Katie Devitt stood in front of the Monastery of the Poor Clares in Kokomo, Indiana.
She carried her only remaining possessions:
• Two rosaries
• Two Bibles
• A few family photos
Her family waited beside her, fully aware of what this day meant.
Devitt will never touch them or her friends again. She may see her parents just a few times a year, but only through a screen. Mail is limited. Personal phone calls are not permitted. She may only leave the monastery for medical appointments.
When Devitt was ready, she said her goodbyes and then knocked on the door. Behind it, nine cloistered sisters waited.
At a time when few young people enter religious life, Devitt, Arts ’05, chose what some would call one of the most extreme paths: the life of a cloistered contemplative nun.
A native of Buffalo Grove, Illinois, Devitt once dreamed of being a rock critic for the Chicago Tribune. She was raised Ukrainian Greek Catholic, but never gave her faith much thought outside of Sunday Mass.
On September 8, 2016, Pope Francis received in audience some 250 participants in the congress of Benedictine abbots and abbesses gathered in Rome to reflect on the monastic charism received from St. Benedict and their faithfulness to it in a changing world.
This theme acquires special meaning in the context of the Jubilee of Mercy since, as Francis affirmed, “if it is only in the contemplation of Jesus Christ that we perceive the merciful face of the Father, monastic life constitutes a privileged route to achieve this contemplative experience and to translate it into personal and community witness.”
Today’s world clearly demonstrates the need for a mercy that is the heart of Christian life and “which definitively manifests the authenticity and credibility of the message of which the Church is the depository, and which she proclaims. And in this time and in this Church, called to focus increasingly on the essential, monks and nuns safeguard by vocation a peculiar gift and a special responsibility: that of keeping alive the oases of the spirit, where pastors and faithful can draw from the wellsprings of Divine Mercy.”
With the grace of God and seeking to live mercifully in their communities, monks and nuns “announce evangelical fraternity from all their monasteries spread out in every corner of the globe, and they do so with that purposeful and eloquent silence that lets God speak out in the deafening and distracted life of the world.”
Therefore, although they live separated from the world, their cloistered life “is not barren: on the contrary, an enrichment and not an obstacle to communion.”
Their work, in harmony with prayer, enables them to participate in God’s creative work and shows their “solidarity with the poor who cannot live without work.”
Their hospitality allows them to encounter the hearts of the “most lost and distant, of those who are in a condition of grave human and spiritual poverty,” and their commitment to the formation of the young is highly appreciated. “Students in your schools, through study and your witness of life, can too become experts in that humanity that emanates from the Benedictine Rule. Your contemplative life is also a privileged channel for nurturing communion with the brothers of the Oriental Churches.”
“Your service to the Church is very valuable,” the Holy Father concluded, expressing his hope that the Congress may strengthen the Federation so that it is increasingly at the service of communion and cooperation between monasteries and urging the Benedictines not to be discouraged if their members age or diminish in number. “On the contrary,” he emphasised, “conserve the zeal of your witness, even in those countries that are most difficult today, with faithfulness to your charism and the courage to found new communities.”
It was Thomas Cromwell, through two parliamentary resolutions, who transferred the ownership of abbeys, churches, monasteries and other possessions of the Catholic Church in England to the hands of the English crown. Among these, countless manuscripts, libraries and works of art, but especially farms and other productive buildings were taken over by the government. In particular, of course, monasteries and abbeys. Those that were not destroyed, expropriated or simply shut down were handed over to the political allies of Henry VIII.
But why was Henry VIII so eager to get his hands on northern English monasteries? According to historian Stephanie Mann, basically for two classic, too-well-known simple reasons: money and power. These expropriations would provide Henry VIII with an extraordinary, unexpected income without resorting to deeply unpopular measures (such as higher taxes), while also eliminating the influence of the Roman papacy over the English crown.
Now, about 500 years later, in a series of photographs published in the Daily Mail, we can see Cistercian monks, Father Joseph and Brother Bernard, visiting the ruins of one of these great abbeys: the Abbey of Rievaulx.
Rievaulx had been founded in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey in France (the foundation of Saint Bernard), and soon was considered one of the greatest British abbeys. At its peak, 650 people actively lived and worked at Rievaulx, including monks, direct and indirect employees and other officials associated with the maintenance of monastic activities. On December 3, 1538, Henry VIII ordered them all to leave the building, expropriating every valuable object in it (particularly the lead used in stained glasses).
Today, a museum is housed in the abbey, led by English Heritage, a company/charity that is responsible for the preservation of more than 400 historic sites across England. The museum exhibits some of the artifacts monks once used at the abbey, and chronicles of the history of the Cistercian Order in England.
Restoration of Norcia’s Benedictine monastery and basilica will cost millions of dollars, following the recent devastating earthquake, according to the community’s monks.
“Both the church and the monastery are too dangerous to live in,” Benedictine Father Cassian Folsom, prior of the Monastery of St. Benedict and a Massachusetts native, said. “So we’ve put up two tents; one is a dormitory, and the other is a chapel.”
The tents are located about a mile away, outside the city walls, next to a medieval monastery the monks have been restoring but which was also badly damaged by the natural disaster; it will need to be rebuilt.
The 6.2-magnitude earthquake that struck the region Aug. 24, and its continued aftershocks, forced the monks to transfer to Rome for three days, leaving two of their brethren to camp out in tents so they could mind the basilica and monitor developments. Almost all of them have since returned and will be living in the makeshift accommodations until buildings are made safe.
The birthplace of St. Benedict, the patron of Europe, Norcia was just eight miles from the quake’s epicenter. But it remarkably escaped with relatively little damage and no loss of life, compared to the nearby towns of Amatrice and Accumoli. Although just 25 miles by car from Norcia, they and a number of surrounding medieval mountaintop villages were closer to the fault line and had many buildings that were not earthquake-proof, and so were practically wiped out by the natural disaster that took 291 lives, many of them children.
The true extent of the damage won’t be known until a full analysis can be carried out once the aftershocks have ended, but Father Cassian predicts it will be a “huge rebuilding project.”
The Monastery of St. Benedict, which has only been in Norcia since 2000 (Napoleonic laws forced the previous community to flee in 1810), has become well established and much loved by the local people. One of the few religious communities in the world to celebrate both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman rite, the monastery draws thousands of visitors every year. It recently became famous for its brewery, opened in 2012, which produces its popular “Birra Nursia.”
Norcia is part of the beautiful region of Umbria, the so-called “Land of the Saints” because of the many holy men and women born there, and the “Green Heart of Italy,” on account of its verdant, alpine scenery. August is the height of the tourist season there, but the town was practically deserted the weekend after the quake, except for emergency vehicles and some television vans. Many of the citizens who remained in the town camped outside in fields or slept in cars.
The town and some of its surrounding villages have been rebuilt several times over the centuries, most recently after the town was struck by an earthquake in 1979 and reconstructed using earthquake-resistant techniques.
Subprior Father Benedict Nivakoff said the earthquake “sadly served as a healthy reminder” for modern society, where “people can get so used to things being exactly how they expect them to be” that they cannot “control everything.” He said it will take some time for the town to get back to normal, and as it is very hard to obtain earthquake insurance, those hardest hit, including the monastery, will apply for government grants to help rebuild.
But for the monks, too, who take a vow of stability to live the rest of their lives where they took their vows, the event will serve a useful purpose, helping them to “root” themselves even more in the locality. “When you lose something that you’ve come to love, and we’ve been restoring this place for the last 15 years, one has to really dig in more; and so that’s what we’re doing, renewing and expanding our commitment,” said Father Nivakoff.
He said people can help by praying for them, the people in Norcia and the people hard hit in Amatrice and Accumoli. “That’s the most important thing: supporting us with prayers, sacrifices, acts of charity,” he said. He also said people can also help the rebuilding efforts by buying a best-selling CD of Gregorian chant that the monks produced last year, buying their beer and also making donations.
Father Nivakoff said the monks will also be giving around 15%-20% of whatever they raise to the people who most need it.
“The vow of stability means you love the place,” said Father Cassian. “We love the place, and so it needs to be rebuilt.”