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(Editor’s note: The Church’s Year of Consecrated Life began in November 2014 and will conclude on Feb. 2, 2016. During that time, The Criterion is publishing a series of articles featuring the life and history of each of the religious communities based in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. This is the fifth article in that series.)
ST. MEINRAD—On Sept. 2, 1887, a fire destroyed the monastery and part of the church of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, a Benedictine monastic community that was founded in 1854.
With the smoke still rising from the smoldering ruins of their home and place of prayer, the monks nonetheless gathered later that day to continue to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Such was their dedication to prayer, their ultimate mission.
The life of Saint Meinrad Archabbey has changed much during its 162-year history, but the community’s commitment to prayer remains the same.
“The basics of the life stay in place,” said Benedictine Archabbot Justin DuVall, Saint Meinrad’s leader since his election on Dec. 31, 2004. “What gets changed is the color, the texture and the expression of them.”
The determination of the monks of Saint Meinrad to continue in their life of prayer is rooted in part in its deep history.
Saint Meinrad was founded by Maria Einsiedeln, a monastery in Switzerland nearly 1,100 years old. And Benedictine life is traced back to the example and Rule of St. Benedict, who lived more than 1,500 years ago.
Yet over that time and in the many places around the world where Benedictine monasteries have been founded, monks have sought to apply the wisdom of their tradition to the particular needs of their time and place.
“If we only kept a tradition alive for the sake of what it was, then we’d be a museum in a way,” said Benedictine Brother John Mark Falkenhain, Saint Meinrad’s vocation director. “The brilliant thing about monks and Benedictines is that we’ve always managed to take what was essential to our tradition, and continue to make it relevant to our current times.”
The monks of Saint Meinrad did that initially by ministering to the German-speaking Catholic immigrants of southwestern Indiana.
Within the first generation of monks at the monastery, though, the community quickly expanded that ministry to include missionary work among Native Americans in the northern plains and the formation of future priests, which still continues at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad.
Some 80 percent of the current priests of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis received at least part of their priestly formation at Saint Meinrad.
“It has made a contribution to the Church all across the United States and now internationally around the world,” said Archabbot Justin. “The work has remained. But it has certainly changed in the way that we [now] form … candidates for the permanent diaconate, people in lay ministry and youths in our youth liturgical leadership program.”
The future priests from around the world who receive their formation at Saint Meinrad include monks from its Swiss motherhouse. The last two abbots of Maria Einsiedeln were both students at Saint Meinrad.
Likewise, Saint Meinrad sends some monks in initial formation to Maria Einsiedeln to experience the connection of their monastery that reaches back so far in Benedictine history.
“There’s a real sense of connectedness to our roots that keeps going to Einsiedeln, to St. Benedict, to this great tradition that we have,” said Brother John Mark. “It feels like such a sense of stability and rootedness.”
Stability is at the heart of one of the vows that the monks of Saint Meinrad and all Benedictines profess.
Unlike most men and women religious who profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Benedictines take vows of obedience, stability and “conversatio morum,” which is often translated as “conversion to the monastic way of life.” The last of these vows includes poverty and chastity.
The vow of stability connects a Benedictine to his or her particular monastic community.
For the monks of Saint Meinrad, their tie to their southwestern Indiana monastic community also has meant a bond with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
That is experienced profoundly through its formation of so many archdiocesan priests. And it is also seen in the leadership of Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein, who was a monk of Saint Meinrad and president-rector of its seminary prior to becoming a bishop. He returned there to live in the monastery’s infirmary after retiring in 2011.
At a more grassroots level, the tie between Saint Meinrad is nurtured through the many lay people who come to the monastery for retreats and who seek to live out Benedictine spirituality as oblates, which are similar to members of lay third orders in other religious communities.
While the life of faith of these lay people is strengthened at Saint Meinrad, the monks appreciate the witness that they receive from their guests.
“If lay people, who have families, children, soccer games, sometimes two or three jobs, can pursue a relationship with Christ, my hat is off to them,” said Brother John Mark. “That’s a great witness to us. We rely on each other for each other’s witness. I hope that that makes a difference to the local Church and the larger Church.”
Benedictine Father Noel Mueller has traveled to several states to help the oblates of Saint Meinrad grow closer to Christ.
He journeyed even farther in the late 1960s to serve as a missionary in the mountains of Peru in a monastery that Saint Meinrad founded there. It was later closed after an earthquake destroyed it.
The decade that Father Noel spent in Peru was filled with constant activity, but also prayer in the monastic community in Huaraz, more than 10,000 feet above sea level.
“One time I sat down and figured that I had eight full-time jobs,” said Father Noel with a laugh. “Now, you can’t do eight full-time jobs. But you do what you can. I didn’t sleep a lot in those years. But I was young and full of energy and could channel that energy creatively.
“I have enjoyed every one of my jobs, because if you’re obedient you just pour yourself out in whatever you can do.”
Father Noel later taught in Saint Meinrad’s college, which was closed in 1997. He now serves on the formation staff of its seminary.
A growing number of younger monks are joining the seminary’s staff, and the monastery currently has five novices and seven “junior” monks who have professed vows for a three-year period.
“I think they bring an energy and a vitality,” said Archabbot Justin of the novices and junior monks. “They bring a commitment to their faith. They bring a genuine desire to seek God, which, over the long term, will undoubtedly change the way the life at Saint Meinrad is lived out.”
Brother John Mark assists in the formation of the novices and junior monks. And he isn’t too far removed from his own initial formation, having entered the community in 2002.
“I feel like I could spend the rest of my life exploring what this life means and learning about it,” he said. “I love it. I love this life.”
(For more information about Saint Meinrad Archabbey, visit saintmeinrad.org.) †