Also on the grounds is Mount St. Scholastica Monastery. Except for the eight years she spent in Bethlehem, Sister Paula Howard has spent the rest of her 62 years as a Benedictine here as teacher, administrator and dean of Donnelly Community College, an inner-city diocesan school founded by one of the monastery's sisters.
“The whole spiritual ideal is balance — not totally austere, not lax,” says Sister Howard, reflecting on the Benedictine way. “It's a life given to prayer, contemplation, balance and hospitality.”
“The hallmark of [our] spirituality is balance and reverence for people and things, which exhibits itself in hospitality for the world and everything in it,” she adds. “We don't stay aloof from the world. We invite the world to come to us.”
In their own ways, even the cloistered subdivision(s) do as much. Since St. Benedict was very strong in insisting that hospitality is an essential part of monastic life, says Trappist Father Edward John Mullaney of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass., the abbey's 11 guest rooms are booked every day of the year. Most are filled by people making silent — or at least quiet — retreats.
The Trappists are members of the Cistercian “subdivision(s)” of Benedictines. With 70 monks, St. Joseph Abbey is the largest Cistercian house in the United States. The Trappists lead a secluded life with no apostolic ministry.
“We're the contemplative side of the family,” explains Father Mullaney. “We like to say our ministry is prayer — we pray and work.
“Each abbey is self-supporting by the labor of their hands,” he adds. With farming monks turn to making cheeses, fruitcakes and, as at St. Joseph's, those famous Trappist jellies and jams.
Father Mullaney says the order is growing rapidly in Latin America, Africa and Asia — reflecting the growth trends of the Catholic Church at large. In developed western countries, you have to look a little harder to find such vibrancy.
“We have an important role in the Church, though it's very small,” says Father Mullaney. “We just show to the Church that God is worth it — worth giving up everything for.”
He pauses for a moment, then adds: “We do really model Christian community for the people. We have the time to live the full liturgical life. We're a link with the Church of the past and the Church of the present.”
Maybe Benedictine spirituality isn't such a “niche” aspect of the Catholic faith after all. And maybe its universal appeal is at the heart of its 1,500-year-old success story.
One thing's for sure: On his feast day and every day, St. Benedict is praying for his order — and for all those who may have a chance to draw closer to Christ through it.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.