The Monastery and the Local Church

Talk given at the Benedictine Monastery of Kornelimuenster, Germany on 26 August 2012.

 Thank you for the opportunity to address this subject, and especially on such a memorable occasion- the golden jubilees of Abbot Albert and Br Egilhard.

For 19 years I was Abbot of a Benedictine monastery in the diocese of Aberdeen in Scotland. Now I am the Bishop of the same diocese. So perhaps I have two eyes. It is also encouraging that, according to the Dialogues of Pope St Gregory the Great, St Benedict was the friend of a bishop, Germanus of Capua. When the latter died, St Benedict saw his soul on its way to heaven. Perhaps we can take this as a symbol: when there is a good relationship between a monastery and a local Church, it becomes possible to see something essential – the ‘soul’ of the matter. What follows is a small attempt to seek for this essential.

The Rule of St Benedict as Point of Reference

Let us look first at the Rule of St Benedict.

1. The word ‘diocese’ occurs once in the Rule (64:4). It’s enough here to recall that the word ‘diocese’ is etymologically linked to the Greek word for ‘house’ (oikos). In the very nest verse, St Benedict himself calls the monastery a ‘house of God’ (64:5). This immediately suggests that the diocese and monastery have something in common. In both, the mystery of the Church – the ‘spiritual house’ (1 Pt 2:5), the ‘dwelling place of God in the Spirit’ (Eph 2:22) – is realised, becomes visible.

2. In this passage from ch. 64, On the Appointment of an Abbot, (vv. 3 – 6), St. Benedict is speaking immediately about the election of the abbot:

‘But if (which God forbid) the whole community should agree to choose a person who acquiesces in its vices, and if these somehow come to the knowledge of the bishop to whose diocese the place belongs, and to neighbouring abbots or Christians, let them foil the conspiracy of the wicked and set a worthy steward over God’s house. Let them be sure that they will receive a good reward, if they do this with a pure intention and out of zeal for God, just as, on the contrary, they will incur sin, if they neglect to intervene’ (64:3-6).

Clearly the well-being of the monastery is a concern of the whole local Christian community: the bishop, other abbots, laity. The monastery is sick, it is in danger, and it is the duty of the local Church to come to its rescue, to heal it. This must certainly be done for the right motives. But the duty is so serious, it would be a sin to neglect it. One thinks of 1 Cor 12:26: ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together’. The implied link between monastery and local Church is here a very close one. They cannot be indifferent to one another. They are bound together in health and sickness.

3. In the Rule, the Bishop is mentioned three times: in the passage just quoted (64:4), in connection with bad monastic priest (62:9), and in connection with the appointment of the Prior (65:3).

I would like to touch on two aspects here.

i) First, in both chs. 64 and 65, the context is ordinatio. This word may refer to the Sacrament of Ordination, or more generally to any appointment. Its literal meaning is: insertion into an order. The Rule suggests that a Bishop is intimately involved in this whole reality of ordinatio, that he has some role to play in the ordo of the monastery.

In St Benedict’s time, few abbots were ordained as priests. Nowadays it is a canonical requirement. And a Bishop becomes involved in the life of the monastery at two moments particularly:

– the ordination of any members to the diaconate or priesthood. Here is a reminder to the monastery that it is not a self-sufficient entity. It is an ecclesiola in ecclesia. It belongs to a greater whole. The word ‘Catholic’ etymologically means ‘according to the whole’ (kath holon). The coming of a Bishop to a community to ordain one of its members enables the monastery to experience its belonging within the ‘great ordo’ of the Church. It is a reminder of the ecclesial nature of the monastic mission.

 – the liturgical blessing of an abbot or abbess. This is normally celebrated by the local Bishop. Of the Sacramentals (as distinct from the Sacraments) which a Bishop celebrates, the first listed in the Ceremonial of Bishops (1984) is precisely this Blessing. And n. 668 of the Ceremonial says this: ‘The blessing of an abbot is usually celebrated by the bishop of the place where the monastery is situated. In this way the bishop has a part in one of the high points of monastic life. By example, work, and prayer, monasteries should contribute solid support to the life of the particular Church; correspondingly, the bishop should regard the monasteries of his diocese as an important part of his pastoral office, even though he must not interfere in their internal government.’ In the liturgy of Abbatial Blessing, a Bishop prays for the new Abbot that he will have the qualities necessary for his mission. It has been said that the grace given through this rite is that of spiritual fatherhood. And the Bishop hands him the Rule, a ring, a mitre and a crozier. And thus the Abbot enters the ordo of abbots and the monastery is strengthened. The house of God is built up, and once again the monastery is reminded of its ‘ecclesiality’. It is not an insignificant part of a Bishop’s ministry.

ii) Secondly, I’d like to underline a final phrase from the Rule: episcopi ad cuius diocesim pertinet locus ipse (64:4) – literally, ‘the bishop to whose diocese the place itself belongs’. I notice that one renowned English translation makes no attempt at all to translate pertinet, and simply says ‘the local bishop’, omitting ‘diocese’ too! One German translation has, ‘die betreffende Dioezese’, ‘the diocese concerned’ one would say in English. But in Late Latin the word pertinere means ‘to belong’. So, for St Benedict, the monastery – the place itself – ‘belongs’ to the diocese. We are not talking about property or ownership here, but something profounder, in the first place a responsibility, and underlying that the mystery of common life. At the very least, the monastery is an integral part of the diocese in which it is placed

Canonically most contemporary Benedictin monasteries are what is called ‘exempt’, that is withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the local Bishop and subject to that of the Pope (Lumen Gentium 45, Christus Dominus 35, Code of Canon Law 591, 732). The Bishop, consequently, should not interfere in the interior workings of a monastery. And correspondingly, monks by their vow of obedience, submit themselves to their Abbot, not to the local Bishop. However, as regards ‘the care of souls, public worship and works of the apostolate’, monks are subject to the authority of the local Bishop (Christus Dominus 35, Code of Canon Law 678, 738/2).

What, however, the whole ecclesiology of Vatican II suggests, what the phrase of 64:4 and especially the use of the word pertinere suggest, and what other indications of the Rule point to is something deeper. The relationship between a monastery and a local Church is best seen in the light of the Pauline understanding of the Church as a body with many members, each with their specific function, but working in harmony one with another and, more essentially still, belonging  to each other.

We are led especially to Romans 12:3-8 and to 1 Corinthians 12:12-26.

Perhaps most pertinent is Rom 12:5: ‘So we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually members one of another’, or as the Jerusalem Bible has it: ‘So all of us, in union with Christ, form one body and as parts of it, we belong to each other.’

By virtue of their common belonging to / membership of Christ, the local Church and the monastery also belong to one another. ‘In the mystery of the Church, unity in Christ implies a mutual communion of life among the members’ (Mutuae Relationes, 1978, n. 2). There is a clear distinction between the monastery and the local Church, but not an opposition; rather a mutual indwelling made possible by the Holy Spirit. The external expression of this within the monastery itself lies in the celebration of the Eucharist. In the Eucharistic Prayer, day after day, the name of the Bishop of the place is mentioned.

Living Out Mutual Belonging

Out of this ontology there flows action; out of the mutual indwelling a common cooperation; out of the mutual belonging a mutual service. We pass now from the ‘contemplative’ to the ‘active’, to the practical.

What gifts, what services, does a monastery offer the local Church to which it belongs, and vice versa?

Naturally, every local Church and every monastic community has its own situation which affects the ways in which it lives this relationship. Still, it is possible to make some generalisations.

I) First then, what might a monastery offer a local Church? Perhaps thi question can be answered along the lines of the three monastic vows of stability, conversatio morum and obedience. Perhaps we can say that it is these a monastery offers.

1. The first vow of a monk is stability, and the first gift of a monastery to its local Church is its own stability. Much is implied in this: a simple ‘being there’, a fixity of place and buildings, the constancy of the life lived there, the perseverance of the brethren, the regularity of the liturgy. We are mobile creatures; modernity prioritizes movement and change. A monastery speaks rather of the ‘still centre’, or the Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis. It speaks of the things that do not pass away. For the clergy and laity of a diocese, it offers a stable point of reference, something familiar and known. The fact that monks remain there over a long period makes possible a continuity of relationship and a depth of friendship. A monk, by his stability, is able to give a witness to a long, but, we trust, ultimately victorious struggle. It is a reminder that not everything good, true and beautiful can be accessed immediately, or even need be. So even the cemetery can be significant. Life can be seen as a whole. At a very practical level, a monastery may be able to offer facilities for meetings more easily than many other institutions in the diocese. It may well have a better library or bookshop. It may, like many monasteries in Italy and Spain and elsewhere, be a place of Marian pilgrimage, a focus of prayer and reconciliation for a wider area. A monastery often incorporates more of the world of nature than other ecclesiastical entities. Incorporating nature, it incorporates time, for nature is more patient than humanity. And good monks have time to listen to the Lord and to others.

2. The second vow of a monk, and the second gift of a monastery, is conversatio morum, that is, a striving for holiness. The Church can often appear as a ‘business’; alas a monastery can too. But if good zeal reigns, what becomes visible in a monastery, in the very human humanity of its members and life, is the search for God, the primacy of discipleship, the universal call to holiness. And this becomes contagious. I knew of one diocese in which every seminarian had found his priestly vocation thanks to the local monastery. In 1 Corinthians 4:9, St Paul speaks of the apostles being ‘a spectacle to the world’; so in a sense is a monastery. And so in a sense is each monk. Hence the huge offence or scandal caused when certain sins of monks are revealed. On the positive side, I recall the story of a young man driving past a monastery and deciding to pause and look in. It was all very quiet, deserted. He entered the church and saw one monk curled up in prayer in a corner. That was all he saw. 40 years later, he was driving past again. He broke his journey again. He entered the church. There in the same place and same posture was the same monk praying. I recall a young woman who suffered from depression. When this became acute she would ask her parents to take her to the monastery. The family never spoke to a monk. They did not attend the liturgy. They simply walked up and down the drive. And then she would say, ‘I am better now. We can go.’

3. The third vow a monk takes, and the third aspect of the monastic gift to the local Church, is obedience. It may sound strange to suggest this. But obedience means listening and, on the basis of that listening, acting in communion with others.

But let me come at this from an angle. What a monastery offers to many Christians and non-Christians, to religious persons and those suspicious of religion, is a kind of discreet alternative. One might say – to use a contemporary phrase – that while in the parish there reigns the ‘ordinary form’ of the Church life; in the monastery, something other, a kind of ‘extraordinary form’. In a monastery, the one Church shows a different face. The style of liturgy, the manner of preaching, the form of spiritual accompaniment may be other than that provided in parishes. Many feel quite at home in the latter, but others may not, and can find an ecclesial alternative in a monastery. Liturgy is especially an issue here.

But I am not thinking of liturgy only. In general, a monastery tends to attract a particular ‘constituency’. It has a ministry and mission distinct from that of a parish. It can often be a sanctuary for those disaffected with the Church in general or with the local Church or simply with the local parish. These disaffected may be liberals impatient for change, disappointed at the conservative ‘turn’ within the Church, or they may be those of the opposite persuasion, who feel disinherited of rightful Tradition and still exposed to a fashionable liberalism which has now run out of steam. More widely, a monastery offers shelter to all sorts and conditions of men: tramps or alcoholics or the abused, seekers of the truth, or simply those hungry for quiet.

What a monastery offers here is a listening ear – at its best the fruit of the monks’ own listening to the Word of God. The audibility of the latter – its proclamation in the church and the refectory and in the silence – is something very striking. And out of the listening to God’s Word comes a capacity to listen to the human word, and to attune the latter to the former. A monastery can offer a listening that creates communion. It builds the unity of the Church, not by power or law or programmes, but by humility and respect for the truth. A monastery offers an ear, and this hearing leads to belonging. It creates communion. This is what I mean, here, by the gift of obedience.

What, on the other side, can a local Church offer a monastery? Anything? Or is the traffic all one way? Surely not!

The Church, local and universal, is a mother. And she is a mother of, and to, monasteries.

Let me just touch on a few aspects of this: this service which a local Church can offer to a monastery..

          It is sometimes bishops who call for the setting-up of monasteries in their dioceses, and must at least always approve any new foundation. In this sense, monasteries are born, not just of the monasteries from which they come, but of the diocese where they come into being.

Then, there is a danger that monasteries think too highly of themselves, take on the face of the Pharisee more than the Publican. They can become over preoccupied with their own life, perhaps especially their difficulties. They can become isolated, forgetting that in the Eucharistic Prayer they pray daily, it is not only the Pope who is mentioned by name but the local Bishop too, or forgetting both Pope and Bishop, and becoming a Church unto themselves! A healthy relation with the local Church prevents a monastic community becoming a sect.

At the same time, there is a danger that monasteries think too little of themselves. They see nothing but their problems: the empty choir stalls, the ageing, the diminishing, the lack of vocations. They can develop a death-wish. At this point, the intelligent (not just routine!) affirmation, the word that can come from local clergy and laity and religious or from the Bishop himself, can restore confidence to a community, if it will listen.

‘I want to urge each one among you not to exaggerate his real importance. Each of you must judge himself soberly by the standard of the faith God has given him’ (Rom 12:3). It is part of the maternal function of the local Church to help a monastery find that sober judgment, between presumption and despair. We come back to the image of the Body and its members. The phrase gaudium de veritate – joy in the truth – comes to mind.

Then there is the sacramental aspect. I have already mentioned the need for a Bishop to ordain members of the community to the diaconate or priesthood or to bless a new abbot. The local Church is, in a sense, the mother of the sacramental life of the community. One could mention also the provision of faculties for the Sacrament of Reconciliation which come to the individual priest-monk through his abbot but ultimately from the Bishop. Again, local priests may function as external confessors to a community, and they or religious or lay persons provide spiritual guidance or support for monks.

Here too the local Church frees the monastery from the illusion of self-sufficiency. It allows it to take its true place, at once humble and special, within the totality of the Church.

I mentioned the role of a local Church and a bishop in the birth of a monastery. But monasteries die too. And it is when they are dying, reaching the end of their life-cycle, that a healthy relationship between the monastery and diocese, superior and bishop especially, is vital. Canonically, a bishop must be consulted before a monastery is closed (c. 616/1). But ideally the involvement will be greater. Questions will arise over the disposal or use of property and financial assets, over the dispersion and future mission of the monks. These are matters where disputes naturally arise and where healthy relationships can help avoid much pain.

 In life and in death, we belong to the Lord and in the mystery of his Body we belong to one another in life and in death also. Let us say, for life! There, very simply, we glimpse the essence, the soul, of the relationship between monastery and local Church, abbot and bishop, Benedict and Germanus.


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122