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Pope to Benedictine Abbots and Abbesses: Found New Communities; the Church Needs You!

benedictinespopeOn 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.”

pope-benedictines-1300x753Their 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.”

Cistercians Monks Return to the Ruins of an Abbey Destroyed by Henry VIII

abbeyIt 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.

rievaulx-monksNow, 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.

Norcia’s Benedictines: Recovery Under Way in Wake of Devastating Quake

italy-quake

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.

Pentin-NORCIA-650x495The 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.”

norciaprayerThe 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.Facade

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.”

Oregon Trappists Live Life of Stark Simplicty, Autheniticity and Prayer

The first thing a visitor to Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Lafayette, Oregon, notices is the deliberate pace of liturgy. Compared to the way these 30 or so monks savor their psalms and hymns, the average parish Mass runs at squirrel velocity. This is also a place of work and close community that radiates holiness, but holiness built on utter honesty. “Any time you strive to lead a serious spiritual life, you will be stripped of all pretensions and your ego,” says Father Dominique, the 67-year-old prior. Living a version of the 4th century Rule of St. Benedict, the Trappists rise before dawn, put on their yeomanly habits and begin with prayer. The day is full of worship in the church, punctuated by labor on the grounds, in the book bindery and in the fruitcake kitchen. Monks offer spiritual direction. They are vegetarians who grow much of their own food and must work side-by-side. No one owns anything. 31064a After Mass, as the sun rises, the mustachioed Brother Dick hefts the crucifix from in front of the altar to the tabernacle, a journey he makes every morning. All the monks here carry crosses of one kind or another, but they seem glad. Brother Brian, a 56-year-old native of Ireland, transferred in 2013 from a waning Irish Trappist monastery. He found the Oregon abbey’s website and “something popped.” Our Lady of Guadalupe, he says, is characterized by “an excitement about the interior life.” As they grow in authenticity, monks feel wobbly in face of God’s faithfulness. When he first became a Trappist, Brother Brian wanted to be a saint. After almost three decades, he rises each day and says to God, “I can’t believe you love me.” The monk’s task, he says, is to connect with Jesus’ self-emptying love. That begins with refusing to put your brothers to shame. If another monk leaves some dirty dishes, for example, don’t excoriate him; Brother Brian just does the dishes and offers a kind correction later. “Every time you say, ‘I am glad I am not like that brother,’ God comes along and shows you you are ten times worse. It’s a spiritual kick in the rear end,” Brother Brian concludes with a guffaw. “Jesus says you’ve got to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself,” says Brother Martin, 90. “The only reason I’m here is because this is the best place for me to do that.” A World War II veteran, Brother Martin was part of the group that came from New Mexico in the mid-1950s to found Oregon’s Trappist abbey. Over the years, he has become the abbey’s ambassador, able to chat about deep matters with anyone. “The monastic restrictions free you,” Brother Martin says. “Material intensity kills the spirit. You need time and space. You need stillness.” And, he declares, forget the illusion of perfection. The monastery is a place where the only way to grow is to admit your imperfections. “Don’t send us any angels or saints,” Brother Martin says. “They aren’t going to make it.” Brother Chris, a 43-year-old California native, arrived in 1998, a trained forester who had recently re-appropriated his faith. In addition to prayer, he has helped restore a rare oak savannah. Brother Chris invites men — single or married — to consider a 30-day retreat in which the guest lives as a monk in the cloister. “It’s a transformative experience and a time of growing in self knowledge,” he says. “A vocation as a monk lets all your gifts flower.” He values the intergenerational community, where he considers men in their 90s as brothers. Many monks here recall Trappist life before the Second Vatican Council, when silence was strict. Silence is still the rule much of the time, but there are periods for conversation, which has enhanced fellowship. “It’s not just me and God, it’s me and the community, too,” Brother Chris says. Father Todd, ordained last March, has been a Trappist since 2004. At 39, he considers himself a monk first, then a priest to serve his brothers. Monastic life, he says, tends to shine God’s light into a person, increasing self knowledge, including awareness of wounds. The exposure leads to healing. As for him, he is more joyous. The life is full and active, not just sitting and meditating. Father Todd, who grew up north of Spokane, works in the bindery and the kitchen and like everyone here needs to put out the garbage. “If your whole life is blissed out poetry, it wouldn’t have any meaning or foundation,” he says. 31064bCritics accuse monks of escaping from the world. Father Todd knows better, saying that the life is indeed a separation, but one that allows the monk to be united with everyone. “People who come on retreat are trying to get into that,” he explains. “The monastery is a different kind of immersion into human experience. There is a human need for silence and acknowledgement of the divine and we hold space open for that here.” Father Dominique, the lighthearted prior, walks into the guest house and embraces several volunteers. A piano prodigy and scholar before entering the abbey, Father Dominique as a child knew he wanted to be the kind of priest who kept God company all day. At 14, he read “The Seven Storey Mountain” by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton and immediately called the Oregon abbey. Advised to continue his education, he attended UCLA and developed his music, along with Latin, French, history and English literature. His vocation persisted and he came to Oregon. “I know I am not running away from anything,” says Father Dominique. “I am running toward Jesus.” The monks’ prayer, he says, does not stay at the abbey, but “redounds around the world.” Contemplative life, he insists, is the heart that pumps life through the whole church. Steve Bernards, who grew up in nearby Carleton, comes to 6:30 a.m. Mass with the Trappists every day. He recalls making the trip as a boy with his father in the 1960s, listening to the beautiful chant. After Mass, he often chats with the gregarious Brother Martin, who works in the guest house. He always walks away with some wisdom, often resolved to slow down and notice God’s presence in his life. “People are so tied up and they go, go, go,” says Bernards. “They don’t take time. I have been very blessed to be with the monks.” When Pope Francis was named and showed himself to be so extroverted, the Trappist abbot wondered what the Holy Father might say about monasticism. But the pope quickly made it known that he considers contemplatives “wombs of mercy” to the local church. “The reality of who you really are, that reality is the one God is totally in love with,” says Abbot Peter, 68. “When we touch our real selves, immediately we touch mercy. God wants you, not who you want to be. This is at the heart of contemplative life.” The need for spiritual sanctuary will never go away, says Abbot Peter, who wears a fishing vest over his habit. He was elected by his brothers as their leader 22 years ago. Back then, it seemed like the worst day of his life. He was not a scholar and did not think of himself as a very good monk. But he knew he loved his brothers and has found that is enough. “This community lifts me,” he says. “They are my way. Monasteries and marriage both take work, but make you a better person.” For more information visit here.
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