Comment Opinion & Features

The booming monasteries that are running out of cells

Members of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas (Facebook.com/texasmonks)

Among the most startling aspects of the post-Vatican II era of the Catholic Church has been the dramatic decline of vocations to the religious life in the Western world.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the number of religious priests in the US declined from 22,707 to 11,326 between 1965 and 2018, and the number of religious brothers dropped from 11,326 to 3,897, all at a time when the overall Catholic population increased.

Those communities that defy the trend and are blessed with quality younger vocations typically have three common characteristics: living and praying together in community, wearing an identifiable religious habit, and fidelity to the teaching authority of the Church. While acceptance requirements for these communities vary, they are typically looking for a younger man (under 30), a practising Catholic who is habitually in the state of grace, and a man willing and able to embrace the challenges of religious life.

Candidates may come from any part of the US or outside of the country and be of different ethnic backgrounds, and they typically come from stable Catholic homes, where the practice of the faith was emphasised and virtuous lives encouraged.

Such candidates will, in turn, be attracted to traditional orders, and, in speaking to specific members of individual communities, be attracted by additional factors as well.

The Monastery of Christ in the Desert of Abiquiu (christdesert.org), New Mexico, has enjoyed remarkable growth and is today home to 60 monks with an average age of 34. They have had to delay accepting further applicants, according to Brother Benedict, the community’s prior, as they don’t have enough cells to accommodate more monks.

The monks follow the Rule of St Benedict, engaging in manual labour to sustain their needs and praying throughout the day from 4am to 8pm. While Brother Benedict has been happy during his 42 years as a monk, he admits it’s not for everyone: “If you’re not called to this life, you’ll find it difficult. We have ‘short sleep and long prayer’. But for those called to it, it is heaven. It is unbelievably beautiful.”

Central to the community’s success, he believes, is that “We’re a joyful community, and joy is very attractive. We’ve had the same superior for 42 years [though he has just retired from leadership], which leads to stability and continuity.”

The Brotherhood of Hope (brotherhoodofhope.org), headquartered in Boston, is a community of religious brothers which evangelises college students at secular schools.

It will mark its 40th anniversary in 2020. It has more than 20 professed members, and, according to General Superior Brother Ken Apuzzo, God is using the community “to bring about a renewal of brotherhood”.

The brothers’ habit is a light-coloured shirt, modelled on Filipino formal wear, with an anchor on the pocket, symbolising hope. With it, they wear black trousers and a crucifix around their necks. They begin their day with morning prayer, Mass and Adoration, and then head out to college campuses to evangelise young students.

Brother Parker Jordan, who made his perpetual vows in 2014, believes that young people are attracted to the community because of its common life, fraternal bond and mutual charity. They also marvel at the brothers’ vow of consecrated chastity. He said: “They see we are not in sexual relationships, but are happy. It baffles them. They come to see that for us Jesus is enough.”

The Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving, Texas (cistercian.org/abbey) was founded by Hungarian Cistercians in the 1950s and today operates a prep school for boys. Somes of its 27 members teach at the University of Dallas and help out at local parishes. They keep a full monastic schedule, and wear the traditional Cistercian habit, a white tunic with a black scapular.

Vocations to the community were once sparse, says Abbot Peter Verhalen, but that changed in 2003. “We had three guys come each of five years in a row,” he explained. “They were excellent young men, happy and healthy, and of the 15, 11 persevered to ordination.

“When young men discerning a vocation come to us, they see other young men in the community who are talented, athletic and pious, and they want to join. It’s been a snowball effect.”

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California