The Future of the English Benedictines

In the latest issue of the Tablet there is a brief article covering the recent Extraordinary General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation (EBC), which was held hard on the heels of the first ever EBC Forum, of over 30 EBC monks and nuns aged under 55 elected by all 13 communities. Representing Douai Abbey were myself and Fr Paul Gunter, who is Vice-President of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome. The article (see below – click the picture to make it larger) has an alarming headline but is largely fair in its content.

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By way of background, the Forum met at Buckfast Abbey from the evening of Monday 20 July and concluding the morning of Friday 24 July, just in time for two days of plenary sessions of the Forum with the EBC General Chapter. At these sessions each of the various papers composed over the previous days were, in turn, presented formally to the General Chapter, with questions and requests for clarification or expansion invited from members of the Chapter. After these plenary days, the members of the Forum left (except for the handful who were also delegates to General Chapter) and the Extraordinary General Chapter formally convened with the purpose of addressing the various papers presented by the Forum, not least their recommendations. In time we will hear what Chapter has decided, if anything.

It would be inappropriate to discuss the content of these papers in any detail, though they may well end up forming the basis of discussion within each individual community should Chapter so decree. It can be said that the papers covered the topics of work, community, liturgy, vocations, formation, governance, and refoundation. We had only a few days to discuss these topics and then draft and approve papers. We were amazingly efficient, and our discussions were refreshingly open and fruitful. Most impressive, at least to one among the more senior end of the “young” who made up the Forum, were the truly young among us. These young were from the English houses, as well as our American houses and Peruvians who are members of the Belmont Community. It was they who articulated the crucial issues most acutely, and their insights were seasoned with the reflections of the older and generally more experienced members of the Forum.

It is not an infringement of any secrecy (if any!) surrounding the Forum’s work to note some of the issues raised. What follows are some of the larger issues with a reflection or two from me at times.

We noted the passing of some of our traditional apostolates, and the perceived necessity of finding a common work to unite communities. This was seen an unrealistic for most communities. Far better to focus first on the unifying common work we already have, the Work of God that is our liturgy. Other work, it was felt, must harmonize with this, be appropriate to smaller and ageing communities, and be consonant with the monastic atmosphere and mission of our houses.

On liturgy the Forum was remarkably sensible and united. There were repeated calls for greater dignity to our worship despite our generally falling numbers, more care in its preparation and execution, the revision of its music where necessary, the role that can be played by non-singers and non-musicians through the graciousness and reverence of their gesture and deportment, and the need to de-stigmatize the Extraordinary Form.

On the matter of community, we noted how significant, though largely un-remarked, was fear in our communities: fear of future prospects, of change, of community failure to survive, fear of newer brethren and their different mindset. Better communication within communities was urgently sought. The potential, and the dangers, of social media were discussed, though we all agreed that the internet was something we could not ignore. Bubbling beneath the surface of our discussions was an implicit desire that the brethren be friends to each other, in the sense that Christ used the word.

Vocations made for a lively and rich discussion, and really an excellent one. The question was starkly posed: do our communities truly want vocations? Is it something they pay lip-service to without undertaking the necessary self-reflection, and even change, that growth in authentic vocations (ie, those who “truly seek God”) might require? Do we want more members rather than new members? (Just think about that one for a bit.) Do we want to grow and bear greater fruit or merely continue in existence? There was much discussion about the fact that young recruits now usually bring with them an implicit challenge to the status quo in many houses. We all agreed that their zeal and idealism must not be crushed but nurtured, matured and even encouraged. More often than not this is a challenge we need to face honestly, balancing the need to form a young monk for the community with our duty to nurture him and the call to renewal he might be bringing with him (consciously or not). And while we all noted that the young will be using the internet first to inform their process of vocational discernment, we recognized that nothing will replace direct contact and the community’s daily witness to a faithful and fruitful monastic life.

On the matter of formation, we discussed the responsibility of the entire community, not just the abbot and certain officials, for the formation of new members. If they do not “fit in”, are “not quite one of us dear”, it was felt that we need to recognize that the problem may not always lie with them but with the community. The need for a greater attention to human formation was noted, as was the necessity of tailoring formation to the greater diversity among recruits in such areas as education and catechesis. The crucial need for ongoing formation was discussed, as was the formation for those not called to the priesthood. One thing was very clear: houses would soon have to be sharing resources in forming new members, at least at certain stages in their formation.

The matters arising around governance were more shaped to the express issues General Chapter had flagged. What was agreed was the fact the abbots (and abbesses) are being pushed more and more into the role of CEO, to the detriment sometimes of their role as abba in the community. The probability that some fragile communities may soon not be able to find suitable candidates for senior positions, not least abbot, raised the question of what role the Congregation would play in supporting those houses, and how it would achieve this in practical terms. This complex and difficult question was dealt with more fully in the document on refoundation and renewal. This is very much a matter that needs to be left to the General Chapter to resolve. For now that conversation remains rightly private to them.

St Benedict was young once, too, and full of good zeal.

St Benedict was young once, too, and full of good zeal.

You may not think it, but the Forum was quite a diverse crew, with an age spread of over 30 years, and a significant variety in backgrounds and experience. The young spoke no less than the older among us, and they were worth listening to. Indeed we must listen to them. One thing was clear: many (though not all) of the changes adopted (often too hastily and too comprehensively) over the last 50 years in many communities have, at the very least, gone beyond their use-by date. The concerns of young monks in 1970 are not the concerns of those in 2015. They seek to recapture some of what often has been lost in our communities, elements that connect us to the Church of today, as it stands at the current end point of a vibrant stream of 2000 years and more of growth and fruitfulness. If we are to prosper and bear fruit ever more abundantly, if we are to increase, then individually our monks (and nuns) might need to decrease a little more.

Lord, not my will, but Thine be done.

Pray for us.

Good Friday Respite

Good Friday evening is an oasis of peace for this monastic sacristan. It is grey outside, steadily and consistently drizzling, and drab. Even the lambs were subdued (oh yes, we have seven so far – you will meet them soon). Nature has on her mourning cloths

This respite from the recent hurly-burly and hubbub allows a moment to share a thought that came during the proclamation of the Passion according to St John this afternoon. For no apparent reason, what was striking today was the conclusion of the narrative, the denoument after the death of our Lord. The Twelve have disappeared totally from view, they have fled and melted away, though we can take it as implied that John was faithful enough at the end and went off with Mary, now his mother too.

In place of the apostles, the chosen Twelve, we find much lesser disciples, not part of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. The secret (“for fear of the Jews”) disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, emerges from his desired and self-preserving obscurity to attend to our Lord’s lifeless body and place it in his own, fresh tomb. Joining him is another obscure disciple of Jesus, “who had previously come to Jesus by night”, Nicodemus, who brings spices and herbs to make a fitting and decent burial. Together they emerge from the darkness of obscurity and pay a sad but solemn homage to our Lord. Not one of the Twelve is in view.

As we know from other passages, by Sunday morning there is still activity about Jesus’ tomb. Not the Twelve, who are locked away together, in self-imposed confinement arising from fear for their own safety; the women , some hitherto nameless, are coming to the Lord’s body in mournful homage.

So the apostolic element is in self-imposed withdrawal while the lesser lights, the members of the general body of disciples, quietly emerge to pay their respects to the Lord, to do him homage, to cherish his memory and, no doubt, his teaching and his hope-filled words.

The moral that came to me is probably obvious by now. Today, when priests are having to write letters to urge a synod of bishops, successors to the apostles, to uphold Catholic doctrine and all that flows from it; when what appear veiled threats emerge from bishops towards them, who urge them not to make trouble but to conform and keep quiet; when laity are signing petitions to support these priests… well you can see it, can’t you? Bishops perhaps a little too filled with the apostolic Good Friday praxis; mere priests and laity emerging from obscurity in quiet fidelity to the teaching and hope-filled words of our Lord – as the preacher says, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9).

For many of us, far distant from those lands where Christians are literally dying with and for the Lord who was crucified for them as for us, we can share in the way of the Cross by a similar fidelity and devotion to the ecclesial and eucharistic Body of Christ, emerging briefly from our obscurity to pay a decent and devoted homage to him who is the Truth. This becomes an urgent duty when many of the apostles of today shrink from the challenge, and lock themselves in hiding out of fear of secular society.

Perhaps, as on Easter morning, our contemporary apostles need the call to witness that the first Apostles heard on Easter morning. While the shepherds feed the flock, the flock is called to gather about the shepherds to support them, encourage them, make clear to the shepherds their mission, and to be fed by them with Truth.

The Church today needs a few more like Nicodemus and Joseph, to emerge briefly from obscurity to assert their adherence to the Lord even as a hostile society looks on, and mocks or casts stones. Coptic, Assyrian, Chaldean, Melkite, Roman, and other Christians are literally dying for Christ. Can we perhaps take a few metaphorical blows for Christ, in solidarity with them?

Simon of Cyrene takes up Jesus' Cross. From the Stations of the Cross at Sacred Heart church, Beagle Bay (Australia), painted in 1949 by a German Schoenstatt, Sister Roswina.

Simon of Cyrene takes up Jesus’ Cross. From the Stations of the Cross at Sacred Heart church, Beagle Bay in far north-western Australia (and where my nephew is assistant priest), painted in 1949 by a German Schoenstatt, Sister Roswina.

All this laboured concern over the exclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics, for example, from Holy Communion (and not from the Church, let’s be clear) is all a little too much like fiddling while Rome burns. We all have to share in carrying the Cross, even remarried divorcees. There is no other way if we are to be Christ’s disciples. To take it up or shirk it, the choice will always be ours and no other’s.

Wishing you all the blessings of the Triduum.

The 12th Station, from the Stations of the Cross in Douai Abbey church, carved by Fr Aloysius Bloor OSB and designed by Dame Werburg Welch OSB (Stanbrook)

The 12th Station, from the Stations of the Cross in Douai Abbey church, carved by Fr Aloysius Bloor OSB and designed by Dame Werburg Welch OSB (Stanbrook)

Where is St Edmund?

Where is St Edmund?

This will be an interesting read. The town would no doubt lay claim to his body, but his shrine was with the monks of Bury St Edmunds, whose successors we are.

If they find his body, St Edmund should come home to the monks of St Edmund’s at Douai Abbey. Naturally.

Gaudete! An online Christmas card.

Gaudete! Christus est natus ex Maria virgine.

A holy and happy Christmas to you all. Somewhat too economically I offer you the online card I have just uploaded for the abbey website as my Christmas greeting to you all. It’s a busy day for monks, so some economizing on time has been necessary. If it is a little more generic than personal, the sentiment is no less sincere for that. You will all be remembered at Mass tonight.

Oremus pro invicem – Let us pray for each other.

Click the pic to see the card.

Douai Abbey crib 2013

Douai Abbey crib 2013

Shearing time!

This evening, muggy and threatening rain, my little flock was sheared. Not by me, though I helped with the worming, tagging, and dosing. Jack and Chris, two sturdy young bairns, did the honours. The flock clearly felt the relief of losing their heavy, hot coats.

Two quick pics. Jack and Chris hard at it:

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A lovely pile of fleece for our oblate Teresa, who will use a goodly portion of it to make sleeping mats for the homeless.

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Little Malcolm was glad when it was all over.

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Lounging lambs

The cold still bites here in Royal Berkshire, but at least the sun has managed to put his hat on occasionally, and to lovely effect. That said, yesterday was mostly filled with flurries of snow flakes, and the daffodils are terribly confused.

One effect of the sunshine is to encourage a little ritual lambs are fond of indulging in. After joining in the feeding frenzy on barley and hay with the ewes, they like to have a little chill time and think on the eternal verities. And they like to do it together. Normally in the sun they would play, but in the recent bleak and freezing weather they prefer to act like solar cells, and soak up as much warmth as possible. It begins when a nice bed of strewn hay is found in full sun. A couple will settle, satisfactorily gorged for now, and other lambs decide that they have the right idea.

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Quickly you have five settling in for some sun.

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And soon there are six, as a couple of the early comers start warming to their task of… warming.

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After some maternal intrusion and subsequent re-arrangement, they resettle to reveal the sun-and-slumber party has grown to eight.

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Malcolm, the youngest, is very much his own lamb and sits off a little to the side, balancing community with independence… and sleep.

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And looking back to the main assembly we find the other nine have finally settled together, Cher, the only girl among them, showing a suitable juvenile female disdain for boys.

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And they shall stay till the next human diversion arrives; for now, I have become far too boring to notice.

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Pax!

An Easter Lamb

The Triduum is a busy time for a monk who is both sacristan and cantor. Unexpectedly, my shepherd’s hat was on today as well – a surprise lamb born today, Holy Saturday, in the midst of our first period of sunshine for quite a while (though it still be chilly).

Though untimely born, she is well-omened. So Frances is our Easter lamb. 11 live lambs this year, our best crop ever (and this after three dead at birth). Alas, only two of them girls. A weird year. Given North Korea’s excessively loud belligerence, perhaps the end of the world is nigh. Repent, while we have the light of life.

Below is the little girl and her young mother (barely over a year old herself, and rejected by her own mother last year), taken with shaky, frozen hand on a mobile phone.

HAPPY EASTER!

Frances, the Easter lamb.