local church. Believers who belong to the monastic movement can bring a monastic dimension to the local church. The charism of the monastic life can be a benefit, almost a necessary aid, to the local church. And this brings us to the second section of our reflection.

Benedictine Monasticism and Communication

Is it significant that no chapter of the Rule of Benedict deals with the establishment of new foundations? it would seem not. The Rule lays out the arrangements for cenobitic monasticism and Benedict assumes that the Rule can be used by various monasteries (see RB 18:22; 62:1; 73:1). It is assumed, therefore, that the arrangements can be used by more than one monastery. It was common at the time for a particular monastery to collate regulations from a number of sources. Various monasteries could pick up the Rule of Benedict and use it as they wished. We know that at the time of Charlemagne the Rule of Benedict became the dominant rule for monasteries of the West. We may recall that according to Saint Gregory's Dialogues (Book 11, chap. 3) Benedict established a number of monasteries. We may recall too that Benedict himself moved from place to place; to be sure, he was forced to move because of evil plots that threatened his life, but at any rate it was common for him and others to move about and to establish new monasteries.

One may consider the ideal manner of founding a new monastery: the mother convent provides sufficient personnel to ensure community life; the local church requests and supports the new foundation; sufficient financial assistance is present to keep the new house economically operational; native vocations knock on the door almost immediately; the right kind of work is available for the monks or sisters.

Such are the ideal circumstances for the founding of a new monastery. But they are realized as a whole only in exceptional Cases. Most new communities, or at least many, are conceived in sin! They result from the zeal of a particular person who might even be opposed by the mother community or by the local bishop. They might require a battle with the local church for understanding and support. They might experience internal battles among the founding members. They might be initiated by a disgruntled person who cannot live in the founding community. No community is immaculately conceived, and no community grows up without sin. But this should not surprise us. if the members of the church are not without sin, the members of a monastery or convent are not without moral fault. We can assume a dimension of goodness and of sin in any human endeavor, including the establishment of a new foundation.

It is possible for one monk or sister to be the vanguard of a new community. His or her personal involvement in a new location or employment can attract the support of others and even of the whole community. One person can indeed initiate a new project and a new Community, but eventually he or she must convince others of the soundness of the new location and project; otherwise the work will die with the initiator. The new project or location really needs the backing of the community, at least a substantial part of it.

The Benedictines of our tradition establish new communities as a matter of course. We also accept assignments that take us out of the immediate community of the monastery or convent. But it is important, it seems to me, to understand our work as related to the central monastery or convent. We Benedictines are people of place; we sink roots in stable ground, and then we work out of the home monastery or Convent.

Our normal way of evangelization or mission or communication is the establishment of a new foundation, a new center out of which our apostolic endeavors proceed. We surely cannot found a new monastery or convent wherever our Benedictines are working. But it seems that our ultimate aim in working in a new cultural area or location or among new peoples is to establish a new monastic center. The new monastery or Convent then becomes the center of Christian communication. It seems that our Benedictine style is most effective when we establish new centers of monastic life and when we allow the new centers to become the focal points of prayer and work. Our evangelical communication is always community inspired and community oriented.

Forms of Community

It might be well at this point to review what we hope to obtain by establishing new monastic communities. What can we offer the church of Christ with our monastic way of life and our monastic mode of operation? We offer the church centers of Christian communication. We communicate Christianity by our very way of life, by the very example of our commitment. We offer a place of prayer both for ourselves and for those who wish to join us. We offer a place of hospitality, especially for those of the household of faith but also for visitors, the curious, and the needy. We offer a place of dialogue for the various Christian traditions. We offer a living witness to a search for God, and we indicate that God is indeed sought in all places and times. We are a living sign of the God-orientation of human existence. We are a living expression of God's love for all peoples. We provide a place for the healing of human spirits and bodies. We are a sign of hope, an indication that there is an outcome to the present world that is never static and always mysterious. We offer a point of contact with the universal church and with the oneness of humankind since we are in communication with the universal church and appreciate the oneness of humans. We provide one model of community living, not the only model, but a monastic model that can be of service to others. And, of course, the monastic center provides a service to the local community, assisting it in its common tasks. The new foundation has something to offer even if the offering is not perfect and is often marked by sin and failure and certainly by limitations.

The model of community is certainly not unique to the church. Forms of community have always existed in the church and will continue to exist for they are forms of grace, forms in which the grace of God becomes incarnate in our daily life. We may cite the example of the base communities that have developed in Latin America, communities of prayer, study, and concern. Perhaps we can see Benedictine communities in the framework of base communities, especially if the Benedictine communities are small. The BBC, the Benedictine Base Communities, are small centers of prayer, study, discussion, mutual support, concern, and work. They can provide the ecclesial offerings that we listed above. They may also provide for the specific needs of the church: literacy (letters), healing of body and spirit, understanding of political issues, respect for land, etc. The Benedictine Base Communities manifest a way of life, communicate a Christian message, and provide a service according to local need. The communities are themselves forms of grace, ways in which God's favor reaches humans. The network of communities is the bond of grace that strives for union among believers and peoples the world over.

The local church in some areas of the world, perhaps in many areas, is without the witness of monastic life. The believers in these areas, especially their religious leaders, often express the need for the presence of monasteries and convents. Traditionally the monastic communities of older churches of the world, especially of Europe, have responded by sending a contingent of monastics to establish new foundations. Abbot Primate Victor Dammertz OSB notes a problem in this mode of action: "...the question is being asked," he says, "whether nowadays it is at all meaningful to make new foundations with European or American monks and nuns, who, because of their alien mentality and different background, are not easily understood by the people among whom they seek to implant monasticism" ["Benedictine Presence in the Third World," American Benedictine Review, 32 (1981) 19]. He continues by citing a recent phenomenon: "the spontaneous creation of monastic groups in the young churches, at first often without very clear ideas, and without a link with a definite rule of an existing Order, but characterized by a deep seriousness," (Ibid., p.19).

Third World's Need

The local church in the Third World senses the need for monastic life. Accordingly they seek the training of their own people in monasteries or convents of the older churches. The founding monasteries or convents, therefore, act as midwives in assisting the church in the Third World on a temporary basis. It is not clear, it seems to me% that the traditional method of founding a new house is now obsolete. What is clear, however, is that it is difficult to proceed in the traditional manner. There is need to deal with the issue of nationalism. There are problems of economics and culture; peoples in the Third World find themselves in positions of dependence on Europe and North America. There is the pride in native forms and traditions of Christianity.

What is clear, too, is that any new foundations in the Third World or any assistance to the local churches of the Third World must respect the local language and culture, the native mentality, and the local expressions of Christianity. There must also be allowance for local expressions of monasticism Monastic life as it is lived in the First World cannot be transplanted organically into the Third World. Adaptations are needed, especially in the area of poverty and simplicity of life.

As Benedictines we are evangelical, missionary, and communicative of Christian tradition by our very way of living the Christian life. Our mode of operation is to establish centers of communication and to work out of these focal communities. Our method of increase is the establishment of other centers in our own region or in other areas of the universal church. And in our new age we are open to assistance of the struggling churches of the world, especially by way of temporary assistance: training personnel, finances, short-term help on location. What is of concern to us is the monastic movement throughout the world and the furtherance of the monastic dimension of the church wherever the believers are gathered.


From Scriptorium (Collegeville, MN) 23:2 (Dec. 1984) 1-7.



Abbot Jerome Theisen OSB was born in Loyal, Wisconsin, on 30 December 1930, made profession on 11 July 1952, was ordained to the priesthood 28 July 1957, and was elected eighth abbot of Saint John's on 22 August 1979. He was elected Abbot Primate and Abbot of Sant'Anselmo 19 September 1992, died at Rome 11 September 1995 and buried in Collegeville. This article was originally written in 1981 as a conference for the Sisters of St. Benedict's Monastery and in 1982 as a conference for the monks of Saint John's Abbey.


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