Catalan monks' pink lobby confronts the old progressives

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A crisis is convulsing the famous ancient Benedictine monastery at Montserrat, near Barcelona, as austere, devout Catalonia reels at reports of sexual politics bitterly fought out in the cloisters.

A crisis is convulsing the famous ancient Benedictine monastery at Montserrat, near Barcelona, as austere, devout Catalonia reels at reports of sexual politics bitterly fought out in the cloisters.

Founded in 1025, the community of Montserrat has been for centuries not just a hub of devotion, pilgrimage and intellectual endeavour, but a beacon of Catalan identity. The Black Virgin of Montserrat is the region's holy patron, and Montserrat remains Catalonia's favour- ite girl's name. In the darkest days of the dictatorship, when General Francisco Franco banned the use of Catalan, monks celebrated mass in the language, offering inspiration and comfort to a generation of Catalan nationalists.

But in recent months there have been reports from behind the forbidding limestone walls of unrelenting inter-generational rivalries among the 90-strong brotherhood. The emergence of a powerful group of homosexuals, a "pink lobby", has compounded the power struggle over how to shape and define the monastery's identity as it approaches its millennium.

"It's a very bad atmosphere," says a monk close to the community. "Some of the monks haven't spoken to each other for years. It's like a family that harbours ancient feuds. In the end no one trusts anybody."

The basic conflict is between the older generation of more progressive monks who laboured for decades to make Montserrat a cultural inspiration to Catalan society, and younger men seeking to retreat to the order's contemplative and mystical roots, and disengage from the outside world. The older monks have suggested that the pink lobby is influential in the rival camp. The conflict has contributed to the traumatic departure of two abbots in 11 years - an unusually rapid turnover in a job supposed to be for life - and the controversial ejection of at least three elderly monks in recent months.

The emergence of a gay lobby is a product of Montserrat's enlightened recruitment policy. The monastery decided years ago to admit any novice with a vocation, irrespective of his sexual orientation, "provided of course that he vowed - like a heterosexual - to respect the rule of chastity proper to his state", says a Barcelona monk.

The deeply conservative Abbot Escarre, who headed the community in the Franco years, once told a novice: "My son, if you have to combat your instincts, what does it matter from which side they come?" There is no suggestion of improper sexual activity, or that the monks are pursuing a gay rights agenda. But disgruntled elderly monks indicated that the lobby - perhaps no more than six-strong - forms a close-knit and influential network that controls key posts in the monastery.

The existence of a gay subculture there is not disputed, even by the current Abbot, Josep Maria Soler y Casals, who made several public declarations last month after the scandal broke. Abbot Soler was elected last May, winning the votes of younger and middle-aged monks committed to casting off responsibilities not strictly internal to the order. These included handing over to regional authorities Montserrat's lucrative operation as a tourist attraction and pilgrimage destination. Two and a half million people visited the craggy "saw-tooth" mountain last year, mostly devout Catalans who regard the spot as symbolising the soul of their nation. The operation is run by a consortium in which the monks have a powerful voice.

The old guard saw the victory of Abbot Soler, the former master of novices, as heralding the destruction of their hard-won role as "Catalan beacons" to the wider world.

In desperation, some daringly alerted local journalists, unleashing a wave of scandalised horror in the Catalan nationalist establishment, from President Jordi Pujol, a practising Catholic, downwards.

Three of the elderly monks' supposed ringleaders - distinguished theologians and scholars of Catalan history - were transferred to other communities, and newspapers, which reported the existence of the gay lobby with relish, were warned to drop the matter or risk a Catalan boycott. Some former monks speak of an increasing tendency of a small minority to express their sexuality.

"Sometimes they're embarrassing," says one, "giving big kisses and embraces to visitors, and making exaggerated gestures. They started coming out 10 years ago, and now they're well organised." Another ex-monk is more sympathetic: "Some need to come out, and this expression of their feelings is difficult to digest for a community living the rule of celibacy." Montserrat's spokesman, Ignaci Fossas, declined to comment.

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