Cistercian Order Is Growing in Africa and Asia

Interview With the Abbot General of the Trappists

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ROME, JULY 9, 2004 ( Argentine Bernardo Olivera has been the abbot general of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance since 1990. The assembly that chose him was the first in which abbesses and prioresses also participated.

In this interview with ZENIT, Abbot Olivera talks about how «the Trappist monasteries in non-Christian countries are a bridge for the interreligious dialogue,» and he gives as an example his houses in Algeria, Indonesia, Benin, India and Japan.

Q: What unites and what differentiates Trappists from other monastic orders?

Abbot Olivera: Perhaps what differentiates us is that we have never had apostolic activity. We are reformed Cistercians, the result of a reformation of the Benedictine Order. Trappist monks and nuns belong to the monastic family that follows Christ according to the Rule of St. Benedict.

The nickname «Trappist» stems from a reform movement that began in the 17th century in the French monastery of La Trappe.

The idea of the reform of the order, with greater observance, arose in the Council of Trent. The Trappists separated from the Cistercians in 1892, to return to the sources: Our life is cloistered, monastic and contemplative.

Q: You are associated with silence, but in fact, you do not have a specific vow of silence.

Abbot Olivera: This image of the Trappists in perpetual silence is false. We have no vow of silence. The observance of silence is an observance practiced on the whole by the community.

What occurred is that, with the Trappist reform of the 17th century, some of the more typical monastic observances were prioritized, such as silence.

Our silence is somewhat stricter than that of the Benedictines. For example, there are places where there is no talking, such as the church, the cloister, the refectory and the chapter room. And there are also special times: At sundown, after compline, we are in what is known as the «Great Silence,» until the next day, after Mass. It usually ends at 8 o’clock in the morning.

Q: In what part of the world are vocations growing the most?

Abbot Olivera: In Korea and Nigeria there is a vocations boom; in fact, the growth in vocations is notable.

In Nigeria we have one of the order’s largest monasteries for men, with 70 monks. We also have one for women, a fourth one for monks, and a third monastery of diocesan right, which will be incorporated in the order in the immediate future. Moreover, one of our last beatified members, Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, is also a Nigerian.

In Korea, the women’s convent is growing fast. We have not been in the country 20 years yet, so there are still no long monastic experiences. The oldest has had 20 years of monastic life.

In fact, exactly half of the order’s monasteries are in Europe, and the rest outside of Europe. We have established 21 foundations since 1990 — 11 of monks and 10 of nuns.

They are in Taiwan, Indonesia, India, Lebanon, Ecuador, the Czech Republic, Nigeria, Norway, Congo, China, the Philippines, Madagascar, Nicaragua, Germany, and Rwanda. Today we have 2,300 monks and 1,800 nuns.

Q: Are you worried about future Trappist vocations?

Abbot Olivera: Why should I worry about the future, if the future is in God’s hands? Let us be concerned about the present and have a vision for the future.

At present, we are 4,000 monks and nuns, and we have 550 in the initial period of formation, either novices or simple professed.

It is not possible to say why there are monasteries where vocations are growing, such as Italy and France, and why there are others where this is not happening. It is not because greater observance brings more vocations: I know very good monasteries without an increase in vocations.

Q: What has changed in the Trappist order from its foundation?

Abbot Olivera: The Second Vatican Council brought a revision of the constitutions, allowing for a certain pluralism in the observance. Until 1960 all the monasteries had the same way of living silence, work, fasting. … This changed, and the order’s structures also changed.

At present, there is the General Chapter of Abbots and Abbesses which make up a single general assembly. We have always been only one order of monks and nuns. In the intermediary structures of government, the abbesses can make canonical visits to the nuns and they can be present in canonical visits to monks.

In government structures we are considerably ahead of the Benedictines; our structures are far more integrating.

Q: Is the Trappist order a bridge for interreligious dialogue in your foundations in non-Christian countries?

Abbot Olivera: In a certain sense, it has always been so. Contact with the Muslim world is frequent.

Suffice it to think of our community in Algeria, in which our monks were killed, which had a distinct openness and good relationship with the Muslim world. Or in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, where we have two monasteries.

In Israel, we have a double openness, to the Jewish world and to the Muslim world. There is a good balance in relations, although it is in quite a difficult situation, of course.

I am thinking of Benin, where the monastery is in a totally Muslim setting, or Japan. There our monks have a relationship with Buddhists, and in Kerala [India] there is dialogue both with Indian Muslims as well as Hindus and, fortunately, I can say that the relationship is very good.

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