Learning about shepherding

Attending Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary means a chance to worship with the monks of Saint John’s Abbey. This experience is transformative for many of us. When you are accustomed to watching a single (often elderly) priest process in for Sunday Mass, it is truly stunning the first time you see dozens of black-robed monks process into the abbey church. There are a whole myriad of little details (the sorts of things liturgists tend to notice) that are unique to the monastic liturgy. And praying with the community has given me a new understanding of shepherds in our Church.

One thing I’ve realized over the years is just how much Roman Catholics are still very hierarchical. We have parish councils and finance boards, lay theologians and pastoral associates – but something in our ecclesial DNA still thinks that somehow, the announcement means more if Father says it. I’m not saying this is right or wrong; it simply is. Especially compared to other traditions, we are a people who look overwhelmingly to shepherds – particularly our pastors – for guidance.

While bishops are shepherds, they’re usually so distant that it’s hard for us to internalize it.  Roman Catholic bishops are often like distant family members visiting when you’re a kid – you know that they’re important, but they only visit every couple years or so, and when they do everyone’s in a fuss for reasons you don’t always understand.  The ritual around a bishop’s visit can easily seem ostentatious. This is despite the efforts of many bishops to be as approachable as possible whenever they visit (within their demanding schedules).  However, many bishops never have the luxury of functioning as anything other than a bishop. Rarely do they get a chance to be a pastor; they are needed to be the bishop, often with all the ceremony that that entails.

Abbot John Klassen, OSB, at the time of his election in 2000. Photo: Greg Becker

In contrast, Abbot John Klassen does not always have to function as the abbot liturgically. Granted, there are certain honorifics (like his place in the procession) that don’t change. But very often, he’s simply the monk in the back row coming forward to be a minister of holy Communion. He presides at daily Eucharist (though a monk once told me that it’s not customary for abbots to do so) and he’s the presider who stays well afterwards to chat with members of the congregation. He’s the scientist who still infuses his homilies with as much chemistry as he can. And despite a schedule which must be as packed as any bishop’s, he goes out of his way not only to be approachable, but to approach people. He’s one of the first monks I met at Saint John’s – because he seemingly can’t stand to be in a room without knowing everyone. His very demeanor shows that he is not enamored of the trappings of being abbot, except as a way to serve his community.

And thus, I feel like I know Abbot John, and therefore, liturgies at which he presides become much more meaningful. I am excited, and moved, when he presides, processing in with his shepherd’s crook at his side.  I think this is the feeling we are meant to have when the bishop visits. This feeling reminds me of family holiday dinners where the patriarch or matriarch of the family sits at the head of the table. It is truly a special occasion shared with family members. We pull out the special dishes and the good tablecloth because what we’re doing is important. And truly, the abbot presides not to enlarge himself, but to point the way to the importance of the feast.

The hospitality of Abbot John and the monks warmly invites us to join them at their “family table” for this all-important work of prayer and praise of the living God. All of their liturgies have an elegant simplicity to them, one that is heightened when the abbot presides. It doesn’t feel pretentious; it feels, dare I say, right and just.

I am grateful for the community of monks at Saint John’s, and to Abbot John, for modeling an inspiring way to be Church. I hope to take this liturgical spirit of reverence, of hospitality, of elegant simplicity with me into my future work.

Chris Ángel is an alumnus of Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary and served as an editorial assistant for Pray Tell from 2010 to 2012. This fall, he begins Ph.D. studies in theology (liturgical studies) at the University of Notre Dame.


  1. What a beautiful and thoughtful post. How I long to visit St. John’s one day!

    A side note… Having just returned from a week’s vacation, I am also struck by your words about the things that liturgists notice… I kept having to remind myself that I was on vacation, and that my inner liturgist was as well!

  2. I plan to spend a week at St. Johns in October doing research for a biography of Robert Hovda so I look forward to a good experience of liturgy and hospitality.

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