I just returned from preaching a parish mission at St Elizabeth Seton Church in Naperville, Illinois, and from a five-day stay at St. Procopius Abbey in the neighboring town of Lisle.
The mission went well; the parishioners were friendly, receptive, responsive. The monks at the monastery follow the Benedictine rule, and thus "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ," and we were.
The ambience of the abbey reminded me of my seminary days: a schedule for prayer, an environment marked by statues and pictures of saints, and silence.
The "talk" of the abbey was the recent election of a new abbot (the man in charge.) St. Benedict wrote that "goodness of life and wisdom in teaching must be the criteria for choosing the one to be made abbot...even if they are the last in community rank." The fathers and brothers at St. Procopius chose the youngest member of their community, thirty-six year old Austin Murphy!
In the Rite of Blessing for a new abbot, the bishop of Joliet, Most Reverend J. Peter Sartain, reminded the young man, "By the grace of God your community has elected you their abbot, their father, the teacher of wisdom. Benedict wanted his monks to seek the Lord with their whole being, and to guide and prod them in that seeking he wanted the monastery to be a school for the Lord's service...
"You take the place of Christ in this monastery...He is wisdom incarnate. He is the Master Teacher. He is the exemplar par excellence of diakonia ...God bless you, Fr. Abbot, and make you the best of teachers."
In his homily Abbot Austin replied, "It is very humbling to have been asked to lead a community with such a tradition. But the blessings God has bestowed on the past are an encouragement for the future. 'God is faithful' and "His mercies are not spent' (1 Cor. 10:13, Lam 3:22)."
The dual experience of staying in a monastery and preaching in a parish brought together two of the chief building blocks of the Church of today and tomorrow.
There are less than 30 monks at St. Procopius, and most of them are elderly. Perhaps 18 are priests; the others are brothers. Only God knows what the future holds for them, but the longevity of the Benedictine tradition (St. Benedict died around 550 AD) suggests the end is not at hand.
The lively faith and Gospel spirit easily discernible in the the laity of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish suggest that the Church is carrying on the commission given to the apostles --making disciples, baptizing, and teaching all that Jesus had taught them.
On the one hand it looks as if many of the elements of the Church which we have known for centuries are poised to undergo revision or elmination. The plethora of convents and monasteries which once marked the Catholic landscape is likely to become more rare. The number of priests continues to decline.
Theologian Karl Rahner said decades ago that the Catholic population would be living in a diaspora-like situation, devoid of the cultural and familial supports on which Catholics had for centuries tended to rely.
On the other hand, we can chart lay involvement in the mission and ministry of the Church on a level and to a degree never seen before.
A wedding of sorts is taking place --where monasteries and parishes are conduits of the energy and personnel required to fulfill the Church's role in the 21st century.
Laity will be inspired and re-charged by the life and regimen of the monastery, and in that spirit will go out to evangelize, catechize, and live the Gospel. Catholics drive by the monastery and see the sign "St. Procopius" and know that inside those walls there are faith-filled people fully dedicated to the Gospel. And in turn those drivers are challenged to translate that same Gospel into their lives and into the world around them.
Monasticism is not dead. It is making a come-back. Abbot Austin's election is a sure sign of hope.
The Gospel is alive in St Elizabeth Seton parish, and in many, many others around the globe.
I have a hunch that monasteries and parishes may be the renewing forces behind the work of the Catholic Church across America. Together they will promote that long awaited aggiornamento.