Attending the 4th World Congress of Benedictine Oblates was an opportunity to experience a sense of community with and to learn from our oblate family around the world.
An important component of the Congress was meeting in small groups during the six-day event. We discussed the values embraced in Benedictine spirituality, addressed obstacles we face, including program formation, diminishing monasteries, and promotion of the oblate way of life, and brainstormed a vision for the future.
Our conversations touched on a number of challenging questions: What does it mean to be an oblate? As an oblate, how can I change my way of life to be a good example? What can our oblate groups do locally, regionally or internationally to ensure the future of Benedictine spirituality? What personal skills or abilities can I offer my oblate program?
“Benedictine Oblates — people like me who vow to live the monastic values of listening, community, hospitality, humility and daily prayer in our secular lives — stand at an important crossroads in history”, writes Judith Valente. She continues:
“Oblates, or secular associates of monasteries, currently outnumber monks and sisters living within a monastery’s walls. This development marks both a historic opportunity and a significant challenge. If the nearly 1,600-year-old Benedictine tradition of ora et labora — work and prayer, contemplation and action — is to survive, lay associates of monasteries will need to play an increasingly critical role in transmitting that tradition.
That challenge emerged as the central theme of the Nov. 4-10 Fourth International Oblate Congress, which drew 260 people from six continents to Rome. The conference explored the role of Benedictine lay associates in the past and worked to develop a way forward in an uncertain future for monastic life.
Oblates come from all walks of life. They are men and women, married and single, laypeople and vowed religious, working and not, Catholic and not. Though they live in the secular world, Oblates form strong bonds with particular monasteries. Similar to Third Order Franciscans or Secular Carmelites, Oblates have been described as “co-workers,” “partners” and “friends” of the Benedictine order. Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day and novelist Walker Percy were both Oblates.
There are currently an estimated 25,000 Oblates worldwide compared to 21,000 Benedictine monks and sisters. In his opening remarks at the Rome congress, Abbot Primate Gregory Polan said it is time to “give wings” to the Oblate community. He described Oblates as part of a “sacred triangle” that includes “God at the top, the Oblates in one corner and the monastic community in the other.”
In her keynote address, Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister was even more emphatic about the unfolding role of Oblates. “You are not meant to simply be consumers of the Benedictine tradition. You are meant to be carriers of the tradition,” she told the gathering. “You are the future of the order.”
The decline in vocations and the advanced age of a majority of monks and sisters pose a particular challenge for Oblates in the United States and Europe who draw spiritual sustenance and direction from the vowed religious in their monastic communities. As one Oblate from the Netherlands said of his monastery, “It is sometimes a burden to feel the lack of vitality and new life, to be continuously faced with old age, illness, death and the shortage of vocations.”
The first international Oblate Congress took place 16 years ago in Rome. As former Abbot Primate Notker Wolf noted in his homilies at this year’s gathering, Oblates have moved in less than two decades from a kind of spiritual childhood to the portal of adulthood.
Indeed, Oblate life in the past largely centered on following the rituals of the monastery itself and deepening one’s personal spiritualty under the direction of monks and sisters. Now, Wolf said, Oblates are required to become not only witnesses to the values espoused in the Rule of St. Benedict, but to be the active bearers of those values. We who are Oblates must now become spiritual directors to the world at large.
“We can no longer hide in our spiritual Jacuzzis, our comfortable contemplative spas,” Chittister told the group.
The vision statement reaffirmed our dedication to the Rule of St. Benedict as a “living tradition” in which we seek to model the Benedictine values of community, consensus, peace, balance, hospitality, humility, simplicity and care of the planet in our daily lives.
We recommitted ourselves to cultivating these Benedictine virtues by listening to the word of God through regular prayer, sacred reading, silence, and the daily rhythms of monastic life.
We recognized the need for ongoing formation for Oblates rooted in the Rule of St. Benedict, which Dutch Oblate Charles Van Leeuwen beautifully described as “a spirituality of the heart rather than the head.”
We committed ourselves to being good stewards of the planet, using both our spiritual and material gifts on a local, regional and global level to carry out the vision set down by Pope Francis in “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.” It was heartening to see the urgency with which Oblates from other parts of the world view climate change and other environmental risks. It is all the more disturbing that the U.S. government is trying to roll back environmental safeguards.
Lastly, we recognized the need for better networking among Oblates and between Oblates and their monastic communities through social media and other technology. Oblates from monasteries like my own in the Midwest are already making plans to create a common Facebook page and meet again a year from now to compare notes on how well we are making our Benedictine values visible and vocal in the world.
[Judith Valente is the author of How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community and the senior correspondent at GLT Radio, an NPR affiliate in Illinois.]
You can read Judith’s complete article at Global Sisters Report, a project of National Catholic Reporter.
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