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Listen with the Ear of the Heart: Benedictine Spiritual Headship in 2024

An article for the Catholic Union by Peter Roberts, Head of Ampleforth College. 

The first World Conference of Benedictine Educators (BENET) since the pandemic took place in Rio de Janeiro in October 2023 bringing together 166 delegates from 18 countries across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Beautifully hosted by the monks of Sao Bento, it was a vibrant and uplifting affirmation of the Benedictine charism – to know yourself so that you can serve others, by understanding their needs and sharing your gifts.

Benedictine education is the oldest educational tradition of the church but, while the world has changed enormously since St Benedict’s time, fundamental human issues remain the same. If anything, in this more commoditised and transactional era, the Benedictine approach offers enduring answers that are even more needed and compelling than ever before.

What unites Benedictine schools worldwide is their invitation to young people to discover the value and purpose of life by entering into a transformative encounter with Christ through active participation in a Christian community. Benedictine communities, like families, grow and flourish through cherishing the unique gift of every girl’s and boy’s life and future, giving confidence to the individual to find out who they are and what they can contribute to the world. The particular power of Benedictine education is that it is not primarily taught but lived and shared – through the mutual blessing of deep accompaniment – and embodied in service to each other and to the Lord.

It was wonderful to share educational ideas and practices at the conference and to build relationships with other Benedictine schools around the world.  Cultural, linguistic and national traditions may be diverse, and we all may face different challenges, but these were swept away by our very significant common ground.

One of the most moving sessions was one in which recent alumni from four geographically spread schools gave testimonies about their experience of Benedictine formation during their time as pupils, what it meant to them, and how it has shaped the people they are now, at university or the start of careers. They talked about community, service, being part of something greater than yourself while valuing every one’s uniqueness, and being the best version of yourself in all aspects of life. It was inspiring.

For Ampleforth, Downside and Worth, it was lovely for the members of the Cunaco group of Heads of English Benedictine schools, who have met regularly throughout the pandemic but only online, to be together in person at last. The Conference gave us momentum to reinstate an English Benedictine group (to include St Benedict’s Ealing) working towards a common mission within the Benedictine educational framework. We have planned a Heads’ retreat at Douai Abbey in the Trinity Term and will continue to meet regularly through Lectio Divina.