ROME – After navigating a bitter internal power struggle that culminated with the ousting of its founder, a well-known ecumenical monastery in Italy has opened its first conference since the bulk of the drama unfolded last year.

The conference, organized by the Bose Monastery, opened against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, and many Russians and Ukrainians, who would usually attend, could not.

Speaking to Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, the new prior of the Bose Monastery, Sabino Chialà, said that since the war broke out, “The relationship with the many Russian friends that we have learned to know and love over the years remains alive.”

“Their absence, due to the difficulty of travel, pains us, as does that of the many Ukrainian friends who cannot be present,” he said, saying the monastery knows many Russians who are pained by the war, “beyond official positions.”

“Several of them have expressed their dissent, and are opposed for this,” he said. “We assumed that they could not have been with us. Some wrote us to say so. We feel them close, and we remember them.”

The 23rd conference on Orthodox Spirituality in Bose is being held Sept. 6-9 and is dedicated to the figure of Saint Isaac of Nineveh, also known as Saint Isaac the Syrian or simply “Abba Isaac,” a 7th century Syriac Christian bishop of the Church of the East and a renowned theologian remembered mostly for his writings on Christian asceticism.

Ahead of the conference, Chialà said the monastery received messages from several top Vatican officials, including Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, as well as Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican department for Christian Unity, and Italian Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, head of the Vatican department for Eastern Churches.

In his opening speech for the conference, Chialà noted that the last conference on Orthodox spirituality was held in 2019, and that the past three years have been “difficult for everyone,” and have “put our world, our churches, and also this community that welcomes you to the test.”

“First it was the pandemic, then wars and tensions of every kind that have made us waver, and they have and do make us suffer,” he said. “We have measured and still measure all of our fragility and helplessness in the face of the enigma of an evil that afflicts us in various ways.”

Bose itself for the past three years has been afflicted by a lacerating internal conflict.

The Bose Monastery was established by Italian lay monk Enzo Bianchi in the 1960s as an ecumenical community of men and women belonging to different Christian confessions, but who live a common life of prayer, poverty, celibacy, and obedience to the Gospel.

Chialà was elected prior of the Bose Monastery in January, taking over for the previous prior, Luciano Manicardi, whose election in 2017 was apparently not welcomed by Bianchi.

As the founder and longtime leader of Bose, Bianchi gained international prestige, and was honored by several popes, including John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.

He stepped down from leadership of the monastery in 2017, but reportedly did not accept Manicardi’s authority as the new leader, causing a climate of internal tension and strife that yielded several complaints to the Vatican, which formally launched an investigation into the community in 2019.

That process culminated with the Vatican ordering Bianchi and three other members of the community to leave. Bianchi refused for over a year, at one point prompting the pope himself to get involved by meeting with the community’s leadership.

Bianchi finally left in June 2021, and now lives in the town of Albiano, in the northern Italian province of Trento, where he has opened a new spiritual center, Casa della Madia, as a place of prayer and contemplation for those who either want to join him in his monastic life or who are passing by and in search of a small retreat.

He consistently publishes articles and reflections on topics of relevance in Italian newspapers, most of which appear in Italy’s second largest paper, La Repubblica.

In his remarks to Avvenire, Chialà said the decision to hold the conference was made last fall – making it the first major event the Bose Monastery has hosted since its internal tensions came to a head – but was reevaluated after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Whether to move forward with the conference, he said, was “a gamble on which we reflected at length and even hesitated. On one hand, it seemed out of place to have a conference when Ukraine is on fire, a land so dear to those who have been attending our ecumenical conferences on Eastern spirituality for almost 30 years.”

In the end, he said, “we broke the delay, encouraged also by many friends, who saw our conference as a message of hope.”

Chialà stressed that the conference does not have “an official character,” but is rather “an open space for encounter and learning and getting to know one another, beginning with the rich spiritual patrimony of Eastern churches.”

“Ours is a dialogue of friendship in which to cultivate an ever-deeper mutual knowledge,” he said. “Getting to know each other is in fact the first step to getting back to knowing each other as brothers and sisters.”

Speaking of St. Isaac of Nineveh, Chialà said he is a prime model for ecumenical life, and that his examples of humility and mercy are extremely relevant for the modern church.

Saint Isaac, he said, “gives us that invitation to hope that returns repeatedly in his speeches, written in a time of great political upheaval and great uncertainty, a bit like ours.”

“Isaac, by virtue of his unshakable faith in God the friend of men, invites us not to despair, but to look beyond, to dare,” Chialà said, saying this is an important invitation, especially, “in this time when we feel so fragile in the face of the challenges of the moment and when we risk seeing our desire for the future weaken.”

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