The Mission of the Houses of Canons Regular
Dom Pius Parsch, a Canon Regular of Stift Klosterneuburg, gave his paper, entitled in German “Die Mission der Chorherrenstifte”, on Feb. 8, 1950 to the Prelates of the Austrian Congregation
His Grace, Abbot General Alypius Linda, has called upon me to lay out my thoughts regarding the current mission of the Canons Regular before this esteemed gathering of Prelates. Let me say first off that I am speaking as a private individual, who is expressing his own thoughts. I am not of the opinion that my suggestions are the only right ones, but I do believe nonetheless that they are worthy to be heard. After all, contrary opinions contribute to the discovery of the truth. There is moreover a difference between theory and practice. Theory can and ought to be pretentious and ideal; practice will reach the ideal by means of little steps.
1. We are now witnessing a turning point in history. The struggle between belief and disbelief grows ever more intense. We do not know how long God will give us rest. We must reflect on this: we ought not sit back and do nothing. The leisurely and carefree life of the monastery of the pre-war period is now already for sometime over. The Holy Father has often said at his Audiences and Fr. Lombardi has often repeated this: religious must change themselves so that they may be able to meet the needs of today, while at the same time maintaining their character. I ask, what are the current tasks of our Stifts and are there other ones that need to be renewed or restored? There is no shame in admitting that our houses ought to be renewed. Every building must from time to time be renovated.
Of course the word “reform” is loaded down by a certain odium since the older ones among us have already undertaken two reforms. There is a two kinds of reform: one which comes from above and outside and is dictated, the other which comes from below and within and is voluntarily planned. If a house really wants to renew itself interiorly, the better and more far reaching program is the latter. The external reform of a Stift will fail since it pays too little attention to the fundamental goals and tasks of our Order. This kind of reform will only be able to give an external ordering to our Stift, but it will not be able to provide us with the wherewithal to meet our contemporary mission. If the house has no clear goal and no vision before its eyes, it will not be able to carry out its proper work and its members will at best work side by side and often even against one another.
2. If we desire therefore to renew our religious house, we need an blueprint; we must sharply focus on the goals of our Order. We must see the modern mission of our house clearly. This blueprint can be beautiful and ideal, but it may not be a utopia, which is impossible to realize. It must be up to date and contemporary, humanly possible and not try to do everything all at once.
We are religious. The Canonical Order belongs along with the Benedictines to the oldest forms of religious life in the Roman Church. Every other successive order and congregation has a specific goal in the Church: the sons of St. Francis care for the poor, the Piarists and Salesians educate the young, the Redemptorists preach parish missions, missionaries spread the Gospel abroad, etc. This however is not the case for the Old Orders. They want to pursue religious life without a secondary goal. These two orders do however distinguish themselves from one another in essential ways. The Benedictine is a monk, who as a religious is set apart from the world and is originally a layman; a priest therefore ought not be a monk since the priest has on account of his ordination duties and obligations in the world. The difference between a Benedictine and a Canon can be thus expressed: the Benedictine is in the first case a religious and then, so far as his religious life allows, a pastor of souls. The Canon is first of all a pastor of souls, who for the sake of improving his priestly service, is a religious.
Already from the beginning, since the time of Augustine and Chrodegang, the Canons Regular have been priests leading an ordered common life. Priests of a given city ought to live in community; such is advantageous for the priests as well as each individual’s pursuit of perfection. Bishop Chrodegang, who actually founded our institute, had the right principle: aut canonicus aut monachus. It is not good for a religious to live alone. He ought to live in a community, whether as pure religious or a pastor of souls. This then is our specific task: to combine the common life with pastoral work; pastoral work in the broader sense, not only parochial ministry. But the latter self-understanding in not excluded.
The houses have achieved much in their Cura ordinaria and will be able to achieve much more as God wishes. I wonder, do not these two tasks contradict one another? No, they can be united; only the two extremes must be avoided. Religious life does not demand that man must leave the world. It demands only the keeping of the evangelical counsels, which can be lived in the world. The religious of the early Church lived in their families and they built communities and families through their striving after perfection. They practiced constant charity and the helpful care of souls. We think of the widows and deaconesses. The two goals: religious life and care for the building up of the Kingdom of God let themselves be easily combined, if the assistance of the common life is added to them. Admittedly they must be deliberating bound.
The religious life of the Canons is not its own goal like that of the Benedictines, but it is a big help to it. The religious life of the Canon must be so qualified, so that the care of souls may be possible; the care of souls however ought to be so ordered, so that religious life, the common life is still possible. The religious life of the Canons ought to keep away from an overly strict approach. Rather it should leave one with enough time and energy to care for the salvation of souls. The pastoral work of the Canons may not be permitted to be so ordered, that religious life and the common life are absolutely impossible. Here we already have two boundaries beyond which we should try to go. We ought to avoid isolated, remote parishes, which are distant from the community, since a Canon cannot lead the common life in these circumstances. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons why so many Canons are not really proper religious. If one lives for years or even decades away from the community, one is really not a religious.
Superiors must therefore seek the ways and means to reintroduce these alienated brothers in the community. Every alienated brother should always find a brotherly reception in the community. There must be places ready for them, so that they may be able to spend days in the community. Obviously they must be permitted to participate in common meals, the choral office and the Mass. Still more, there ought to be monthly get-togethers organized in which not only spirits are renewed, but also fraternal ties can be strengthened. It must be obligatory to participate in these gatherings. On this point the Superior must place great emphasis.
I noted that the life of the Canons ought not be excessively strict, as it is and ought to be practiced by monks and friars. The lifestyle of the Canons may be that of gentlemen. But it must still be religious life, which they lead, not just the appearance of it. But we are entitled to say that this kind of religious life is the most moderate among all the orders because we are pastors of souls, who simply lead the common life. Our way of life can be happily compared with that life, which Our Savior practiced with his Apostles. We know that Christ avoided every kind of excessive strictness. He said himself “John (the Baptist) neither ate nor drank, the Son of Man eats and drinks” (Mt. 11:18f) (that means to live completely normally). We are permitted therefore to lead religious life moderately; this applies to eating, drinking, housing, dress, sleeping, discipline, the way in which we interact with other people and our very way of life. We are allowed to take trips and go on vacation. We may do all of these things, but not as worldly men. We should even be different from diocesan clergy.
3. Religious Life. Now we are building up a spiritual house, an ideal religious house of Canons, which has not yet been fully realized – as can be seen plainly. But we must behold the ideal in order to draw closer to it.
I ask what is the most important and abiding goal of our houses? A monastery is the Church, the Corpus Christi mysticum, the Body of Grace (Gnadenleib). That is our highest task against which all others must take second place in our efforts, in our activities, in our esteem. The monastery is the Church in the true sense of the word. Just as grace is the living element and substance of the Church, so too must grace be of the highest concern for the community, so that the members may live rightly in profound and abundant grace. The monastery or religious house is the battery of grace, which is filled with the electricity of grace and must always be filled again with grace. This must be the greatest concern of the head and members of the community: “That they have life and have it abundantly”. “I use the following example from human affairs because of your weak human nature” (Rm. 6:19); we ought to have at least the same attentive care for grace as we do for the temporal goods of the community, the care of souls, art, scholarship and theology; at the very least the same care. Even that is really too little.
The monastery must therefore be a place of authentic and true piety, grace is all wrapped up in piety. The house must breath a deep religiosity, so that everyone who comes into contact with the house, feels the breath of forgiveness and pardon and the surrounding city or place may be built up by this piety: the city on a hill, the salt of the earth. The monastery will thus be valued as a forgiving intercessor and Spirit-bearer, especially to those who are sick or marginal. These forgiven ones are after all more precious to God than the learned and the sophisticated, artists and orators.
The Church in miniature, the religious house, is the Body of Christ, which is visibly expressed in the monastery and in the chapel. These two must truly be an image of the Bride of Christ in their order, style and taste.
And the members of this body of grace are the religious, who must be filled with the substance of grace, but even more so. These are the necessary and useful things, which have so much grace.
But there is still another important consideration. Grace, God’s life in us, may not remain isolated in an individual, such that every member of a monastery looks after the life of grace for himself and spurns the needs of the others. God desires this very life to be introduced into the community. The community is the Church. But again it is not as if we are all united in the Church abstractly. No, God has placed each Christian in a specific concrete community, which is specifically for him the Church. The Canonry, this community of grace, is the Church for us. In other circumstances it would be the family or the parish. I am saying that a monastery is a qualified and chosen community of grace. A monastery can approach the ideal of the Church since therein one finds Christians, who have been pardoned and chosen, united and living together for the expressed purpose of serving God and striving after the life of perfection, which includes not only the fulfillment of the commandments, but also the evangelical counsels. It must therefore be a feeling of elation, a joy, to belong to such a privileged community.
This community of grace likewise bears a concern for each individual. He is borne and supported by the community. The community has moreover the responsibility for every member and does its share to help each member grow in the life of grace. The consciousness of the community of grace must also be promoted and expanded in the monastery: we are a brotherhood, joined fervently before God, like hardly any other on earth. As a finger belongs to the hand, whether it so wishes or not, so we belong together.
However it is clear, we must make this a conscious, loving and caring community. Since however grace is the source of our community, we must always return to the sources of grace.
The community of grace of a monastery must have three focal points: the Eucharist, prayer and the common table. From these we must build our fraternal communion.
a.) The center of our monastery is the altar. Before it we have professed our religious vows. From the altar our religious life, our common life must take root. The Eucharist is nourishment for the life of grace, just as daily meals are sustenance for the body. Now it is not the case that the Eucharist ought to be the object of private devotion of some people. From Christ onward, the Eucharist is thought of as a communal celebration and St. Augustine always emphasized that the function of the Eucharist is to weld together the community of Christians. What would Christ or Paul or Augustine say if they were to see us offering private Masses in every corner of the church, while the Chapter Mass is left to the Juniors alone and not attended by the Canons? St. Paul’s words fit very well for a monastery: “We are one body, though many, because we have all received of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).
Here we come to a point, which absolutely pushes us to clarity: the community’s Mass (the Chapter Mass). It must be the case that the Chapter Mass is the high point of the community’s life. It must be as beautiful and solemn as possible. Here the heart of the community is struck; it is the sublime cult of the worship of God in the monastery. May I speak a candid word here? The Mass is a communal celebration. The private Mass is a weakness of the Middle Ages, which we ought to at least recognize as such. Is it not ridiculous for one to pray the office in common, but when it comes to the Eucharist, the memorial of the Lord, to “read” a private Mass in some corner of the church and avoid the communal celebration of the Chapter Mass? Such behavior shows what little community spirit we have.
But let me say at the same time, we are not really personally at fault since this is the legacy of the past. The new statues prescribe that the Canon ought to participate in the Chapter Mass in addition to reading his own private Mass. That is practically impossible or at least it is a heavy burden. If we meditate for half an hour, pray Laudes, Prime, Tierce, and should participate in the Chapter Mass we will be continually occupied from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.. Beyond that we still must say a private Mass. Two Masses cannot easily be celebrated well. I consider praying the Rosary, meditating or just praying the Breviary during the Mass to be an abuse of the Mass. Here is the weakness, which calls for change.
I used to always go to the Chapter Mass; but the priest, who does not daily read the Mass, is considered to be an impious priest. A Benedictine celebrates two Masses daily, a private Mass and a Chapter Mass, and he suffers heavily under this burden. Perhaps we can obtain permission to concelebrate occasionally. I am convinced that the foundation and cornerstone of our renewal of religious life is the common celebration of the Mass. So much power, unity and brotherhood would flow out of this focal point for our religious life.
b.) The second focal point is the choir office. It is the specialty of the Old Orders, who govern their lives and days according to the rhythm of the Liturgy of the Church. The Liturgy of the Hours is like a golden veil which adorns the whole day and sanctifies every hour of the day. Giving praise to God in the name of the Church and praying and pleading for the Her needs is our important task. How great indeed are the needs of the Church! We must only think of the Church in Eastern Europe, where hundreds of priests are imprisoned. For them we ought to be praying. We know also that prayer is the great means by which we beseech God for His grace and blessings and moreover the prayer of the Church is more valuable than private prayer. This service gives us our honored name: Chorherren (trans. note: “choir lords” – the German name for the Canons), not slaves of the choir, but lords, masters, kings of the choral office.
Unfortunately we all beat our breast because we treat the choir like a tiresome obligation, and look upon it as a matter of such small importance, that we believe we are permitted to disregard it for the most minor reason. One must fill the Juniors with majesty of the choir office. (Psalms, the life of prayer…)
c.) The third focal point of the community is the common table; there we ought to grow in our humanity, together sharing our needs, concerns and joy. The superiors should take great care to ensure that this aspect of the common life is as friendly and comfortable as possible. The brothers ought to feel good about the common meal and the refectory. When this is so, they will not absent themselves from the table and seek a refuge with others families.
These are the focal points of our brotherly community of grace: altar, choir and table; the Eucharist, prayer and fraternal charity. If we care for these with affection, we will lay the groundwork for a true reform of the our houses. Some perhaps are shaking their heads since I have not treated other things, which they consider to be of major importance. Nonetheless I affirm what I have said: these three things are the sources of authentic community.
d.) But I must still speak about an important point regarding renewal: the external sign of grace is love – fraternal charity. I have not right to judge how well fraternal charity is practiced in the houses of our congregation. But I believe that a renewal would do good for every house. Is our monastery a house of brotherly love? Does one feel, when one enters, the breath of charity? Everyone would like to give his own answer to this question.
How is our care for guests? How well does the Benedictine motto “Hospes tamquam Christus” apply to us? How do we treat our alienated brothers? Do they really feel that they are in their Father’s house when they visit? How well do we treat the brothers who are sick or old? Should we not treat them as Christ instructed: “I was sick…” How do we treat the poor? As a result of our poverty have we stopped caring for the poor? But we are not allowed to let our care for the poor slumber since this has always been one of the great tasks of a monastery. And what about our mutual fraternal charity? Here we need to speak about the office-holder in the community.
The office holder may not be the pasha, upon whose generosity everything depends. On the contrary he is the executing, caring hand of the prelate: Sine murmure serviant fratribus suis. What Christ taught through his mandatum at the foot washing, ought to be held before the eyes of the office-holder always. He is the servant of his brothers, who ought never to think only of himself. The happiness of the community depends in large part on the loving service of the office holder. The office holder, whether he has care for the kitchen, the household or the finances, is like the mother of a family. Office holders, who lack this kind of love – though the may still be otherwise diligent in carrying out their duties – are a cancer of the community.
The common life in the parishes ought to be so arranged as to make religious life possible: fewer parishes and these ought to be so organized so that they become little Canonries with the common life: some of the choral office, house rules and a common table.
The alienated brother remains a religious and since he can be in difficulties, the superior must treat him with special consideration and he must be always invited to return to the family life of the community.
Religious life was the first of the two tasks of our institute; we want to lead a moderate, but exemplary religious life. This is the precondition and foundation for the second task: care of souls. I say that a well ordered religious house is itself already engaged in the care of souls: if the faithful see how we hold our worship of God and choral prayer, how we radiate love of neighbor, how we have one heart and one soul, then they are edified. Unfortunately it is often the case that the place or city where a Stift is located are often not terribly pious. This is often the fault of the religious community because they do not give the inhabitants a good example.
People today are more critical than they used to be. They are irritated by lukewarm religious and lazy priests. Pathetic and lifeless religious houses, which are now dragging out a miserable existence, will have not place in the Church in the future.
We already practice the true care of souls through our religious life and the parish of the Stift. But we Canons ought to be pastors of souls for the simple reason that it is the foundations of our vocation and this applies to everyone, no matter what his responsibility is, e.g. office holder, professor. It ought not be allowed that an office holder does not preach or is not able to celebrated the conventual Mass. On the other hand we Canons must make our parishes into models for others.
A Stift has moreover the task to form priests for specialized pastoral work, especially those things that diocesan priests cannot so easily do. The superior is able to study the special abilities of his priests. One of these could be a worker priest, another work in youth ministry or in a hospital. It is a wonderful for a monastery to be able give each member the special formation he needs to carry out a special ministry and through it give honor to his community. (The Jesuits could be a good example for us.)
Furthermore it is important that each Stift undertakes a modern specialized ministry, which the needs of our time and our land require. I would like to offer an example, which I would prefer not to use, since it might appear that I am speaking “pro domo”. But I will nevertheless offer the example of my special task. Stift Klosterneuburg is a center of an activity, which is now known throughout the world. Wherever one goes in the world, everyone knows Stift Klosterneuburg as the place from which the Volksliturgische Bewegung (the Popular or People’s Liturgical Movement) radiates. Neither the Verdun Altar nor our wine has made the Stift as well known as the Volksliturgie. Naturally they all imagine that the whole house embraces this vision and unanimously works for it. That is not the case, but in this the Stift certainly does have a special task on which it is able to work.
This is certainly not the place to speak about the meaning of the Volksliturgie in the Church. But this I can say for sure: Volksliturgie is not a fade, which will shortly disappear like others that have come and gone. Some of the basic ideas of the Volksliturge will be the abiding thought of the Church. The active participation of the people, Bible study, the understanding and appreciation of the Mass, the renewal of preaching, the people’s breviary, grace-filled piety, living parishes and so forth are the right values by which we can go out and meet the needs of today and renew Christianity. The Volksliturgie has already withstood the trial by fire of the Nazi period, when no other means of supporting the religion of the people was available: no groups, no religious instruction, no newspapers.
In this we Klosterneuburgers have a talent with which we could run wild. It is and would be the special mission of our house, if all the members of the community would join in. Not only are we able to be active in pastoral ministry well beyond the borders our country through publishing and printing, magazines and lectures, we could be a true mountain of God on the edge of the big city, which we would influence through our courses, retreats, conferences and Masses. Likewise we must also realize this vision in all our parishes, in their liturgies and in their Bible studies and thereby display our great pastoral effectiveness.
I have deliberately chosen this example since it shows how a Stift is able to be both contemporary and at the same embrace a task which springs from its very essence. Let us see what happens to the Canonical Order, when it draws living water out of its own ancient wellsprings of the Bible and Liturgy, thereby following the example of St. Augustine. What might other Orders do if they had such a winning line-up (I speak here in human terms)? Or what shall we accomplish either in our house or in our order with such a best-seller? It would be the special mission of our house and perhaps of all houses of Canons Regular.
Let us look at the Stifts in Austria: they all seem to have the same profile: a little religious life, some care of souls. Are we better at the care of souls than diocesan priests? Do we do anything that is really extraordinary? Let me say that in times of the great battle of Hell against the Kingdom of God half-heartedness and lukewarmness are completely unjustifiable.
Therefore the Stifts must look for contemporary ways of fulfilling their special tasks, which safeguard their just place within the diocese. The Stifts must be able to defend the mountain of God throughout the area in which their example shines brightly. All our Stifts are spacious and have enough place for classrooms, retreats, conferences and lectures. This is how is would be, if the Stifts of the Canons Regular would make the Bible and the Liturgy the highest priorities: we would open up the Bible for the people through Bible studies and courses and we would give the people the Liturgy as Volksliturgie. These activities could be another aspect of religious life. But only if it comes out of the peaceful way in which one lives his life. We must make a name for ourselves. Every Stift must radiate something of religious worth.
So we ought lead the way with gentle tenacity, if God gives us the strength and the grace to do so, and strive to realize the vision of the Stift of tomorrow.