St. John’s Abbey is blessed to have seven novices this year – four Americans in Collegeville, and three Asians at our dependent priory in at Holy Trinity Monastery in Fuijimi, Japan. It is especially good news that three of the novices in Collegeville are recent graduates of our university who were drawn to the monastery by their undergraduate experience.
I recently asked the novices about their views on liturgy. PrayTell readers will be interested in their responses. I encouraged the novices to express their views as freely as possible. I did not want them to feel pressure to conform to my views or the community’s views. They know, for example, that I’m a great promoter of Latin chant, so I was at pains not to pressure them to play up their appreciation of chant for my sake. I needn’t have worried – one novice frankly said that he doesn’t care much for Gregorian chant, and another said that he appreciates that we use it sparingly, but he doesn’t appreciate it a lot. And they’re both Americans, products of my novitiate classes on chant! Oh well.
Yes to Vatican II
These novices are strong supporters of the Vatican II reforms. One novice said that “the implementation of Vatican II has gone well.” Another said, “It happened, the church has changed and the average person is quite happy with liturgies. It’s too bad if people cannot accept its outcomes.” One novice stated, “One of the great successes of Vatican II was retrieving some of the laity’s rightful roles in the Church. Personally, I oppose hierarchical and unequal structure, and believe strongly in Vatican II’s attempt to retrieve the laity’s role in the Church. What it disheartening is that at times this model seems to be all too dominant still.” The same novice said about ecumenism: “Another success of Vatican II was to start the conversation on Christian unity. We now see that we don’t need to be suspicious of other viewpoints, but can create a dialogue that brings about greater spiritual awareness.” One novice with some experience of the years of liturgical ‘creativity’ said, “Presently things are better than just after Vatican II. There was too much experimentation – e.g. guitar Masses.” (!) He added, “Making changes slowly is one thing I love about the monastery. If you move too fast you will inevitably make mistakes. Sometimes you only get one chance to impress someone or tick someone off.”
The novice master in Japan, Fr. Edward Vebelun OSB, notes that Asians sometimes tend to emphasize established rules and lawful authority rather strongly. In this case, it means that the Asian novices support Vatican II as the direction given by Rome. One novice stated, “I think there is nothing wrong with the guidelines provided by the Council, together with the renewed rites promulgated after the Council.” Another is rather cautious about cultural adaptations which might deviate from the Roman rite: “I do not oppose inculturation, but whatever we do should depend on the teachings of the Church.”
One age-old way to prepare oneself for a life of monastic misery and frustration is to enter the community with the intention of reforming it. There seems not to be much of this malady in Collegeville. The American novices stated that their views about liturgy are about the same as their community’s views, although one of them noted that he wished the music were a bit less technical and complicated. The Asians, in contrast, do see themselves as slightly more traditional than their community. One said, “In the eyes of Americans, I think that my liturgical sensitivities would be seen as rather traditional.” He referred to his objections to intercommunion, his preference that only ordained priests give blessings at the Liturgy of the Hours, and the importance of each priest celebrating Mass daily. Another stated, “There is no doubt that my liturgical sensitivities are more traditional than the community in Fuijimi.” He has strong objections to the inaccurate Japanese translation of the liturgy and to the adaptations in the official Japanese books which are not “a good kind of inculturation.”
Little Interest in the Old Rite
The question of the 1962 missal came up. One of the Asian novices who has experience Mass celebrated according to the 1962 missal would like to attend it more because “it is good to know the history of Mass.” Another Asian favors, rather, a more traditional celebration of the reformed rite: “I do not have a strong interest in reviving the 1962 missal. Our Roman missal today is appropriate to the contemporary needs of people. I suggest using this missal with more Latin Gregorian chant.” The American novices similarly express little interest in the old rite. One of them explained his disinterest by saying that “Eucharist is all about community.” Another said, “It is not part of my tradition of Mass. I would prefer not to see more of it. One of the things I like best about the liturgical texts we currently use is that they connect us to our Protestant brothers and sisters, and it is disappointing that the divide between us will grow because of our new translation.” Another said, “From what I have heard about it, I’m not particularly drawn towards this manner of celebration because I believe it draws on a hierarchal model and exclusiveness that we as a Church have intentionally moved away from.”
I showed the novices the speech of Archbishop Di Noia, secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, which claims that young people today are not as naively optimistic about dialogue with the modern world as their Catholic elders oftentimes were, and they have had such a strong experience of a secularized culture that they are drawn to a more traditional Catholicism including the 1962 missal. I asked if this sounded right to them. One novice said, “It is not true of me. These kinds of complaints reflect a self-centered response to liturgy which is less interested in community and service to others and more interested in what’s in it for them.” Another novice saw such conservative trends in some of his peers, but not in himself: “It concerns me that some young people too readily recite Church teachings, rubrics and rules. Christ was not on the side of the scribes and Pharisees, but rather the sinners and downtrodden.” Similarly, another novice said, “Sadly, I think this may be true for some of the young people choosing to join the religious life today. They seem to want to dig the bones out of closets that the generation of Vatican II worked so hard to put away. I get very offended when I get lumped into this group of new religious that are fearful of culture and believe that we have become too relativistic as a faith community. I believe that in any society or culture, when we begin to feel attacked by others’ values and belief, some will attempt to grab for the perceived foundations of our beliefs and hold onto them for dear life. There is definitely a small group of young people who would affirm what the Bishop has said and be vocal about it, but I have joined the religious life in the spirit of Vatican II.” Another said, “I am not clear on why the bishop said that youth today have an enthusiasm for the 1962 missal. Pope Benedict XVI focuses on the beauty and truth of the liturgy. I think that it is the right approach for the liturgical renewal of Vatican II.”
Follow the Rubrics? Sure, But with a Light Touch
I asked the novices how important observance of the rubrics is to them. One told me, “I am very pleased to be in a place that pays attention to the rubrics. But I don’t consider deviation from the rubrics as having an adverse affect on the grace we receive.” Another honestly admitted, “I don’t pay too much attention to this.” One reported that he likes being able to participate at Mass in Tanzania, China, or Argentina and know what is going on without understanding the language – a common ritual makes this possible. He said about the liturgy in Collegeville, “When the rubrics are followed I feel more comfortable being able to take part fully.” But he’s open to some variance which might help us to establish whether the current directives are adequate. “Without seeing any variation, how could we know this?” On the other hand, one novice said that “it is critical that the clergy follow the rubrics at Mass,” and another stated, “I really hope that the priest follows the rubrics of the Church as revised by the Second Vatican Council.” The cultural differences are interesting: both of these last comments are from Asian novices.
Some Gregorian Chant – But Not Too Much
Most of the novices appreciate Gregorian Chant, but there is no outcry to increase its use, and there is some skepticism about it as well. One novice says about chant sung by a schola, “Anytime music is performed I am less likely to be in a prayerful mode. I get distracted by the spectacle.” One says that he appreciates the musical beauty of chant as part of the Church’s tradition, but “what I dislike about it is that not many understand Latin.” He gives an example: “At our funeral liturgies we sing Requiem as we enter the church. I have no idea what it means and I am far too busy trying to walk and sing to try to glance down at the translation.” One novice says, “I appreciate Gregorian chant as prelude, at preparation of the gifts, and during communion. I like the contrast that it presents to more modern music, and that it creates an atmosphere for reflection. I wouldn’t say that I appreciate it a lot, but rather, I appreciate it when it pops up as sparingly as it does.” This same novice said, “When we sing staple pieces like the Salve Regina it make me feel connected to the previous generations of Catholics and I like this.” He adds that if we did much more chant, “it might lose its freshness.” One novice says that he does not appreciate singing Gregorian chant very much because he is so unfamiliar with it. But he likes to have it in the liturgy because the Church teaches that it is to have pride of place. This novice states, “I want to maintain our practice of basically praying in Japanese, but some Latin chant is still important.” Another Asian novice states that “it is very beautiful and I appreciate it a lot,” but “very few people can understand Latin, so I do not think it is necessary for our small community to use Latin in our daily prayers.” He is satisfied that some common Mass parts are sung in Latin, and that a specialized choir comes to the monastery occasionally for a Mass celebrated entirely in Latin chant.
Mixed Views on Eucharistic Adoration
I asked the novices if they are drawn to adoration and Benediction. “Absolutely!” said one. “I love the sense of mystery.” But another novice stated, “I am not drawn to this. Eucharist is great celebrated in community, but taken out of that context it doesn’t do much for me.” One spoke of his experience before novitiate of weekly adoration at a Benedictine community in a foreign country when he was a Benedictine Volunteer. “It was reflective, but I see our personal prayer time as Benedictines more geared toward lectio divina. I see nothing wrong with eucharistic devotions, but I am drawn toward lectio as my source of personal reflection.” On the other hand, one novice said that “adoration and Benediction, as an extension of the community celebration of Mass, is good for monastic prayer.” Another novice stated that he thinks reflective eucharistic adoration is well suited to Japanese culture.
Why Join Up?
I asked the novices what drew them to monastic life with lots of prayer. One novice said, “This is what I wanted, a life of constant prayer. I want to make my whole day and my entire life a constant prayer.” Another novice stated, “Actually, I think it is the community at St. John’s that draws me to a life with so much prayer.” Another admitted, “I don’t see myself being able to hold to a structure of prayer in a life focused on God outside the monastery. The thing that draws me to this life is that I’m not doing it alone, but with the help of many brothers. I’m not always excited to go to liturgy, but having that extra push from others gets me there in the choir stall, and I’m (usually) thankful for that.” One novice believes that “the seeds of contemplative life have been planted in my heart.” One novice feels “such peace and contentment” when praying with his community.
Pray for Them
All four novices in Collegeville have been accepted for Simple Vows and will make profession on September 14th, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Simple Profession for the novices in Japan will be on the Solemnity of Christ the King this November.
Photo of St. John’s novices: Sue Schulzetenberg, The Visitor, St. Cloud