Word came recently of the impending death of a good friend of mine. When I was a little girl my mother would occasionally take the long bus ride over the mountain pass to visit this dear old friend. As I got older I made my own pilgrimages and fell in love with the tranquility, stateliness and holy aura surrounding my friend. Though the death process has been actively taking its toll for the past few decades, it will only be a short time now until my friend is finally laid to rest.
The fact that this once grand Benedictine Abbey will soon be withered and dried up should cause all Catholics to pause and reflect on the reality of the condition of the Church in the United States. The modern Church is on a trajectory towards the unknown, apparently unconcerned with what is being left behind in a brazen attempt to reach a thoroughly modern spirituality, cleverly amputated from the past. I doubt that a tear will be shed by the new order establishment when the last monk leaves the Abbey and the stately edifice and grounds can be sold off to some protestant group or business conglomerate.
The history of this Abbey is actually a portrait of the Church in America. Established as a monastery in 1886, the flourishing community became an abbey in 1925. It continued to grow as vocations increased and soon this self-reliant farming community of priests and brothers blossomed to include a Catholic school for boys. The campus expanded and the halls were full of young Catholic men from all over the country. Then, in the late 1960's after the windows of the Church were opened to let in all that "fresh air", enrollment began to dwindle and there was a huge drop in vocations. Soon, lay people were called in to help with the teaching, but before long, the halls were virtually silent and the school had to be closed down.
The Abbey was forced to sell off some of its land to help maintain the grounds and support the remaining priests and brothers. In time, even the empty campus buildings were rented out to community organizations in order to help pay the bills. The Abbey tried various ways to attract retreats, tourists, and other guests. Nothing really worked and it became apparent that the only thing filling up at the Abbey was the cemetery. Eventually the reality had to be faced that there was no longer a need for this dwindling Benedictine community to own and house the magnificent structure that was once home to a flourishing community of monks.
Soon, the bells will no longer chime the hours, the Divine Office will not be chanted, and monks in habit will no longer be seen walking the grounds in silent prayer. Old photographs from the early days of the monastery, archives and antique furnishings will no doubt find their way into a museum or the trash heap, and another vestige of the pre-conciliar Church will be expunged from the midst of the people.
Ah, but don't worry. According to a ZENIT News report in May 2002, the Church is "witnessing a monastic explosion of the Benedictine tradition; without exaggeration, we can speak of a kind of globalization of the Benedictine charism. The number of foundations increased during the whole 20th century, with 16 Benedictine foundations alone in the period between 1980 and 2000" (ZENIT News Agency, May 21, 2002, Benedictine Monastic Tradition Flourishes).
The article continues to speak of "the explosion of the monastic and contemplative life" while referring to the crisis of vocations as something peculiar to "traditional religious Congregations" unlike this new "Benedictine spirituality." While talking about the increase in foundations in the 20th century with special emphasis on the 16 in the last 20 years, the article fails to mention how many foundations have folded up, closed down and dropped dead like my friend, the Abbey.
In another report from Zenit only a month after word of the EXPLOSION hit the press, the Vatican published a 60 page document "for the renewal of religious life" entitled, "Restarting from Christ: A Renewed Commitment of the Consecrated Life in the Third Millennium." "The text calls for renewed vigor in missionary activity, and insists that the proclamation of the Word must be coupled with the implementation of the works of God, following the example of the early Church." The report goes on to state the sad statistics of decline in vocations worldwide.
Even if news of the Abbey's death doesn't make the pages of Zenit.org, somehow, I think the silent halls of the Abbey will speak most succinctly regarding this entire issue. Vocations aren't born by way of voluminous documents which are 35 years late at best, and no one in his/her right mind is going to believe we really have an "explosion of monastic and contemplative life" on our hands when the Church is withering before our eyes. It's a sad day when the Catholic world has to be reminded that the proclamation of the Word must be accompanied by works of God, "following the example of the early Church."
Many of us believe this is exactly what the Church was doing prior to Vatican Council II when vocations were blossoming, convents and monasteries were full and commitment to the consecrated life was flourishing. Who would have dreamed all this would be basically destroyed in 40 years leaving silence to roam the empty halls of monasteries and convents by the eve of the Third Millennium?
As far as the Vatican's hope for "renewed vigor in missionary activity," while the Church is struggling to figure out if the Jews need to be converted or whether everybody, everywhere is on the road to the same "Homeland", it appears that the Church will soon have at least one new place to try out her "renewed" missionary activity: the hallowed ground where once lived a flourishing Catholic Abbey.