Solignac Abbey in west-central France. Courtesy of the Diocese of Limoges.
By Solène Tadié
Limoges, 05 August, 2021 / 7:25 pm (ACI Africa).
On Aug. 1, Benedictine monks moved into the emblematic Solignac Abbey in west-central France after a 230-year absence.
It is the first time since the French Revolution that the Benedictines have returned to this historic Christian site, established by St. Eligius in the 7th century.
This event, regarded as providential by local Catholics, does indeed have a symbolic significance, especially at a time when many religious buildings in France are left to decay, condemned to disappear or be bought for secular purposes.
The monks’ return was recently announced by the Diocese of Limoges in a press release co-signed by local Bishop Pierre-Antoine Bozo and Dom Jean-Bernard Marie Bories, abbot of St. Joseph de Clairval Abbey in France’s Burgundy region, who has bought the abbey to establish a priory. The monks of Clairval approved the foundation project by a two-thirds majority.
After anti-clerical revolutionaries expelled the Benedictines in 1790, the abbey was used successively as a prison, a boarding school for girls, and a porcelain factory, until 1930.
It served as a refuge for Catholic teachers during World War II, before welcoming the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1945. The community stayed until the 1990s, finally transferring the property to the diocese in 2011. The abbey had remained unoccupied for the past 17 years.
Bishop Bozo told CNA that the Benedictines’ return was the fruit of a long discernment period, during which he met with the abbot several times.
“I give thanks for this amazing news, because we’ve been searching for different solutions for this place for many years and eventually, the project that succeeded is the one that is the most consistent with the original purpose of this abbey built by St. Eligius -- that is, to welcome communities of monks, especially Benedictine monks,” he said.
Dom Jean-Bernard Marie Bories told the local diocesan newspaper that, in addition to restoring the Benedictine Rule, his main goal is to make the abbey a spiritual center dedicated to prayer and retreats, built around the cloister and accommodating larger numbers of people than at St. Joseph de Clairval Abbey.
There are also plans to house young people preparing for confirmation and other events, offering them the opportunity for a retreat.
Bories said: “In this place, generations of praying people have followed one another, forming a monastic breeding ground on which a new resurgence of the old Benedictine trunk will ‘grow’: more than 1,150 years of monastic presence link us to a great tradition, thus renewing a chain of prayer.”
But these plans will require several years of work inside the abbey’s various buildings, which extend over a considerable area. The process is expected to be long, arduous, and costly.
A few monks arrived at the abbey at the beginning of August to prepare for the resumption of monastic life. They will oversee the initial work to welcome the rest of the founding team, which won’t move in before the fall.
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Bozo will celebrate an inauguration Mass on Nov. 28, the First Sunday of Advent. The diocese announced that from this date onwards, the monks will celebrate Mass in the abbey church daily, following the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, with Gregorian chant in Latin. The celebrations will be open to the public.
The monks will also participate in local economic life, starting with a collaboration with the Catholic education system, which plans to open a store with local products within the framework of a two-year technical degree in agriculture.
The monks will be able to sell their products through the store and contribute to the students’ training by occasionally welcoming them in their gardens.
According to Bozo, the new foundation promises to be a real blessing for this very de-Christianized rural region, completely devoid of male contemplative communities since the Revolution.
“I am deeply convinced of the fruitfulness of contemplative life, especially in our fast-paced world, marked by materialism and individualism,” he told CNA.
He added that such fruitfulness was even more precious because it remained hidden. He said that the good fruits would be seen “in the long run” through the “deeper roots that this presence will generate, and that will provide support to missionaries.”
He continued: “This original form of life, which goes against the flow in today’s world, can only do a lot of good to people, who will be offered what Benedict XVI used to call an ‘oasis,’ a place that all Christians need to be rejuvenated.”
“In the shadow of this community, one can freshen up, pray, meet the Lord in silence, in peace, surrounded by people rocked by a slow and very regular rhythm… it is beautiful.”
“This wisdom of life, inherent in the rule of St. Benedict, in the way it functions, is something so reassuring for our disoriented times.”