Two Sisters of the Good Samaritan had a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican last week while attending a worldwide gathering of Benedictine sisters and nuns in Rome.
Congregational Leader Sister Patty Fawkner said it was a “privilege” to hear and meet the pope in person, first as part of the broader group of women gathered for the Communio Internationalis Benedictinarum (CIB) Symposium, and later, individually.
“Francis was a little late and he indicated by his body language that he was sorry but couldn’t do much about it! He was not as tall as I had expected, but certainly as warm as I had anticipated,” said Patty.
“I felt for him, because he is 81 and had a series of other private audiences to attend that day… He has some serious detractors who are trying to undermine him and his message. I just wanted to thank him for who he is for us and for his leadership, to encourage him in some way by my words and smile.
“I am so grateful to him for putting a human face on the Church and for his commitment to the Gospel, rather than any ecclesiastical trappings.”
When the time arrived for Patty to greet Pope Francis she found herself a little lost for words, conscious that she needed to keep her message brief.
“I really didn’t know what to say, and then was surprised that the words that came out of my mouth echoed his words when he was elected pope and said something about coming from the ends of the earth,” said Patty.
“I said to him: ‘I have come from the ends of the earth, from Australia, to visit you’. He had a translator in his ear. Pope Francis said, ‘A long way’. I said, ‘Yes!’
“‘Thank you from my Sisters and God bless you’.”
Filipina Sister Grace Marcelo also found herself struggling to know what to say when it was her turn to greet the pope.
“I was so excited that I didn’t know what to say, but I was able to whisper a few words,” she said.
“I asked him to pray for the people of the Philippines and to especially pray for a friend.
“Pope Francis really looked me in the eyes. It showed he was really listening and interested in what I was saying. That’s probably true for all who have encountered him.
“And the beautiful smile, such immense joy radiating from his face that is so contagious! I love Pope Francis – his simplicity, his teaching and his example.”
Grace said the encounter with Pope Francis was one of the highlights of her time in Rome, but was quick to add that the entire week-long symposium experience, connecting with Benedictine sisters and nuns from every continent, had been “amazing”.
While Patty has attended a CIB Symposium before as a co-facilitator, this was her first time as a delegate (for the Oceania region) and as Congregational Leader of the Good Samaritan Sisters.
“The symposium is a key means of advancing the purpose of the Communio Internationalis Benedictinarum which is to promote mutual support and the exchange of ideas and experiences among Benedictine women from around the world,” said Patty.
“The symposium is held at least once every four years. It enhances the worldwide network among Benedictine women through prayer and liturgy and reflection upon an agreed theme.”
The theme for the eighth CIB Symposium was “Let all be welcomed as Christ”, from chapter 53 of The Rule of St Benedict. Among the keynote speakers who explored the theme was Abbot Primate Gregory Polan of the Benedictine Confederation.
Patty described the symposium as a “very rich and enjoyable” experience, noting that among the 111 delegates present, there was great diversity but also a strong sense of unity.
“We come from such diverse cultures and expressions of Benedictine life. We are so different in our type of accommodation (some live in the one large monastery all their life; a few are like the Good Samaritans living in smaller communities), the pattern of our life, our ministries, what we wear, and the language we speak,” she said.
“At my table there was a sister from Germany, Uganda, the United Kingdom and Lithuania – an incredible diversity. But when you have time to talk and listen to each other’s experience, you experience a wonderful sense of mutuality; we share a common humanity and common Benedictine spirit of seeking God and warmth of hospitality.
“It is truly an experience of ‘communio’. The networking is great, but the real gift is the friendships and relationships forged.”
As part of the symposium program, participants visited the towns of Subiaco and Monte Cassino which have great significance for Benedictines. They also spent an evening with the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio, a worldwide movement of lay people, based on prayer, solidarity, ecumenism and dialogue.
After the symposium, delegates participated in a discernment process and elected a new moderator for CIB. Sister Lynn McKenzie from the Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama, USA, and currently President of the Federation of St Scholastica, was elected the new moderator.
Those gathered acknowledged Sister Judith Ann Heeble, the outgoing moderator, for her 20-plus years’ service to the CIB, 12 of those years as moderator.
The next CIB Symposium is planned for 2022.