The Benedictine Federation of St Scholastica in the US last month celebrated its centenary by holding a Colloquium entitled Benedictine Life: A Vision Unfolding. The Colloquium focused on three themes: Wisdom, Witness, and Way Forward.
The virtual Colloquium took place at Mount St Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas, from June 21-24, 2022.
The Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritans, Sister Patty Fawkner, was invited to present a paper entitled What we stand for – Witness.
Thank you for inviting me to be part of this centenary colloquium. I am from a land far, far away, colloquially known as “the land down under”. I offer my reflections in an Australian context, hoping that this will add something new to your deliberations.
Before exploring what we stand for, I’d like to pause to reflect on where I stand, literally. There is a custom in Australia that at the beginning of an official event – be it religious or secular – we engage in a simple ritual of acknowledging the country of the First Nations people, the land on which the event takes place. Thus:
I begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which I stand, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I recognise their continuing connection to land, waters, and culture, and pay my respect to their Elders past, present and emerging. I commit myself to the ongoing journey of reconciliation.
The First Nations people of Australia are either Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. They are the oldest civilisation on the planet, having lived on this land for an estimated 65,000 to 80,000 years. This is something of which all Australians need to be immensely proud. However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have experienced a long history of dispossession, and exclusion from Australian history, society, and democracy. Indigenous Australians are now proportionally the most incarcerated people on the planet. Hundreds have died in custody1 and, to date, not one person has been convicted of these deaths. Does this sound familiar?
When the British supposedly “discovered” Australia in 1770, they said that the land was terra nullius, nobody’s land. Indigenous people were not seen to exist in their own right.
The simple ritual of acknowledgement of country is a powerful, I trust not tokenistic, attempt to right the lie of terra nullius and show respect to the peoples of this ancient culture, who have effectively cared for this land for millennia.
Where we stand, literally and figuratively, informs what we stand for. This, I believe, is an aspect of our vow of stability.
The first Catholic bishop of Australia was John Bede Polding, a Benedictine monk from Downside Abbey in England. Polding arrived in Australia in 1835. Ten years later he was called as a witness at a parliamentary inquiry into the parlous condition of the Aboriginal population2. Within a few decades of the first European arrivals, the Aboriginal population was decimated; by wholesale slaughter in some places, by stealth of traditional hunting grounds, and by diseases the settlers brought with them.
Polding was questioned by parliamentarians. The racism embedded in the questioning is staggering: “What does your Lordship consider their position to be in the scale of humanity? Do you consider them the lowest in the scale or exceedingly low?” Polding curtly responds: “I do not understand the phrase ‘scale of humanity’.”
Polding went on to describe the destitution and despair of the Indigenous people he had encountered. He declared:
I am making myself a black, putting myself in that position, and taking away all that I know except that this is my country, that my father lived by pursuing the emu, and the kangaroo, that I am driven away from my hunting grounds, that my children and tribe are subjected to the grossest barbarities.
These words are profound and prophetic: 177 years ago, ‘Black lives mattered’ to Polding. He stood on the land of the Indigenous people, stood in their footprints and identified himself with them. Having been asked to be a witness, he responded by bearing witness to Australia’s First Nations people.
Polding founded my congregation, the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of the Order of St Benedict, 22 years later in 1857. His witness then reminds me today that where I stand, and with whom I stand, tells me what I stand for.
What does bearing witness mean? The legal definition means to attest to something that is true. If you are called to court to testify, you witness to the truth of what you saw or what you know.
But there is a deeper resonance and meaning. Polding saw and heard first-hand stories of loss. He bears witness by receiving these stories, entering into the experience of Indigenous Australians, and standing with them in the sacred space of their suffering.
As Benedictines we are called to bear witness by standing with people in the sacred space of their experience. Isn’t this what “listening with the ear of the heart” means? If I bear witness to you when we are talking, I will genuinely listen to you and honour what you are saying, whether I agree with you or not.
We are called to bear witness to every community member, co-worker, family member and friend. We are called to honour the truth of their story. There is a beautiful saying of St Ambrose: “See how beautiful God’s grace has made you”. In community we are called to bear witness to each other, so that our actions and words say unequivocally, “See how beautiful God’s grace has made you”.
When we bear witness, we lovingly give our attention to the other without judgement. This is what I love about Benedict – he is aware of both the capacity and frailty of his monks, but without being judgemental. Both realist and idealist, he calls his monks to their best selves.
The Tools of Good Works, chapter 4 of the Rule, could well be called Tools for Bearing Witness:
Clothe the naked, visit the sick, and bury the dead. Go to help the troubled and console the sorrowing … Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love (RB 4:15-19, 25).
The Australian Cistercian Michael Casey says that an easily missed verse among Benedict’s 74 tools is “Honour everyone” (RB 4:8). Honouring, bearing witness, gives to the other permission to exist as they are, not how we would like them to be.3
Artists bear witness, as do songwriters and poets.
A most poignant example of bearing witness is captured in a poem which tells the story of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died last year, opening the first session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa.
The Archbishop Chairs the First Session4 by Ingrid de Kok:
On the first day
after a few hours of testimony
the Archbishop wept.
He put his grey head
on the long table
of papers and protocols
and he wept.
and international cameramen
filmed his weeping,
his misted glasses,
his sobbing shoulders,
the call for a recess.
It doesn’t matter what you thought
of the Archbishop before or after,
of the settlement, the commission,
or what the anthropologists flying in
from less studied crimes and sorrows
said about the discourse,
or how many doctorates,
books and installations followed,
or even if you think this poem
There was a long table, starched purple vestment
and after a few hours of testimony,
the Archbishop, chair of the commission,
laid down his head, and wept.
That’s how it began.
The nation of South Africa bore witness. My nation bore witness to the victims and survivors of child sexual abuse by conducting a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.5 The commission found Churches, particularly the Catholic Church, culpable.
It was the first time that many of the victims and survivors had either told their story or had their story believed. The Royal Commission bore witness to their experience.
A very close relative of mine was abused by a religious Brother as a nine-year-old. He told his parents, who didn’t believe him, and then he didn’t tell anyone else for another 58 years! No one bore witness to his suffering till a few years ago. The clinical depression to which this led has been significant. As Maya Angelou says, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”
Since the Royal Commission some people have approached our community with stories of sexual abuse, in most cases at the hands of priest chaplains in our orphanages or schools. I have met with victim/survivors, a harrowing experience for them and for me. I try and bear witness. I listen, I believe, I honour their experience and I apologise on behalf of our community that they were harmed while in our care.
What we stand for is revealed by those to whom we bear witness.
We bear witness by being women of prayer. We bear witness to mystery, to the Divine, to the life of the Spirit. We bear witness by “preferring nothing whatever to Christ” (RB 72:11).
For me, an image of bearing witness and preferring nothing whatever to Christ is the magnificent Baptism of Jesus tapestry in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. The tapestry reminds me of John the Baptist saying elsewhere, “You must increase, I must decrease”. See John becoming less, melding into the background. I love the earthiness of Jesus’ dirty feet! John bears witness to Jesus, Jesus bears witness to the one he calls Abba, who in turn bears witness to Jesus, the Beloved.
In our personal and communal intercessory prayer, we bear witness to the lost, the least and the last. Pope Francis says, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works”. Prayer isn’t a substitute for bearing witness in practical action.
Bearing witness is an act of Justice. As I read the online newsfeed, I’m often tempted to skip over disturbing articles about those who suffer. I may not be able to do much, but can I bear witness by reading the article about Ukrainian refugees, the famine in Dafur, or the dire situation of women and girls in Afghanistan? Can I bear witness by spending a few uncomfortable minutes reading about and honouring the pain and sacred space of those who suffer within and beyond my national borders?
Signs of the Times
Unless we Benedictines bear witness to those impacted by the Signs of the Times, our life is meaningless. We know the criteria for the Signs of the Times to which we must respond in those beautiful words from Gaudium et Spes. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor”. They are our joys and griefs.
A former leader of the Christian Brothers, Phillip Pinto, challenged an international gathering of religious I attended in pre-Covid times. “Much of what is happening within the four walls of our households – liturgically, theologically, spiritually – is irrelevant to the great journey of the earth today and of humanity’s most pressing struggles.”6 A damning indictment.
I wish to explore some of the Signs of the Times in our Church and our world that I think are pertinent to Benedictines today and should inform what we bear witness to. THE two most obvious Signs of our Time are the pandemic and climate catastrophe. I will take these two as given and explore two rather different Signs of the Times.
One Sign of the Times is the evolutionary principle of diversity. Life and fertility depend on difference. No diversity, no life. And life evolves to greater diversity, differentiation, and complexity. Ask any Prioress!
We are much more aware of diversity among nations and creation, thanks to the internet.
Correspondingly, we recognise the destruction of diversity with the extinction of species due to human activity. And we recognise a growing resistance to diversity in the rise of a harmful tribalism characterised by xenophobic and racist attitudes. An unhealthy nationalism fuelled the rise of Donald Trump, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Jesus was amazingly comfortable with diversity; he hung out with a motley group of marginalised people. Where others excluded, Jesus went out of his way to include, taking his disciples on a journey of ever-increasing inclusion.
One contemporary question for us is, how do we Benedictines engage with a world trying to come to terms with its diversity, when our own membership is not nearly as diverse as that of the surrounding society?
One way we do this is by our engagement with bodies and organisations beyond our own monastic walls. Throughout the Church, new forms of collaboration are emerging. I attended the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) in Rome in 2019. It was wonderful to be in a hall with 800 women leaders of world-wide religious congregations, experiencing first-hand what Sister Pat Murray IBVM, the Executive Secretary of UISG, calls the “luxurious diversity of religious life”.7 Similarly, we experience the luxurious diversity of Benedictine life within the international Communion of Benedictine Women (CIB).
Even before Pope Francis called the Synod on Synodality, the Australian Catholic Church has been engaged in a Plenary Council process which asks a fundamental question: What is God asking of Australia at this time? I am one of 278 members of this Plenary Council. Gathered from every corner of our vast continent, we held our first Assembly in October last year. It was an experience of incredible diversity of race, role, rite, age, gender, spirituality and theology. I was reminded of the great Irish writer, James Joyce, who said, “Here come the Catholics; here comes everyone.”
Diversity enriches us, but let’s also acknowledge that diversity challenges.
At the first Assembly of the Plenary Council, I coped well with diversity, except … At times I felt conflicted by the diversity of ecclesiology, and I know others did too.
Pope Francis knows the tensions that inhere in a synodal journey. In his wonderful book, Let Us Dream, Francis says that “our main task … is not to disengage from polarisation but to engage with conflict and disagreement in ways that prevent us from descending into polarisation. This means resolving division by allowing for new thinking that can transcend that division.”8
Benedictine women have led the way in synodal discernment processes. Yet I wonder what the “new thinking” might be that we can contribute to our Church today.
The theme of last year’s conference of Catholic Religious Australia was interculturality and Sister Teresa Maya CCVI was our keynote speaker. I’m sure you know Teresa from LCWR (the Leadership Conference of Women Religious). One thing she said that has stayed with me is that “Truly holy people welcome difference.” She went on to speak of “diversity competence” as a capacity religious women and men need for our times.9
If you want to enhance your diversity competence, I say, follow the Rule of St Benedict! Think about it. What a treasured, reliable, spiritual guide the Rule has proven to be for men and women in diverse times, on diverse continents, for diverse cultures. This photo taken on a recent morning walk, is emblematic of the adaptability of Benedictine spirituality. This kookaburra, native to Australia, stands on a statue of St Scholastica in the grounds of our convent in Sydney, quite a leap from 6th Century Norcia! I have to say that both Scholastica and the bird look very much at home with each other!
The Rule is a treasure trove of practical wisdom for developing diversity competence. We note the diversity competence virtues such as humility, hospitality, forbearance, compassion, conversion of life, discretion and mutual obedience. We know that there is no true discernment without honouring the diversity of perspectives.
Benedict welcomes diversity. Social status, age, and education count for nothing as soon as one steps over the threshold of the monastery. One only has to truly seeks God.
Michael Casey claims that the celebrated humanitas of the Benedictine tradition thrives precisely because there is room for all. “Quirkiness is not banished,” he says. “Monks are not pious clones,” and “nearly all monasteries – if they are healthy – generate one or two or more characters who may be termed ‘eccentric’.”10
The Abbot is a fine model of diversity competence. He gives due honour to the viewpoints of others in the community, even those from the most unlikely source. He recognises that all have diverse God-given gifts. He serves a variety of temperaments and respects individual needs. He accommodates both the weak and the strong.
Benedict’s approach to diversity can be summed up by one of my favourite characters in the Rule – the Porter. As soon as anyone knocks, or a poor person calls out, he replies, “Thanks be to God” or “Your blessing, please”. Diversity is seen as gift and blessing.
Diversity competence has very practical implications. Can we allow for diversity in what is watched on television or what is cooked in the monastery kitchen? Beyond Australia, my Sisters live in Japan, the Philippines and Kiribati, three countries in which the staple food is rice. It took many international gatherings for the Australians to honour that!
I enhance my diversity competence by becoming aware of my own bias regarding people of different race, faith, politics, theology and spirituality and becoming more aware of my own white privilege.
Rampant Western individualism militates against diversity competence. Haven’t we seen that in resistance to vaccination and mask-wearing during the pandemic, where an individual’s human rights trump any thought of the common good?
A contemporary aspect of diversity is our growing awareness of the wondrous fluidity of gender, another Sign of the Times. Members of the Church and members of various Benedictine communities are on a continuum when it comes to accepting people who identify as LGBTIQA+.
Recently, I attended a webinar entitled Working Towards a LGBTQ+ Affirming Church.11 It was run by an organisation called Women and the Australian Church. This webinar helped me understand my own journey of conversion in relation to sexual and gender minorities, to any minority, actually. Just as we go through stages of cognitive, moral, and faith development, the webinar suggested a five-part Affirming Church Scale regarding members of the LGBTIQA+ community.
- Conversion is Possible
- Welcoming – Terms and Conditions Apply
Repulsion and hatred of gender diverse people is alive and well in some sectors of our Church and communities. This stance is justified by people referring to the Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to the natural law”.12 It’s a small step from such statements to homophobia and the belief that any non-heterosexual person is a sexual deviant.
Yet scientific research continues to reinforce the understanding that same-sex sexual behaviour is simply a natural part of our diversity as a species, and that conversion therapy is not only seriously misguided, but also dangerous. I am the one who needs conversion, not the gender-diverse person.
Stage 3 on the Affirming Church Scale is interesting. I can welcome gender diverse people, but my support can be conditional. I will welcome you if … You’re welcome if you’re gay or lesbian but transgender, or non-binary, or intersex? Well …
There is a subtle qualitative difference between accepting someone as a person, despite their sexual orientation, and affirming them in all the glory of their sexual orientation.
The implications for me in reflecting on the Affirming Church Scale are two-fold. The first is simply to wonder at the mystery of the human person and to be in awe at the mystery of our creator God. God created diversity and our Trinitarian God is diversity. We humans in all our diversity, in our queerness and straightness, are made in the image and likeness of our Trinitarian God.
My second response is a recognition of the need to resist naïve binary thinking. Simplistic binaries and divisive dualistic thinking such as good and bad, worthy and unworthy, clean and unclean, normative and deviant, limit my thinking and are the antithesis of a stance of wonder at the mystery of life within God’s creation.
The Affirming Church Scale is pertinent to my relationship with those I consider “other”. Think about the social sin of racism which is endemic in our world. I was shocked in the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine when people were fleeing, that at least one Polish border crossing, people of colour were turned back. It makes you weep. We can all be guilty of selective compassion.
Some religious congregations in the US are coming to terms with their history where many of their schools and hospitals were built with enslaved labour. But racism isn’t only historical; it can be present in our Anglo-dominated communities in subtle and insidious ways. It takes courage to name and challenge it.
Benedictine life, as all religious life, is a call to unity amidst diversity. We know that there is nothing romantic about communal living, however, the constant commitment of Benedictines to share a home, a table, a prayer life, and a mission within a community of adults with no kinship ties, and with differing ages, viewpoints, cultures and subcultures, is truly prophetic in our highly fractured society and polarised Church. What binds us is Christ – Christ whom we wish to prefer, Christ who will bring us all together to everlasting life (RB 72:11-12).
My next Sign of the Time is captured in four words that characterise our world: Certainty, Uncertainty, Certitude, and Doubt.
The pandemic has been an experience of wholesale disruption and uncertainty. Our plans have been constantly interrupted. Think of the time and effort put into rescheduling. We used to have a Plan A or a Plan B. By the time an event actually occurs, we’re up to Plan G or Plan V! We craved certainty during the pandemic but found it in very short supply. The only certainty has been uncertainty.
Teresa Maya says that “Only a ‘we’ can live with uncertainty.” I would add that only a ‘we’ who is comfortable with diversity can live with uncertainty.13
As we deal with the uncertainty of our times, I see an opportunity to bear witness, and to stand in solidarity with those in the world for whom life is precarious and extremely uncertain regarding basic human needs: those forced to flee their homes because of war, domestic violence, and climate-induced calamities.
I think of people in the Pacific. We have two communities in Kiribati, a country which consists of a string of low-lying coral atolls spread over a thousand miles on the Equator. We joke and say that in Kiribati the highest points are the speed bumps on the one road on the main island, Tarawa. But it is no joke that rising sea levels pose an existential threat to current and future generations.
Can we “offer up” our experience of uncertainty, which at times is but a mere inconvenience, to be in solidarity with these people?
We desire certainty, but we must be wary that certainty doesn’t degenerate into certitude.
Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, has written a poem called Doubts and Loves:14
The place where we are right
flowers will never grow in the Spring.
The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard …
But doubts and loves dig up the world
Like a mole, a plough.
We all want to be right, to be certain, to be in control, to get our own way. This poem is saying that there is something fertile in doubting and something deadening in the utter conviction of the rightness of my position – my certitude. Certitude flourishes when there is no diversity of thought and influence. We can all live in bubbles and engage in social media solely with like-minded people. Certitude spawns fake-news, propaganda, disinformation and conspiracy theories, all of which are alive and well in contemporary society.
I recognise the certitude gene in me and it’s the greatest obstacle to real dialogue and genuine communication. When I’m right, I don’t need to listen. If you disagree with me, you are wrong – simple as that!
One of our Oblates once confided in me that early in her marriage she had to decide whether to be right or stay married! For her it wasn’t about being correct, but being connected; it wasn’t about being right, but being in right relationship.
When launching the journey to the Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis implored Catholics: “Let us not soundproof our hearts; let us not remain barricaded in our certainties.”15
It’s not only the Catholics. Walter Brueggemann says that almost every pastor with whom he speaks believes that the deepest problem in the Church is “a small-minded certitude among people who have faith tied up in a box that keeps faith safe and beyond penetration.”16
He says that there is a real religious temptation “to wrap truth in a package of liturgy or doctrine or piety” that’s beyond criticism.17 I think the tensions within my community have undoubtedly been more about liturgy rather than doctrine or piety. Brueggemann also warns against a certitude about God and how God acts. He says we domesticate God and make God in our image and likeness. Certitude makes God small. I recall Anthony de Mello’s challenging me to “empty out my teacup God”.
“Doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plough.” Doubts and loves open us to mystery and wonder and fertility. Vincent van Gogh claimed, “For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”18
Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. Think about it. If you’re certain, you don’t need faith. True faith exists in the presence of doubts and uncertainties. Faith and doubt are “Siamese twins”19.
Doubts and loves dig up the world, making things fertile. The mix of my certainty, uncertainty, certitude, doubts, loves, will determine my way of being in the Church and community. I can be:
- An unloving critic and have a carping criticism about leadership in the Church and my community.
- An uncritical lover with no doubts and where I brook no critique of the failings of the community.
- A critical lover where, with a healthy doubt of my own perspective, I am open to dialogue and can respectfully critique.
Benedict’s Abbot is a wonderful role model for us as a critical lover of the community, Benedict reminding us that our only certainty is God’s mercy (RB 4:74).
Towards an Ever Wider “We”
Pope Francis’ message for last year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees was Towards an Ever Wider ‘We’,20 reminding me of Isaiah’s call to “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes” (Is 54:2).
This is the call for a synodal Church, it is a call to Benedictines and all religious. This is the experience of UISG, LCWR and CIB.
We had a pivotal moment during our last Chapter in 2017. All able Sisters, together with several Oblates, and key Ministry Partners gathered for our Chapter of Affairs. We were working on a draft of our Vision Statement. We were nearly there when a Sister stood up and said, it should not read, “As Good Samaritan Sisters, we …” It should read, “As Good Samaritans, we …”
It was an “aha” moment. “We” was more than our Sisters. Since then, we have been using “Good Samaritans All” as a shortcut for Good Samaritan Sisters, Oblates, Staff, Partners in Ministry, all engaged in different ways in our Good Samaritan/Benedictine life and mission.
Throughout the world, new forms of collaboration are emerging. Towards the end of the UISG Assembly, an African Sister approached me and asked me if I was a Good Samaritan. It turned out that Sister John Evangelist Mugisha was the leader of a relatively young congregation known as the Good Samaritan Sisters of Uganda. They are not Benedictine, but we recognised a harmony of charism flowing from the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Long story short, a member of my Council visited Uganda to see if there was a way for us to engage in a mutual project. We Benedictine Good Samaritans have been able to fund the construction of a dispensary to enhance the ministry of the Ugandan Good Samaritans to people who are sick, disabled or destitute. I know that you have numerous examples of such collaborative efforts.
I didn’t initiate this. It was surely the work of the Spirit who continues to lay before us generative possibilities, if we have eyes to see potential, and a heart big enough to risk. The Spirit continues to remind us that “there’s no east or west – there’s only a globe.”21
There is a potent line in Gail Godwin’s novel, Evensong, when the protagonist says, “Something is your vocation if it keeps making more of you”22. I believe that by our commitment to bearing witness to each other and to those made poor and those on the margins, by our recognition of communion in our diversity, by our maturity in brooking the certainty/doubt dialectic, by our commitment to an ever-wider Benedictine WE, we Benedictines will continue to evolve and become more. That is my hope and my prayer.
 Michael Casey OCSO, “Benedictine Education: Two Words”, BENet Conference, Sydney, 2019.
 Phillip Pinto, unpublished talk given at the June 2015 Chapter of the Good Shepherd Sisters.
 Pat Murray IBVM, “Imagining Leadership in a Global Community”, Leadership Conference of Women Religious 2019 Assembly.
 Pope Francis in conversation with Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future (London: Simon & Schuster, 2020) 77-78.
 Maya CCVI, “Interculturality”, Catholic Religious Australia National Assembly, November 23-24, 2021. https://www.catholicreligious.org.au/video-national-assembly-keynotes.
 Michael Casey, OCSO, Coenobium: Reflections on Monastic Community (Collegeville Min: Liturgical Press, 2021).
 Walter Brueggemann, Truth & Hope: Essays for a Perilous Age (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020) 55.
 Brueggemann, 59.
 Rev Tim Costello, Faith: Embracing Life in all its Uncertainty (Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books, 2016).