A Tale of Two Monasteries

The Australian-based CathNews web site has been reviewing the major news stories of 2006. Two of those stories side-by-side made for an alarming study in ecclesiastical confusion. The first covered the unconventional conversion of Frere Roger of Taize, the ecumenical monastery in France. The second concerned a group of modernist sisters in Wisconsin who had their vows dispensed from the Holy See. The attention grabber is the name of the sisters’ facility in Wisconsin: St. Benedict Center!

Thankfully, some name changes have happened. No longer members of the Order of St. Benedict, the feminist sisters are now known as the “Benedictine Women of Madison.” The facility is no longer known as St. Benedict Center, but as “Holy Wisdom Monastery.”

The ecumenical bent of the still-professedly-Catholic community was highlighted in 2004, when they admitted Rev. Lynn Smith, a Presbyterian “clergywoman,” to final vows. Note: At the time, they were still considered Catholic religious in good standing. Any disciplinary measures taken against them for admitting a non-Catholic to final vows was kept so discreet that it went unnoticed by the press. In a case like this, that is discreet!

It must have been somewhat awkward for a protestant “clergywoman” to be living in a Catholic community, albeit an ecumenical one. Rev. Smith’s awkwardness was not to last long. In explaining their parting with the Church, the community’s Prioress, Sr. Mary David Walgenbach, said, “We didn’t want our non-Catholic sisters to have second-class status.”

The prioress said the centre, with members from several Christian denominations, will now function as an ecumenical community under its new name. All members will retain their individual religious affiliations.

Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison wished the women well, but is cautious about the future of the monastery. “Such experimental endeavours can bear great fruit for the Church, such as the monastery at Taize,” he wrote last month in a letter to his priests. “But there are very few other success stories worldwide, and thus our prayers and good wishes are all the more important.” (CathNews)

Mention of Taize naturally leads us to Frere Roger. It was claimed by some that this protestant founder of the ecumenical community in southern Burgundy had converted to Catholicism. The claim was denied by his hand-picked successor, Br. Alois.

Br Alois, explained that Br Roger’s path was “progressive and totally new” and therefore “difficult to explain and understand.”

“It is easy to interpret it wrongly,” Br Alois told La Croix.

“To speak of ‘conversion’ in this regard is to fail to understand the originality of what Br Roger was looking for. The word ‘conversion’ is full of history, it implies a break with one’s origins. Br Roger accepted that for some people an individual conversion could be the way but for him and for our community, he preferred to speak of ‘communion,’” he continued.

“For Br Roger, entering full communion with the Catholic Church centred on two points that he never kept secret, namely receiving the Eucharist and the need for a ministry of unity exercised by the Bishop of Rome.”

It was in this sense that Br Roger was able to say “I have found my own Christian identity reconciling in myself the faith of my origins with the mystery of the Catholic faith, without any rupture whatsoever,” Br Alois explained. (CathNews)

So we have a new sort of conversion, one with does not require breaking with our “origins.” Other reports made it fairly clear that Frere Roger’s Protestantism was not being put aside with his embrace of Rome. Toward the end of the piece on Frere Roger, there is mention of a disturbing conversation that Taize’s founder had with Pope John XXIII.

“After John XXIII and Vatican II, he felt that the time for reconciliation [with the Catholic Church] had arrived. He often told us how during his last meeting with John XXIII in 1963 he had listened to what he understood as the Pope’s spiritual testament and he questioned him on the role of Taize in the Church.

“John XXII answered with a circular gesture of his hands: ‘The Church is made up of larger and larger concentric circles.’ The Pope didn’t say to which circle he felt Taize belonged but Br Roger understood what the Pope meant. In other words, you are already inside, just keep going. And that’s what he did,” Br Alois concluded.

Who can vouch for the accuracy of that third-hand account? However accurate the the story is, it certainly reflects the sloppy ecclesiology we have today. There is little talk of “inside” or “outside” the Church. The word “schism” is almost never used (except as a convenient weapon for attacking certain traditionalist groups!). Instead, “concentric circles,” or the terms “full communion” and “partial communion” are employed. Brother Alois’ “progressive and totally new” may be a fit label for this novel nomenclature and novel theology. Perhaps gobbledygook is a better one.