Abbot Joel's address to our Third Canonry Chapter

Graham Golden - Sunday, September 21, 2014

Third Canonry Chapter

Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey

August 25, 2014

As we enter our third year as a young Norbertine abbey, the youngest in our almost 900-year tradition as Norbertines, it perhaps is helpful to remind ourselves why we are here.  Some place along the line, for a number of good reasons perhaps, it has been unfashionable to say that the one and only purpose of religious life is the single-minded search for God.  Other answers were suggested to justify our life:  ministry, public witness, community needs, and so forth. 


None of them, however, seem to survive the heat of day.  At rock bottom, we are called to religious life only to seek God.  Only to seek God.  That answer stuns in its simplicity, in its universality, in its demands.  The truth of that answer changes everything.


Religious life is not just another way of life.  It is a way of life intentionally organized to pursue the human quest for God. 


Immersion in God is the concept that brooks no other greater than itself.  It’s the question that undergirds every day of our life, the longing for which any kind of loss, any amount of change, any degree of effort is acceptable. 


We have, however, too often been seduced by other explanations for religious life, all of them valuable and all of them true to a certain degree.  We have sought to be “relevant.”  We have set out to be “incarnational.”  We have given ourselves untiringly to “the option for the poor.”  We have devoted ourselves to “the transformation of structures”.  We have evangelized and renewed and revised and reformed until we’re pretty tired. 


And all of those commitments are good and necessary, holy and worthy of attention, fundamental and imperative.  But through it all, one thing and one thing only can sustain religious life, can nourish religious life, and can justify religious life:  the religious must be a person who first and foremost, always and everywhere, in whatever circumstance, seeks God and God alone. 


The religious must be a person who sees God and God alone in all of this confusion in our world and in all the uncertainty that surrounds us.  The religious must be the person who speaks God and God alone in whatever the situation.  It is not what we do that makes us religious.  It is why we do it and how we do it that sounds the bell of authenticity in a world that pretty much dismisses us.


It is seeking God and the reign of God that makes religious activity really religious.  Being steeped in the heart of God is the essential religious activity.  Everything else simply follows from that.


To be totally committed to the spiritual quest means to respond over and over again to whatever beckons us beyond where we are, to something even closer to the heart of God for us.  Where God is, the spiritual quest demands that we go there.  Where God is not, the spiritual quest demands that we bring to that situation the vision of what that moment lacks. 


The first sign that something has gone wrong with religious life, then, is when work, any work becomes more important than the quest itself and what the quest demands of us here and now.  The work of teaching, the work of healing, and the work of pastoring are not as important as the seeking. 


Wherever we are, whatever we do, we must do it with the greater will of God in mind.  It is not a particular work that must captivate us as religious, however good that work might be, however much it is needed.  What must captivate us is the God whom we hold in our hearts.  It is the God we find in prayer, in people, and in the transubstantiation of the planet into the reign of God that must impel our life.


The purpose of our life as religious is then the pursuit of the spiritual quest, the preservation of the spiritual questions, the articulation of the spiritual challenges from age to age, in whatever form and whatever season. 


I recently heard a Benedictine speak at a conference over the internet.  The question asked was what was the strength of her Benedictine Community.  The answer was we are small, we are local, and we are autonomous.  That’s our strength.  But she added, but it could be our weakness too if we allow it to be. 


We live in a competitive world that reckons value in numbers and measures its mark by its size.  We stake our advertising claims on the dimensions of the thing, rather than on its quality.  You hear phrases like “the largest institution of its kind”… “the biggest graduation class in history”… “the most extensive system in the world”… 


Obviously, in our culture we know almost nothing about the vitality of smallness, let alone the desirability of smallness.  We know hardly anything about the hand of God in situations of crisis.  We know pitiably little about the power of a single person whose heart is on fire in contrast to the ineffectiveness of many who are apathetic.  In our culture we specialize in size, not necessarily commitment. 


It is no wonder that religious life is so stunned by its recent loss of numbers.  No doubt its value is being gauged in terms of size by many.  No wonder we’re talking about the inevitability of its decline when we should be talking about the effects of its smallness, positive as well as negative.


It has been suggested that what religious life needs at the present time is a spirituality of smallness, the understanding that the function of religious life is to be voice and call, presence and prophet to the world, not simply a labor force.


The noted pioneering anthropologist, Margaret Mead once wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world.  Indeed, that is all that ever has.”  So consumed are we as a Church, as a culture, by the seductiveness of numbers that a spirituality of smallness, a call to poverty of spirit, escapes us entirely.  We too easily see as failure what may be our greatest strength.


The abrupt reduction of the size of religious communities, ours included, has brought to religious life the opportunity to begin to live in new ways, with new insights and new appreciations.  Never before in the recent history of religious life, for instance, has it been so clear how important older members are to the group or how competent younger people are.  Everyone counts now.  As a result, both the level of maturity and the sense of ongoing life and formation have increased in communities.  Strategies designed to bring order to larger groups have given way to more personal processes to the genuine appreciation and discovery of individuals.  Our community days are just one example.


But this is an important moment for those whose souls are still alive with God.  Smallness requires more life of us than we have ever known before.  It leads us to be ourselves, to give everything we’ve got, to know the power of God at work in us, far beyond our own strength, far beyond our own vision.  Smallness gives us the opportunity, the reason, the mandate to examine our lives, to begin again, to pull up what is best in us and to share it broadly.  Smallness throws us back, whole and entire, small and trusting, on the living God.  And life in God is anything but dead.  It is glory, beyond glory, beyond glory.


That being said, I think we can draw hope and courage from the almost 900-year heritage of religious life in which we are rooted.  We are encouraged, of course, that two of our young brothers, Stephen and Graham will make their solemn commitment to our way of life on the Feast of Augustine. 


If you know anything about the history of our Norbertine Order, you know that there have been many ups and downs, ebbs and flows, dyings and risings in our long history.  We are presently 45 Canonries, ours being the youngest in the Order, represented in 23 countries and on all continents.  We come out of a whole host of different cultures with different skin colors, languages and theological positions.


Given that, I was pleased that at the 2006 General Chapter held in Freising, Germany at which Bob Campbell and I represented our community, we were able to adopt a common vision-mission-statement.  This vision-mission-statement expresses our self-understanding as Canons Regular.  Our call as religious is based on the grace of Baptism that was given to us through God’s gracious goodness and mercy.  Baptism is the basic sacrament that binds us together with all Christians and commits us at the same time to a life dedicated to God. 


But to this general Christian call is added the call to religious life, which responds to the Christian choice in a way that is more radical and in accord with the early Church.  The way of life of Canons Regular is realized in a life in community that depends upon sharing and participation. 


We share life with one another in liturgy and ministry, in contemplation and action, all centered in a living religious community that knows that it is inwardly rooted in Christ and outwardly missioned to the people.  This model of life together, as you know, is expressed in the words that were found in the Acts of the Apostles concerning the first Christian community and that are found at the beginning of the Rule of Augustine, our Rule:  namely, “becoming of one heart and one mind on the way to God.”  (Acts 4:32)


Here the aspect of community is especially stressed and the goal of monastic and canonical life clearly marked out.  It is namely to live and strive together toward God, in which this “together” first of all means our own relationships in our resident community but it reaches beyond that, especially to our Oblates and Associates and to the people whom we encounter in our various ministerial commitments.


This vision-mission-statement situates canonical life within the people of God.  So, what is our vision and mission?  May we read its formulation by the 2006 General Chapter. 


Drawn by our merciful and Triune God,

we are called as baptized

to follow the poor and risen Christ

in a radical and apostolic way of life

according to the Gospel, the Rule of Saint Augustine

and the charism of St. Norbert,

the founder of our Premonstratensian Order.


Our way of life is marked by:

a lifelong seeking after God through fraternal community,

a never-ending conversion by giving ourselves to the church

of our profession in communion with the self-emptying of Christ,

in imitation of Mary pondering God’s Word,

and in ceaseless prayer and service at the altar.


From the choir and altar we go to serve the human family

in a spirit of simplicity, hospitality, reconciliation and peace

for the benefit of the Church and the world,

especially where Christ is found among the poor, the suffering,

and among those who do not know him.


We pray that what God’s Spirit has begun in us

may be made perfect in the day of Christ Jesus.



There are four areas of practice that have developed from our tradition and history.   They are four pillars of our life, if you will.  They are: a life-long searching for God, a constant conversion of life, a contemplation of the word of God, as Mary was able to do, and never-ending prayer and service at the altar.  It is here that our contemplative life in community is fed, is nourished. 


Our prayer together is “the prayer of the Church.”  It is ecclesial prayer.  Each one of our canonries is an ecclesiola, a church in miniature, with the altar in the center, which represents Christ and on which we as Canons make our solemn profession.   This prayer always takes place in church.  In other words, it is always public and everyone is invited to participate in it.  Therefore, the Liturgy of the Hours is prayed in the church and for the Church, for the concerns and needs of the people, for the world and its manifold need for salvation, for reconciliation, and for peace.  Simply stated, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Prayer of the Church and our daily celebration of the Eucharist is considered the principal focus of canonical life.


Corresponding to the four-fold unfolding of the contemplative side of our religious life is five important mission thrusts in which we, as Canons Regular, are called to invest ourselves.  They are:  our service of radical hospitality, our service for reconciliation and peace, our service for the building up of the community and the Church, our service for the poor and the suffering, and our call to evangelize those who “do not yet know God.”  These could be considered the five milestones for our pastoral, missionary and active work.


Since almost from the beginning, Norbertines have devoted themselves to parochial and pastoral care of people, our Norbertine Order is generally considered a pastoral Order.  That is also true in our Canonry in New Mexico, but not exclusively.  We have two vibrant parishes in Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary and St. Augustine.  But we also offer pastoral care to the sick and dying in hospitals and elsewhere, and involve ourselves in a whole host of ministries that relate to social justice, ecumenical cooperation, theological and spiritual education, spiritual direction and counseling, etc.  Most importantly we have opened our Abbey through our Hermitage Retreat to offer people space where they can refuel and re-orient themselves. 


In relating our vision to our mission, we no doubt encounter the sharpest challenge that marks us as Canons Regular, namely to live out this tension between “contemplation” and “action.”  We are called to hold onto this tension in daily life and so work on balancing it in its two basic parts.  To balance it in a life “of one mind and one heart on the way to God” and in a life of ministry and service to God’s people. 


This overarching vision-mission statement of our international  Norbertine Order finds localized expression in our own Abbey’s mission statement.  Inspired by those two statements and internalizing the values they express, allows us to offer the local Church a young abbey with a distinct identity.


It’s important for us not to forget that in large part we are who we are and we do what we do because of two covenants we have established:  a covenant of brotherhood with the Mananthavady community in India and a covenant of friendship with our oblates.  We should not underestimate what our three Indian brothers and our four oblates have generously contributed and continue to contribute to our life and ministry by their presence.  They are all Norbertines and in some ways our young abbey reflects the diversity of people who gathered around Norbert in the Valley of Prémontré in those early days of the founding of our Order.


As a young abbey in a pastoral Order, we are called to develop and to refine a spirituality of ministry.  In that regard, I was struck by the address Pope Francis gave on February 27 of this past year to the congregation of bishops at the Vatican.  As you know this congregation makes recommendations to the pope about future bishops around the world.  The pope said that he wants bishops who are “genuine pastors” and who “would argue with God on behalf of their people.”  The pope said he did not want prelates, new bishops, who were mainly concerned with doctrinal matters. 


The Church, Francis said, needs “guardians of doctrine not so as to measure how far the world is from doctrinal truth, but to appeal to the world, to charm it with the beauty of love and to seduce it with the freedom bestowed by the gospel.”  He went on to say, “the Church does not need apologists for its causes nor crusaders for its battles, but sewers, humble and confident of the truth who… trust in its power.”


Jesus, in defining his meaning and ministry, said, “My flesh is food for the life of the world.”   We can easily miss what’s contained in that.  Notice that Jesus is not saying that his flesh is food for the minister or the life of the Church.  His body is food for the life of the world and the world is larger than the minister or the Church.  Jesus came into the world to be eaten up by the world.  It’s no accident that he was born in a manger, a feeding trough, a place where animals come to eat.


We need to keep that horizon in front of us always as we do ministry.  Perhaps the biggest danger in ministry is not so much that we will burn out, but that we will be too self-concerned and too self-protected to live the vulnerability that lies at the heart of Jesus’ ministry.

A minister is meant to be vulnerable, vulnerable enough to let himself or herself be wounded, taken for granted and ultimately, “eaten up” by the needs of the world.  If we don’t constantly remind ourselves of that, our ministries very easily become a matter of feeding ourselves, looking good to others, or creating safe, little enclaves against the world. 


Listen again to Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation.  Francis writes:  “More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, “Give them something to eat.”  (Mark 6: 37) (49)


In his address to religious superiors this past year, Francis noted that while a radical choice is asked of all Christians, religious are called to follow the Lord in a special manner.  He challenged us by saying that we are meant to “wake up the world.”   We live in a broken world and in a broken Church and that is why the new evangelization is so important.  And we’re called to be part of that movement.  One thing all of us have in common is the desire to love and to be loved (especially by the ones we love).  Love brings a great deal of joy and fulfillment, but it also includes the risks of misunderstanding, conflict, division and alienation. 


The need of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation is also common to all of us.  The key to meeting this need is in our willingness to accept our own brokenness and vulnerability, our dependence on God’s love and forgiveness—and in our acceptance of others in spite of their faults and failings.  Opportunities for healing, forgiveness and reconciliation arise every day in different ways in our community, in our ministries, in our parishes, at the hospital ministering to the sick and dying.  Indeed, they arise everywhere we go and with everyone we encounter. 


What we do with these opportunities can help us connect with others at a deeper level.  Jesus tells us that we must do more than co-exist with others; he’s calling us to live in intimacy with God and with one another.  He used the imagery of the grapes and their connectedness to the vine to teach his disciples about intimacy. (John 15:1-6)  That image should have special significance for us as members of Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey.  The invitation to connect or reconnect is what the new evangelization is about. 


Christina Spahn wrote a wonderful article on hospitality as a path to evangelization in the current Pastoral Liturgy Magazine.  It indicates how that effort is unfolding at Holy Rosary on numerous levels.


Pope Francis is calling us to redouble our efforts in our dialogue with others and the world.  That effort is Christo-centric.  It derives from a real love for Christ and his Church.


Millions of Catholics do not practice their faith and abstain from the table of the Lord.  Some of them have simply drifted away; some feel excluded from the Church or have been hurt by the Church; some have been affected by the abuse of authority or the sex abuse scandals; some are divorced and remarried Catholics.  Pope Francis’ openness on these issues is infectious.  His argument that the Church should be open to all people, that she should take people where they are, is very different from the attitude of “you are either in or out.”


So we are being called to be part of the new evangelization.  I think we were all moved and challenged when we spent several community days discussing Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.  In this context there is one quote that I’ve come back to time and again.  It has also been part of my prayer.  Pope Francis writes: “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with the doors always open.  One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit comes there looking for God, he or she would not find a closed door.”


“There are other doors that should not be closed either,” continues Pope Francis.  “Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community.  Nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason.  This is especially true of the sacrament that is itself ‘the door’: Baptism.  The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of the sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”


Pope Francis goes on to say, “These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness.  Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators.  But the Church is not a toll house; it’s the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.”  (47)  It seems to me that those are words worth pondering and praying over, again and again. 


When I was thinking about this talk in the context of the new evangelization, I was moved one night to sit down and list everyone’s name in the abbey, including our men in formation and our oblates.  Then I listed all of the wide-ranging contacts and ministries each of us has in the local Church.  And I’m sure I did not list them all because I obviously do not know them all.  But I found it an important exercise for me to become more conscious of the impact that the men and women of our small abbey are having in the Archdiocese.  I believe that our ministries flow out of a life that is being lived with integrity and compassion.  And those ministries are not only deeply appreciated but are also bearing fruit.


This is not to forget the important contribution which our abbey land, our quiet environment, our communal prayer, and our diverse buildings offer to the seekers, retreatants, and visitors.  This is the hospitality of a sacred space animated by our presence.


So we now move to the major top of the day:  Vocations.  As I suggested, we should develop a spirituality of smallness.  There is small, and then there is small.  We have no desire to follow the road to disappearance.


As you know, the vast majority of religious communities in the U.S. are facing the challenge of fewer and fewer vocations.  A whole host of reasons have contributed to that downturn.  Percentage-wise, as a small abbey, we have one-third of our members in formation.  While we are happy about that we know that it is not near enough.


The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) offers some insight into what common characteristics are identifiable in those religious communities that are attracting candidates.  What are candidates looking for?  You have an executive summary of the CARA report and I hope you spent some time with it. 


The National Religious Vocation Conference has published a Culture of Vocations Assessment Tool developed by a Benedictine from St. Meinrad’s Abbey.  We will utilize that tool in a process to assess our own vocation culture at the abbey.  Frances Vogel Montano, the former director of the Pastoral Ministries division of our Archdiocese and a founder of the Ecumenical Institute for Ministry, has happily agreed to facilitate our discussion around vocations.

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