Diocesan Monasteries, by Ralph Adams Cram (1934)

LIKE the Catholic Faith itself, the monastic idea, while fixed and definite in its essential qualities, is wholly mobile and capable of wide adaptation to changing social conditions. This is the salient mark of the vitality that inheres in both. It occurs to me that this is now a time for the further extension of this monastic idea.

I do not mean that such extension would in any way supersede existing forms of the religious life; rather, perhaps, it might reinforce them. All are necessary, for they are an essential part of the Catholic organism. Each sequent type is as valuable today as when, in answer to the compulsion of life itself, it came into existence. Benedictine, Cistercian, Carthusian, Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, Jesuit orders are all necessary, and it may be said that monasticism is an essential mark of Catholicity, absence of which from any religious organism is an evidence of its lack of verity.

From the layman’s point of view there seem to be certain lacuna; in the temporal organization of the Episcopal Church, and to me these seem to be as follows. There is no provision for the constructive and continued training of young priests “under service conditions” between their ordination and the actual practise of “the cure of souls,” except a curacy. No provision is made for instituting and serving new missions except through the makeshift of lay readers or the imposing on an already overworked parish priest of duties and obligations which ought not to be expected of him. There are hundreds of “weak” parishes that are not financially able to pay a living stipend to a resident priest and that must, therefore, pay “starvation wages,” depend on the inadequate substitute of a lay reader, or go without.

As Fr. Huntington says in The Living Church of June 9th, “In one diocese after another missions are being closed and parishes are unable to maintain a priest or even to hold services,” while Dr. Reinheimer (L.C., June 16th) says, “Only fifteen per cent of our congregations are numerically strong enough to maintain fully trained men.”

The bishops have no adequate mobile arm on which they can rely for mission work, emergency service, ad interim supply, etc. Necessary and well deserved holidays for many parish priests mean that frequently congregations have to get along sometimes for considerable periods with much curtailed services or with none at all. Finally, no just, adequate, or honorable provision is made for what are most erroneously known as the “superannuated clergy.”

In order to meet these lacks in an organization, I venture to suggest the establishment of what, for lack of a better name, I will call Diocesan Monasteries.

What I mean is the creation in each diocese, and in a central location, of a house with adequate garden and farm land, which will be an active center for the supplying of these defects noted above. As soon as they have been priested, young men would go at once to these houses under one-year vows, renewable for certain periods thereafter. Also; these same “superannuated clergy,” married or unmarried, would find there refuge for the remainder of their lives, with sufficient opportunity for continuing their work.

Each monastery would be independent and under discipline based on the Benedictine or Augustinian Rule. Life vows might be taken after a certain length of time, but this is no essential part of the scheme, rather the idea is bring together a constantly changing body of young priests and laymen if possible—living in close contact with old and tried men, continuing their studies, benefiting by association with age and experience, and ready at all times to be sent anywhere and do any-ling within their vocation, at the [orders of their Bishop. So long as they were in residence they would owe obedience to the Prior or head of the house, but when called out by the Ordinary of the diocese they become the Bishop’s men. They would be available to preach missions, take service during the holidays of parish priests or in case of illness or vacancies, or to perform any other clerical functions the Bishop might direct.

One very important work would be the ministering to parishes or missions that were unable to pay a decent stipend to a resident priest. No diocese should permit, as in many cases they do now, “starvation wages,” and where reasonable compensation could not be paid, the brothers of the Community would take charge. In this case the Bishop would direct the Prior to send a priest to the particular parish concerned, who would arrive on Saturday or the eve of a Holy Day, to hear confessions, visit any sick person, say Mass and preach on the following day, and then return to the monastery. All the brothers, whether junior or senior, would be liable for this duty, but enough men would always have to be left to administer the affairs of the monastery and say the regular offices.

Apart from the advantage it would be to the Bishop to be able to command such services, it could only be of benefit to the young priests to obtain ministerial experience in this way while they would have the valuable discipline of living for a time under Rule,, and they would also, as I have said, profit by constant contact with the older men of long experience.

So far as these latter are concerned, if unmarried they should live in the monastery and under the same vows that would hold in the case of the young priests; if married each family would have its own cottage and garden. These elders could serve the altars, take charge of the Offices, conduct conferences, continue instruction when they were competent and perform various clerical duties of management and administration. They would also, when it was possible, do the mission work, and the parochial supply referred to above.

INSOFAR as was possible, the community would be self-supporting. It would have sufficient land for gardens, farm, and pasturage. All its members would do their share of work on the land, in caring for domestic animals, and in the “processing” of farm products. It is perfectly possible, while it would be quite in line with present social developments, that various crafts and types of activity might become a part of the community life. The general idea, then, is to supplement the present diocesan activities, give the Bishop a strong arm for his service, and give aid and assistance both to youth and age. In addition to the service that could be rendered to young priests just out of seminary and to the older clergy who found themselves shelved or without means of subsistence apart from the charity of relatives or of the diocese or Church at large, such Communities as I suggest might serve good ends in furnishing places where young men might try out their vocations either for the monastic life or for the priesthood. Naturally, also, these Diocesan Monasteries would give every opportunity for retreats for clergy and laity, and for conferences on vital subjects; they might also provide homes for boy orphans, giving them both mental and manual training and fitting them for life either in the Church or the world.

In a word they would be self-contained, broadly inclusive communities, specifically Christian in conception, method, and way of life, not only supplementing the present organism of the Church, but providing enclaves of Christian living in the midst of a society from which this quality is fast disappearing. Something of the sort is bound to develop sooner or later. Indeed, in a way it seems already to be in process, though along exclusively secular lines, through the “subsistence homesteads” now being established by the President. Mass living and mass production as we see these phenomena in great cities and capitalistic industry are bound to break up and suffer a change so complete as even to approach reversal in motive and direction, for they are not consonant with human scale.

As Dean Gauss shows so clearly in his recently published A Primer for Tomorrow, purely secular efforts at social redemption cannot have issue in success. It is absolutely essential that, as was the case in the Middle Ages, there must be sanctions that transcend merely human and intellectual processes, spiritual standards and forces that establish codes of right values. Life has now become wholly secularized and largely materialized and on this road we proceed only to destruction.

I envisage these Diocesan Monasteries then, not only as practical and potentially valuable agencies in the active life of “the Church Militant here on earth” and as equally useful for young priests and old, but also, perhaps, as first steps toward a reordering of society along lines more consistent with the Mind of Christ and the avowed principles of the Catholic Church, than are those the world has followed with blind ardor since the Christian Middle Ages gave place to Humanistic Modernism.

The Living Church, July 28, 1934, pp. 171-172.


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