Summer Feast of Benedict

Summer Feast of Benedict

July 11, 2019

Recently I had the opportunity to browse through the new book, or rather I should call it what it is, the PhD project of Sister Scholastica Haring, OSB, of the monastery in Dinklage, Germany.

Sister Scholastica took as her doctorate thesis to study, arrange and present a history of the organizing of all Benedictine women in the world into what is now known as the CIB, in English, the International Communion of Benedictine Women.

It seems appropriate on this Benedictine feast that I share some of the highlights of Sr. Scholastica’s excellent work.

Using her four chronological divisions, this is what her research found:

In the first years, 1966 through 1976, the Benedictine men, through their Abbots’ Congresses, worked on adopting norms for aggregating Benedictine women to the male Benedictine Confederation. Communication, especially on governance, between Benedictine men and women was minimal. Even communication and knowledge between American and European women was hardly in existence. These new norms never really got off the ground primarily due to the simultaneous publication of the New Canon Law revisions.

Beginning at the Abbots Congress in 1973, Joan Chittister, as President of the Federation of St. Scholastica, here in the United States, was one of a group of representative leaders of Benedictine women to attend and be observers at this congress. Joan spoke at the Congress on the topic of the aggregation and, more directly, on the lack of equality in matters of concern for all Benedictines and in decision making for women about women in the Benedictine Order.

Though not much headway was made, it was a small beginning, perhaps epitomized, writes Sr. Scholastica this way, “Between the opening of the Congress and its closing there was a complete turnabout in the atmosphere…The speeches which began with ‘Dear Fathers’ finally gave way the last day to ‘Sisters and Brothers.’”

Scholastica’s second time period is 1977-1992. During the early years of this period some Benedictine women leaders served on a Commission of Nuns and Commission of Sisters, serving as consulting bodies to the Abbot Primate. Abbesses and presidents still were present, in increasing numbers, at the Abbots’ Congresses and offered letters and opinions on the revision of Canon Law and on the Norms of Consociation.

At the first joint meeting of the two Commissions of sisters and nuns in 1984, the decision was made to hold a symposium of Benedictine women and it did take place in 1987. At this first meeting leading members were still appointed by the Abbot Primate and generally, canonically, were still under the existing Benedictine Confederation. The inclusion of both nuns and sisters at the ‘87 symposium was a major piece in the movement of the coming together of Benedictine Women. At that time there was still a lingering distinction in Europe between nuns and sisters, but in 1988 these two Commissions merged.

Joan, again, had a strong and faithful hand in these early meetings, serving as President of the Executive Committee and a primary organizational source of ideas and inspiration throughout the planning years. In fact, Sr. Scholastica chose a quotation by Joan to introduce her findings: “There is no doubt that structures reflect values as well as method.”

As Sr. Scholastica also writes, “The question of leadership continued to emerge as the Commission of Benedictine women’s statutes were approved in 1992, though the Abbot Primate presided over it in consultation, information and representation.”

She also notes about these 15 years of development, “Questions regarding the position of women in the Benedictine Confederation emerged in many places…The fact that questions are expressed and that there are bodies where they can be discussed and pondered with a view to the future is as irreversible as the development that even today has not been completed.”

The third time period is 1992-1997. These five years were a time, Sr. Scholastica says, of consolidation and development. The second international gathering was in 1993 in Rome.

When American Marcel Rooney was chosen Abbot Primate, he encouraged the Benedictine women to speak for themselves. In that vein German abbess Edeltrud Weist handed over the position of unofficial chair of the Executive Committee to Abbess Maire Hickey, to continue the work on behalf of Benedictine women’s communities throughout the world, doing this practically independently from the Abbot Primate, although it was still under his approval.

In 1998 the Third International Symposium of Benedictine Women took place in Rome, under the organization and leadership of the new Moderator, Sister Maire. One hundred and twenty Benedictine women attended. At this time a logo for the CIB was chosen. The next 5-6 years brought numerous significant changes to the group: the name Communion of International Benedictines (CIB), the first Statutes for the group, and sound organizational procedures including finances and communication.

Two of our sisters have had a position in CIB in recent years. Sr. Mary Jane Vergotz as its secretary and Sr. Linda Romey as treasurer. Two Sisters from the Federation of St. Scholastica in the US, our federation, have served as the moderator of CIB: Sr. Judith Heble and, presently, Sr. Lynn McKenzie.

Today CIB includes 19 regions of the world and in 2018 it held its 8th International Symposium and has also offered 14 smaller conferences in the years between the symposiums. I attended one of these conferences in South Korea in 2017 and it was one of the highlights of my Benedictine life.

Sister Scholastica Haring is not solely a historian. She ends her thorough presentation with her own challenge to the church and to us as Benedictines. Her final words are, “The canonical position of women in the Church in general…the clerical structures of the universal Church...are however, still complex issues. In order to develop them further a change in the universal law of the Church and of the Benedictine Confederation is desirable or even necessary.”

In just a few hundred words I have tried to summarize a dissertation that encompasses over 300 pages. I hope that if this whets your Benedictine interests, you might look further into this work, “The Founding of the Communio Internationalis Benedictinarum” and if you google it online, you can purchase a copy of your own or you can read the one that is in our library. I, also, have a copy that I would be happy to share so that you can see the full extent of Sister Scholastica’s excellent work.

Happy Feast Day everyone.

Sister Anne Wambach, OSB, the twenty-first prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania is a native of Philadelphia. She moved to Mount St. Benedict Monastery in 1992 to respond to a desire to experience the monastic way of life. Previously a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Chestnut Hill, Sister Anne began the formal transfer process to the Erie Benedictines in 1993 and made her monastic profession in 1997.

Sister Anne has served the people of the Diocese of Erie as a teacher at St. Gregory's School in North East, Pa., from 1992-1995, and at the Neighborhood Art House in Erie, beginning as program director in 1995 and as executive director since 2005. She served on the Monastic Council from 2006-2010.