California Norbertine Priest Shares Thoughts on Multifaceted Ministry
Fatherhood, motherhood, pro-life, pro baseball, construction projects, COVID-19 and Anglican Use are all addressed by Father Alan Benander, O. Praem.
When Vincent Benander entered St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California, 17 years ago, he could not have known all that was in store for him. He knew faithfulness to the teachings of the Church would be involved, but not all the Catholic Major League Baseball players he would meet, the joys and sufferings of extensive pro-life work, or the massive $120-million construction project his community is undergoing.
In addition to Benander’s wide-ranging experiences, he has also gotten a new name. Given the baptismal name “Vincent” after his father and grandfather, his superiors chose “Alan” for his religious name, after his uncle (who is also his godfather), as well as Blessed Alan de la Roche, a 15th-century French Dominican preacher noted for his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. After making solemn vows on Aug. 28, 2010, Father Benander was ordained to the priesthood on June 22, 2013.
For Father Alan Benander, a Cleveland native from a family of eight, religious life has been anything but boring. He recently spoke of some of the numerous and varied experiences he has been a part of, including the June 6 feast day of the spiritual father of his community, St. Norbert of Xanten.
You wrote one of the chapters (“‘Senior Rookie of the Year’ Perseveres to Previously Unexpected Heights”) for the Marian Press book Apostolic Athletes. Tell us a little about your experience with sports, especially baseball.
Yes, I grew up with a father who not only passed onto my siblings and me the Catholic faith and his love and knowledge of math — he was a math teacher — but also his love of sports. I was very much involved in sports from my youth and all throughout my life, especially baseball.
I loved baseball and practiced it very often. My dad and I worked together one summer to build a batting cage in our backyard — a fun father-son activity with a goal of making it to the big leagues. While I did not achieve that goal, I did have some success playing ball, including some good years playing high-school ball and also some college ball.
Sports taught me to endure physical and emotional pains (even humiliations) and the need to persevere through those difficulties: For example, before finally making it onto my college baseball team, I was cut three times (and actually, a fourth time, but, by a special gift from God, the coach changed his mind, kept me on the team, and I ended up having a pretty good year as a senior, oddly earning “Rookie of the Year” honors!).
That experience, among others, taught me the very important lesson of the value of perseverance, something that needs to be exercised in the priesthood and in the spiritual/moral life of every Christian.
You’re from Cleveland, so what do you think of the Indians’ chances this season?
The Indians do not quite have the same firepower, on paper, as they did a few years back. Yet they are still good and have a chance at the playoffs, and if they make the playoffs, winning the World Series is surely possible. Once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen (as shown by the fact that, over the last few decades, so many wild-card teams have won the series). At this point, with the health situation, I just hope we have a season at all.
What do you think of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal?
It was very unfortunate. Cheating should never be done, but especially when so much is at stake in terms of persons’ reputations, honor and income. The fact that the Astros were cheating means that, in all likelihood, they took a title away from another team that would have won, thus depriving the players and fans of that team, not only of the honor of claiming the title, but also the significant economic benefit that comes from it.
I do also feel sad for the honest Astros’ fans, who, after finally getting that title, now have to deal with the embarrassment of having won it in a dishonest manner. I can only imagine how horribly I would have felt if my Cleveland Indians’ team won a title, only to find out later that they had cheated to win.
I have referred to this scandal in my religion classes as an example of a violation of both the Seventh and Eighth Commandments (“Thou shalt not steal”; “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”), because cheating is a form of dishonesty; and, in this case, it very well may have cost many persons, and even another city, a lot of money that was owed to them.
How did you get to know retired MLB pitcher Justin Speier, and did you know other MLB players even before you started offering Mass for the Dodgers and Angels?
Justin, a good man, began coming to our abbey some years back and became a friend to some of our priests. When I was still a seminarian, I befriended him, which was cool for me, not only because he was a big-league pitcher for the Angels at the time, but he was also once with the Indians, and I remembered rooting for him back when I was in Cleveland.
Justin was always very friendly to us seminarians; and, on one occasion, he was even so generous with his time that, on the spur of the moment, he went down to our high school’s baseball field and ran a practice for us seminarians for a few hours. It was a ton of fun! I even recall hitting one of his forkballs out for a homer during this practice, so now I can say I hit a homer off a big-league pitcher.
However, not only was it a small field and I was using a metal bat, but he was also throwing batting practice speed, and he told me what was coming — as if I was stealing his signs! Still, he and I sometimes playfully refer to this time when I “went yard” on him during that batting-practice session.
I also have had the great opportunity to meet and form a friendly relationship with [five-time All-Star] Mike Sweeney, another very good, super-friendly and charitable Catholic man. I really cannot say enough good things about Mike. I have helped out at some of his “Catholic Baseball Camps” in San Diego — and, through those camps, I have had the blessed opportunity to meet a number of Mike’s Catholic buddies from his baseball-playing days. He, too, has become friends with our abbey and our St. Michael’s Prep School community, and one year he kindly delivered our school’s commencement address.
Going from one Irish-American Catholic baseball player named Mike to another, do you know Father Michael Cunningham, FSSP, who had been a pro player before ordination a couple of years ago?
Unfortunately, I don’t know him, but it sounds like we have the same interests, not only athletically, but liturgically. Obviously, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter [FSSP] offers the traditional Latin Mass. While our community’s Mass is that of the Novus Ordo, we include a lot of Latin and use ancient Norbertine chants in our liturgy, so it has a lot of the same “feel” as the traditional Latin Mass — which is one big reason why I was drawn to the Norbertines. Plus, many of my confreres and I often offer the traditional Latin Mass.
I have been informed that Father Cunningham, like all the FSSP priests over the past several years, received great musical training from Nicholas Lemme at their seminary in Nebraska and that Mr. Lemme has an understanding, not only of the aesthetical quality of chant and polyphony, but of their moral quality, too.
That is a topic I have been interested in: how art affects our sensibilities. It’s not just that we have artistic preferences which guide our thinking, speaking and acting, but that the art we are exposed to affects our preferences. It colors the way we think, speak and act, so the Church has instructed us in the general principles of good art. One example of this is in Pope Pius X’s Tra le Sollecitudini.
Even though I haven’t met Father Cunningham, I believe I briefly met Father Burke Masters — who played college baseball before becoming a priest and then becoming associated with the Cubs — at a Catholic Athletes for Christ retreat.
Have you been surprised at how many other priests have athletic backgrounds?
I’m not surprised because I have come to know many men who have chosen to be priests and also enjoy sports. That was one of the things I loved about seminary life, both at my abbey and several years in Rome — getting to know other seminarians who were serious athletes and getting involved in fun (although, somewhat serious) athletic battles with them.
While the priesthood is a lofty vocation, it is one for normal men, and, of course, many men naturally like sports and play them. Sports, somewhat like art, can help train a man in virtue which — if he is called to and chooses the priesthood — will help him live out his priesthood more faithfully than he otherwise would.
Aside from their helpful effects on priests, sports can have a great influence on the moral development of any individual. This is the teaching not only of the ancient Greek philosophers, but also of more than a few important teachers of our faith, including some popes, such as Pius XI, John XXIII and John Paul II. Sports and Exercise: The Catholic Ideal, by Robert Feeney, has more on this point.
How far along are the Norbertines on their massive $120-million building project that includes a large chapel, residential and administrative spaces — and even a separate sewage facility for the growing community?
We are getting close to completion. We hope to officially dedicate the new St. Michael’s Abbey Church in the early months of next year, 2021. Please pray for a successful completion to this very exciting project, one into which our abbot, Father Eugene Hayes, and many generous confreres and friends of our abbey have poured countless hours of very, very hard work and/or monetary support.
The purpose of the new abbey is to provide a very fitting place for the Triune God to be worshipped in the most solemn way possible. In short, it is for glorifying God and saving souls. May all those who contributed to this project be rewarded by God in proportion to their effort and charity!
At the same time, we give thanks to God for the current abbey and for all those who contributed to the building and upkeep of it, especially Abbot Ladislaus Parker (of happy memory) and the other six Hungarian fathers who founded this community [in 1961]. This is the place where my confreres made their professions as Norbertines, as well as the place of priestly ordination of a number of them, as well.
This current abbey will always have a special place in my heart, as well as those of all my confreres. We will look back upon it with great fondness and gratitude, even as we look ahead with excitement and joy to the completion of the new site. It will be good to see what special graces God has planned for us in the years ahead at our new and beautiful home.
More immediately, we celebrated the feast of St. Norbert on June 6, as we happily do every year. St. Norbert is not known to many Catholics, but he was a German bishop in the early 1100s who is a noted ascetic and patron of mothers giving birth. He is also one of the saints depicted in statues on the colonnade in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, so I got to see that when studying there before my ordination.
How have the COVID-19 shutdowns affected your ministry, and have you heard the sadness, confusion and anger expressed by the faithful about being prevented from receiving the sacraments?
I have most definitely heard the sadness, confusion and anger that the faithful felt during this time in which they were not able to be physically present at Mass, receive the sacraments as often (or, in some cases, at all), or even go inside churches to visit Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. My priestly heart truly ached — or, should I say, broke — for them during this time, especially during the most sacred point of the liturgical year.
While I know those in positions of authority needed to make difficult prudential decisions in this situation, I hope that the faithful will never again be prevented from being physically present at the public offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and other liturgical prayers, freely and regularly receiving the sacraments, or being able to visit Jesus in the tabernacle or monstrance.
The faithful are dear and beloved spiritual children to us priests (as shown by the fact that we priests are lovingly honored by the faithful with the title of “Father”), so we priests, in turn, have a sacred duty to love them as our very own children in Christ, for that is what they are to us.
Now, as the situation improves, I am looking forward to the churches reopening and the laity being, once again, given greater access to their churches and the soul-saving sacraments.
What was your typical day like before the shutdowns?
I was working at St. John the Baptist School and Parish in Costa Mesa as a junior-high religion teacher and chaplain. I really like this work and the ecclesiastical ministry in the parish itself through the Mass, confessions and spiritual direction.
Prior to that, I had worked for five years at St. Michael’s Prep as a math, Latin, religion and computer-science teacher; dean; athletic director; and a baseball, basketball and cross-country coach there. I really enjoyed all my years at St. Michael’s Prep and remain in touch with some of the alumni — a small number of whom have gone on to play sports in college, such as Michael Gates, who was a pitcher on USC’s baseball team.
Sadly, but necessarily, we need to close down St. Michael’s Prep at the end of this school year in order to make our move to the new abbey. There is a possibility that it could be reopened sometime in the future, if that be God’s will. We pray that it happens, but in the meantime, we give thanks to God for the several decades in which the school was open, and we pray that all its students have grown closer to God because of the education they received there — and, ultimately, that they all get to heaven.
Did you have a regular parish for Sundays?
Prior to moving to St. John the Baptist parish last August and helping out with the parish’s ministry on Sundays, I had helped out at Holy Innocents parish in Long Beach, Holy Martyrs in Murrieta, Our Lady of Grace in Covina and St. John Henry Newman Chapel in Irvine. The last three are part of the Anglican ordinariate, so I needed to learn how to say Mass using their missal. It is very similar to the traditional Latin Mass, but in English — although allowing for “healthy doses” of Latin. I loved the people at these parishes and loved the reverence of the faithful and the sacred music. God bless those choirs and organists!
With all those varied experiences, have you had time to do anything else?
I was raised to be passionately pro-life by word and example as part of a family of eight children. However, in recent years, I have become especially interested in the pro-life movement because of attending my first Rachel’s Vineyard retreat. Witnessing the indescribable pain caused to women because of abortion is what really rekindled my desire to get more involved in pro-life work now as a priest.
This work has included offering help in post-abortive ministry, sidewalk counseling and praying in front of abortion chambers, and working with other pro-lifers — mostly laity, but some priests. I have seen some very special graces given to women in their painful, but fruitful, post-abortive healing process, as I have also experienced some incredible joy at seeing some women choosing life over abortion. This includes a few changing their minds at the very last second at one of the local abortion chambers.
Sadly, in my work on the sidewalk, I have also experienced excruciating pain at seeing many children lost through abortion — and, in the process, seeing or knowing that, with each loss of a child through abortion, there will be many broken hearts, especially of mothers and fathers. I have had the occasion of spending a lot of time counseling mothers or couples to choose life, only to see them, in the end, choose death for their children.
In different ways, the joyful and sad moments keep us going.
May God bring healing to our nation from this scourge of abortion; may he bring conversion and healing to the mothers, fathers and any others who participated in the taking of the lives of these precious innocents, and, following the guidance of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which exhorts us to pray for children who die without baptism in No. 1283), may God grant the eternal Beatific Vision to the little ones themselves, for whom, though they die without baptism, we hope that God, in his mercy and power, may still have granted, in a special manner, grace in the womb before they died, so that now they may enjoy the supreme gift of the vision of his Fatherly face. Amen.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015)
contains numerous Catholic sports interviews,
most of which have appeared in the Register.
His latest book is Apostolic Athletes.