By Oblate Nancy Labiak
The Fifth International Congress of Benedictine Oblates was held in Rome in September 2023. The week-long Congress—the first held in six years with a two year delay due to Covid— was titled “MOVING FORWARD Living the Wisdom of the Rule.” And I was there!!!
We numbered 153 oblates from 25 Countries on six continents and represented 84 monasteries. The meeting was held in the Pontifical Athenaeum of Saint Anselmo’s —a pontifical Benedictine University and home to the Abbot Primate who represents the Benedictines in dealings with the Vatican. San Anselmo crowns one of the original seven hills upon which Rome was built: the Aventine Hill.
The stay in the monastery was itself was both a thrill and a challenge. The 125 year old monastery with its sweeping views of the Eternal City, beautiful tranquil chapel, lush inner courtyard complete with entertaining turtles in the pond, and bountiful buffets featuring a wide variety of local fruits and veggies and pastas twice a day was a delight. However San Anselmo’s was built long before air conditioning and temperatures hovered in the mid-nineties for the entire week of the conference. My “monk’s cell” was on the top floor and a hundred paces from the nearest “facilities”. The room also had no fan and the window was screenless so it was suggested to keep the windows closed to deter the mosquitos. We were warned that the water from the small sink in my room was not drinkable.
At two in the morning on that first night I was still lying there too too hot to sleep and had emptied my two water bottles! The nearest drinkable water supply was back on the ground floor on the other side of the monastery—and I was just too exhausted to go down there. I was, in a word, miserable and facing a long week of sleeplessness. In my misery I dashed off a poor-me text to a young monk friend of mine who actually lives and studies at San Anselmo’s during the school year and was leading a pilgrim group from his monastery that week in Rome. When I came back to my room that morning during a break there was a brand new fan still in its wrappings and six gallons of water! God truly does answer prayer!
The conference included three days at the monastery with full schedules of prayer, speakers, and workshops. Our days began with breakfast (in silence) followed by morning prayer sung in Latin at 7:30. On those three mornings we had three varied and challenging key note speakers. Topics were Continuing Oblate Formation, Evangelization especially of the Young and our need to be Ambassadors of Peace, Reconciliation and Hospitality in the world. One experienced the true “internationality” of the Congress when the KeyNote Speakers were translated simultaneously by young translators in booths that lined the wall of the Chapel into our earphones. ( With my earphones I felt a bit like Audrey Hepburn in Charade!). The mornings concluded with the celebration of Eucharist. Each day mass was celebrated in a different language. Taize hymns were most appropriately frequently sung. In the afternoons we had a continuing workshop called “Islands of Silence” which addressed Centering Prayer and included a documentary (Available on You Tube) called “In Pursuit of Silence” —in a very non-silent world. Early evenings we had a second workshop in which we shared answers to questions we had gotten before the meeting and had asked our fellow Oblates back home to address.
The questions were What about your Oblate Formation was most helpful to live out the Benedictine Charism. What would be most helpful addition to your ongoing formation? How could we evangelize our Oblate calling into the 21st Century—especially with young people? How could Oblates around the world unite to support each other to live the Benedictine charism beyond the Congress? Very lively discussions ensued! No final answers emerged—but some stimulating ideas! And shared stories.
We gathered again for Vespers —in Latin— each evening. And dinner was served at 8 each evening. Long days indeed…but so very full and thought provoking! On the other three days we went on “Benedictine excursions” One day the group visited the first Benedictine monastery that Benedict himself founded in 529 AD. Monte Cassino is located in mountains several hours from Rome. In full disclosure —I didn’t go there this time. I have visited this place several times. It has in its history been destroyed a number of times —most recently by the Allied Forces in the Second World War as they believed ((oops mistakenly) it had become a Nazi hangout. Even though the Allies picked up the tab to totally restore the Abbey after the War, I have found the monks to be a little “frosty”.I just haven’t felt “forgiven” for our faux pas.
Another day we went out to Subiaco, a monastery which is built around the Sacred Cave (Sacro Speco) where Benedict lived after he left chaos of Rome with hopes of becoming a hermit. That of course did not happen as before long he had a growing number of young men wishing to follow this young man.
Our third excursion on the last day of the Congress was a huge surprise. We had expected that we were going to go to the General Audience with the Pope that takes place each Wednesday at the Vatican. When we got our initial itineraries for the week…there was an audience listed on Friday with the Pope. Most of us figured that since so many people were once again traveling —the Wednesday audience could not contain them and a second General Audience was added on Friday. This was not the case. We were delighted to find out that the members of the Oblate Conference had been invited to the Vatican for a private audience with the Pope on Friday morning. We set out Friday morning early as first we had to walk on foot down the Aventine Hill. No buses are allowed on the Hill as a heavy bus broke through the street several years ago into an undiscovered to-date underground chamber from antiquity. We then boarded our four buses that seemed to have taken the scenic route as we traveled for over a half hour. Finally when we disembarked we hoofed it quickly on foot about a half mile then across St. Peter’s Square and into an entrance none of us had taken before. After some serious security we then climbed over 200 stairs to the top floor of the Vatican (that is approximately 14 flights of stairs) to the Clementine Room for our Audience. The room was magnificent chockfull of stunning jaw dropping frescos.
And then the Holy Father entered—and suddenly the room felt warm and welcoming. He gave us an address (in Italian but we were each given our own translation. The short but beautiful speech was just for us. Below I quote my favorite parts: “There is no need for Christians who point fingers but for enthusiastic witnesses who radiate the Gospel in life though life” “Oblates your wider monastery is the world, the city and the workplace. For it is there that you are called to be models of welcome to whomever knocks at your door. Nowadays we need this as much as we need air. This is true for sometimes it seems that our society is slowly suffocating in the locked vaults of selfishness, individualism and indifference.” "I want to bless the Lord with you for the great patrimony of holiness and wisdom of which you are the custodians.”
We were then invited to come forth one at a time and even say something if we wished. I told him “You give me Hope”. The Congress, the fellow oblates and the Holy Father all gave me glorious Hope!