Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, at the Abbatial Blessing of Dom Michael Ryan, OCSO, the new Abbot of Bolton Abbey, Moone, Co. Kildare
We are gathered for an important and happy moment in the life of this Cistercian Community of the Strict Observance here in Bolton Abbey in Moone to participate in the ceremony of the Blessing of the new Abbot, Dom Michael Ryan. We celebrate this occasion, most appropriately, on the Feast of Saint Benedict, the Founder of Western Monasticism. One of the significant moments in the ceremony of the Blessing of the new Abbot will be consigning to him a copy of the Rule of Saint Benedict to be used by him in guiding and sustaining the monastic community in the years to come.
Saint Benedict lived in turbulent and changing and uncertain times. The collapse of the Roman Empire was a particularly traumatic moment in European culture. The disruption of the political unity which the Empire had produced a crisis of values and institutions. Political disruption inevitably fosters a breakdown of an agreed and common understanding of where values are to be rooted, and society can easily be thrown into a period of moral confusion and decay.
In that confused situation with the breakdown of the Roman Empire, Benedict – together with the movement that grew up around him – emerged as an important figure. He emerged as a light to indicate the way out of a difficult moment of history. Above all he showed that in such moments of political and cultural change and crisis the true way forward is always one which goes beyond the day to day realities of political compromise: through his life, Benedict showed especially how witnesses to the power of the spirit can be the leaven for true and sustainable change.
The political unity which had been created by the Roman Empire and which had held the continent together for centuries began to disappear. Benedict’s response was not a new political agenda but an agenda of faith. Through Benedict’s spearheading, the Christian faith became the foundation of a new spiritual and cultural unity which was to be the foundation of the Europe that existed for many centuries.
For a part of his early years, Benedict had lived as a hermit, undergoing in solitude and silence a period of purification from the fundamental temptations that assail all of us. In that solitude Benedict found a new peace within his soul which would later enable him to be an instrument of peace. Later he began to form around him a monastic community in which the maturation he attained in solitude became inserted into the public life of the Church.
This monastery is a place of solitude and silence and retreat from the frenetic character of our modern society. But a monastic community is never just a commune of individual hermits living together in one place. The monastery is rather a community which is part of the public life of the Church, which even though cut off from the world is called to give public visibility to the life of faith. The monastery is cut off from the world but it is called to give public visibility to the contribution of the life of faith, to the values which must underpin the world and which can keep society together. In its own way the monastery helps permit society to be what society is called to be for the good of human progress.
Monastic life according to Benedict is “a school for the service of the Lord”, not just an interior life distanced from the realities of the world. Monastic life brings action and contemplation together. Monastic life must be lived in such a way that those who have eyes to see and ears to hear can realise that it is only through humility and interiority that we can be more like Christ and thus reach true human fulfilment. Human fulfilment means bringing to fulfilment the image of God that is in each of us, of allowing the image of God that is in us to appear untarnished by self-centredness.
In our Gospel reading Peter asks “What about us who have left everything and followed you”. Jesus promises a reward of “a hundred times over”. There is a danger here that we think of this as a sort of bargaining process with God: we will renounce something, we will put up with renunciation in the hope of getting something greater later. What is really being said here is that the reward of human fulfilment already in this life is proportioned to our ability to attain the humility and interiority which are not just means to attain later rewards, but which are rather real dimensions of what human fulfilment involves. It is through humility and interiority rather than through a desire for power and possession that we understand what it means to be truly human and Christ-like.
Dear Michael. In his reflection on monastic life Saint Benedict pays special attention to the role of the Abbot. Today this community and the community of the friends of this Abbey, along with your own family, gather around you in prayer as you take on your new office. In his reflections about the role of the Abbot there is a sense in which Benedict sees the Abbot not just as an individual or as a functionary. The Abbot must be the personification of what monastery is. The Abbot must witness to and personify within his own life that which is essential and best in the monastic community and calling. There is also a sense in which the words of the Rule of Saint Benedict about the Abbot are a reflection on who Benedict was himself, a sort of autobiography of intent.
Benedict’s indications about the role of the Abbot are an illustration of what authority means in the Church and apply not just to the Abbot but indeed also to the Bishop and to anyone who exercises authority within the Church. The one in authority must above all be one who seeks authenticity in his or her own life of faith. The one in authority must be one who leads and teaches, but the real effectiveness of his teaching will be measured through the effectiveness of witness. In Benedict’s thought there is a strong emphasis on the ability of the one in authority to listen, not in the sense that one would talk today about consensus-building in a torn community. Listening is not a political exercise, but a common search in humility for God’s truth. The Lord does not speak to those in authority by a direct and private line of contact. Benedict’s rule notes that: “The Lord often reveals to the youngest what is best”. This does not mean that the Abbot or the Bishop renounces his personal responsibility of leadership. It means that he dutifully listens to the youngest and most humble. It means above all however that the leader must become in his own heart the youngest: he must become the one with a heart that can wonder and rejoice, can search and dream.
Michael, you are called now to become the guide and the light for this community at times of great change in the Church and in society. Never loose that ability to remain spiritually young with the freshness of heart in the Lord which will enable you wonder and rejoice, to search and dream about what the Lord wishes to attain with and for this monastic community, with and for the world and the society in which we live.
The Church needs monastic communities. Society needs monastic communities, even though society may seem indifferent to you or ignorant even of your existence, Pope Paul VI nominated Saint Benedict, one who retreated into the humility of prayerful interiority of monastic life, as Patron of Europe. He realised that if Europe faces periods of uncertainty and anxiety about its identity and future, what is needed is not just political and economic leadership, but also ethical and spiritual renewal, based not on power-seeking and prestige or even on a search for individual fulfilment, but a model of humility and service, of interiority and seeking the deepest significance of our existence, which our faith in Jesus Christ open out for us.
We pray here today for you, dear Abbot-elect Michael. We pray for this community. We pray with gratitude for Abbot Peter who has led the community for the past years. We pray for the brother Cistercian communities in Ireland, represented here by the Abbot of Roscrea. We pray for a deep renewal of the Christian faith in this Archdiocese of Dublin and in this country. We look to this community of Bolton Abbey as a place where people who wish to seek and dream of what the Christian life means can come for renewal and direction.
We pray today especially for Pope Benedict. He chose the name Benedict as a programme for his apostolic service. We thank God for the humble service that he has shown, especially through leading us to know and understand better the person and the message of Jesus. We pray that the spirit will continue to strengthen him and be with him in the solitude of his ministry.
Dear Abbot-elect Michael. You now embark on a new stage in your life as a monk and as a priest. The words which the liturgy uses at the presentation of the Rule of Saint Benedict say that you are to use that rule “as God gives you strength and human frailty allows”. All of us are aware of our frailty and our limitations. We look at frailty not as an excuse for not doing what we can, but as a realisation that self-affirmation and putting ourselves at the centre do not in the end lead to full human maturity. In our frailty we realise rather that our God is not distant God but a God who comes out to encounter us and remains with us in our lives in the measure in which we allow his strength to work through us.
May the Lord Bless you and the mission you undertake from today onwards.
Notes to Editors
- Dom Michael Ryan is originally from Newfoundland in Canada and takes over as Abbot for the next six years. There are 11 Cistercian Monks in the Community in Moone.
- The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (also known as “Trappists”) is a Roman Catholic contemplative religious order, consisting of monasteries of monks and monasteries of nuns. They are part of the larger Cistercian family which traces its origin to 1098. Bolton Abbey was founded in 1965. It is one of six Cistercian Monasteries (Abbeys) in Ireland today.
- Further information www.boltonabbey.ie