A monastery with falling numbers trying to find more men

Today’s number of the New York Times in the Media and Advertising section there is a story about the Benedictine Abbey at Portsmouth, RI, which is, essentially, aging to death.   I have a sincere hope they can turn the place around.

They are few and they are old and they have no vocations.

12 monks. 5 over 80. The youngest, 50.

They are working on strategies to bring some attention and interest to the abbey.

The article focuses on the gimmicky things, such as a mention of having “taken to the Internet with an elaborate ad campaign featuring videos, a blog and even a Gregorian chant ringtone.”  Of course the NYT is going to focus on the techniques more than the content, as if the “medium is the message”.

Great.  That is interesting.  But it is not the essential thing that will bring in young people.

How about this for an idea.

Of course a new generation of men will use the new tools out there.

Switch back to Latin worship and the Extraordinary Form and then start admitting postulants to train in the old style of Benedictine monastic life.

The monasteries which do this have more vocations than they have room.

Give young men something more than the mere challenge of having to live without a car, or to go along to get along.

And to any young men out there.  Form a group and apply to be novices.  The monks there are not young.

You’ll have the whole shooting match in no time.

I sincerely hope the monks at Portsmouth can turn the numbers around.  We don’t know everything they are doing from that one article.  But I suspect they are not going to accomplish their goals with the same ol’ same ol.  Let it be the real ol, the new ol’, the tested and true ol’.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. EoinOBolguidhir says:

    I almost went to high school there. They were only promoted from priory to abbey in the last couple of decades, and now it’s time for their demise. I was turned off (even at a young age) by the chapel architecture. It should have been the Ampleforth of America. Alas.

  2. MarkJ says:

    Fr. Z, it would be great if you could write them a letter encouraging them to switch to the “old style of Benedictine monastic life”… and do you think we should get involved and do the same? [If they are up on blog, and so forth, as they indicate, they will have seen this. And I truly hope they get vocations!]

  3. jbas says:

    “You’ll have the whole shooting match in no time.” Given their numbers, this sounds like a very real possibility (if they are accepted). While there are some fine new religious congregations and lay movements out there, if God can just get a network of Benedictine monasteries on the right page, then the world will surely witness the building of a new Christian civilization before the end of this century.

  4. Young Canadian RC Male says:

    As a young buck in late twenties, sorry to say but this strategy is not going to work. They can do all the fancy smanchy electronic campaigns they want, but today’s youth are not well catechised, are immersed in a smorgasboard of wealth and prestige, and are bombarded my media and culture that says otherwise, “religion sucks”. Oh and their parents? Well when the parenting style switches to “permissive non-religious friend”, … yeah.

    Also, in developed countries like North America, the youth get that “money talks” and unless you are OK with living below standard, you have to have an over 50K job to live the life that society says is OK. So why would any youth want to give up 1) marriage 2) always having food on the table 3) amenities or whatever they like 4) a vibrant and outgiong life for one that is likely the opposite of all those? Not to mention the Catholics who do know what a monestary or convent is, will automatically think of the “cloistered” kind where you are cut off from everyone. Why separate from family and friends (This is more an issue of poor education as there are monasteries out there that do have the friars, nuns, and monks go out)? Well at least the people that do are genuine believers of Christ and will willingly engage in that life and Christ bless them.

    Finally, many youth today are progressing to the point of having Masters, Ph.D’s , or in my case a professional designation and the skills that go with it. Many won’t just abandon the paths they have gone on after working so many years (unless they get that “calling” later in life) and experiencing the hardships to get there. Even those studying post-secondary degrees in theology or philosophy won’t give up having a decent means or income. Priesthood? No, they’d rather be full professors at “catholic colleges” or teaching retreats and moving up the ladder of academia or the “institutional” Church (via publishing articles or getting positions like permanent Pastoral Assistant, Catechesis Leader, multiple ministries and a paid salary at a parish, etc.) than taking up the collar and accepting a less luxurious lifestyle.

    I do agree with Fr. Z. that if the TLM came into more effect I’m sure you’d have more vocations overall, and I do hope and pray for that! I want one closer to where I live! But the TLM alone would not be enough to stem the tide of our secular North American, Australian, etc. culture. It’s a rabid beast that is pumping steorids into its arm every second these days and isn’t stopping even a moment.

  5. Ralph says:

    To take from the film, Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come” I say “If you will be faithful to Jesus Christ and His Holy Church, they will come.”

    Just ask Mother Angelica, Mother Assumpta and the other traditional orders. I understand they actually have to turn away young people!

  6. TNCath says:

    I heartily recommend the 1983 Sacred Congregation for Religious Life and Secular Institutes document “ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS IN THE CHURCH’S TEACHING ON RELIGIOUS LIFE
    AS APPLIED TO INSTITUTES DEDICATED TO WORKS OF THE APOSTOLATE.” If they simply use this as a guide, they will see a huge turnaround.

    I’d embed the document, but it is much too long. I’d attach the link, but then the post might get lost in the shuffle. It’s easy to find, though. Simply Google the name of the document.

  7. Henry Edwards says:

    Young Canadian,

    I’d not claim that just having “a TLM closer to you” will do the whole job. But I’d think you’d find that, while the assumptions you make may well apply to most youth in our secular society, they do NOT apply to young folks who grow in TLM communities, immersed in not only the liturgy but the devotions and ethos of traditional Catholicism. Not that all of them succeed in passing up all those 50K jobs, but it’s my observation that most of them do find religious life a strong attraction and give it careful consideration in their formation. As a consequence, every TLM community I’ve known about personally has produced vocations out of proportion to any ordinary parish I’ve ever attended.

    In any event, I know of no monastery, male or female, that’s recently gone the route Father Z recommends without being swamped with vocations.

    Whereas I recently heard an older sister–one I know personally to be sensible and well-intentioned–wondering aloud why her once thriving religious order has gone the demographic way of the monastery that Father Z describes, and having no clue that and precisely how they did it to themselves. Seemingly not realizing that, if they offer little more than the same secular life as outside, but without the amenities, then naturally (for the kind of reasons you suggest) there would be precious few takers.

  8. anilwang says:

    The key problem with gimmicks such as Gregorian chant ring-tones is that they emphasize the secular aspects. If you like Gregorian chant, just get a CD or hope on iTunes. If you like singing Gregorian chant, join a choir. It’s certainly a lot less demanding than joining a monastery. Any other secular aspect of Gregorian chant can be found in the secular world with a whole lot less commitment, so why join?

    I remember seeing a 1950s promotional vocations video by for Dominican monastery. It was anything but secular (I wish I still had the link) and instead focused on reverence and submission and loyalty for life and was not afraid to show praying to the blessed sacrament, full prostrations, and praying the rosary as integral to the life.

    This sort of add would especially play well in today’s society since it is so foreign. People thirst for more, but keep being fed pap. It’s no surprise that the fasted growing orders are the most traditional. They are by no means hip and cool. They are what they are, which is holy and eternal and that is what makes it precious.

    To use a secular analogy, the US army ran a very successful series of ads years ago saying the army was “the toughest job you’ll ever love”. They didn’t try to sugar coat it or make it cool or hip. It is what is is, and it’s there if you’re up to it.

  9. CDNowak says:

    “Form a group and apply to be novices. “

    Unfortunately, I think it is probably unworkable without having such a group in place (a smaller monastery in NJ with similarly aged members will probably be closing without a single vocation, despite having had 4 or 5 postulants in as many years).

    It is almost better to re-found these monasteries as they close, freeing the new monks from being formed amid a spirit of doom.

  10. M. K. says:

    I’ve been to Portsmouth – conservative, doctrinally orthodox NO, a few liturgical quirks (e.g. girls in cassock and surplice serving at school Masses), but the monks are good men and their hearts are in the right place.

    It might be hard to “form a group” per se, but I would think that the community will have a better chance at survival if they get several younger vocations at a time – given the present demographics of the community, it would be easier for young entrants to persevere if they had peers in the monastery.

    I don’t know why the abbey school went coeducational, but I also wonder whether that makes a difference – the English Benedictine Congregation has two other monasteries in the U.S. (St. Louis and St. Anselm’s in Washington); the schools at both places are for boys only. I don’t know how things are at St. Anselm’s, but St. Louis (which also has the TLM, but only as of a couple years ago, I think) has done fairly well in vocations – including from alumni. Something about the esprit de corps of an all-male Benedictine high school might encourage young men to think about becoming monks in a way they would not at a coed institution.

  11. anilwang, here is your link:


    That it was not all fiddlebacks and lace, and that people actually were listening to contemporary music and art will have bother a lot of laudatores temporis acti. But so be it.

    –AT op

  12. polski says:

    I think in terms of advertising, I like St. Michael’s Abbey in California’s ad. They need to take a page out of their book. see link. http://stmichaelsabbey.com/abbey/index.php?option=com_content&view=section&layout=blog&id=14&Itemid=116

  13. Fr. Basil says:

    Almost all the sovereign monasteries on Mt. Athos were in the same condition a few decades ago.

    Then they all got an influx of young monks, some who had been trained in other monasteries.

    Now the Holy Mountain in flourishing.

    The late Mother Alexandra of Ellwood City had similar problems until a few experienced nuns from the Varatec Monastery in Romania came to help her. Then Monastery of the Transfiguration really took off.

    Maybe this abbey could borrow a few younger monks from other monasteries who are willing to help revive it?

    Note my plural. This is to keep this community from being simply a carbon copy of the others.

  14. Christophe says:

    St. Louis Abbey has at least 30 monks, and many young ones, who are the traditionalists of the monastery. The TLM has been said daily on campus since Advent 2007, thanks to His Grace, Cardinal Burke. The school is burgeoning, having a record enrollment this year. Go read some of the young monks’ homilies online at stlouisabbey.org, and you’ll see why the monastery is running out of space. The equation is obvious: liberal = decay and death (Portsmouth Abbey and St. Anselm’s Abbey), traditional = growth and life (St. Louis Abbey). “I will go in unto the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth.”

  15. jmgazzoli says:

    As a graduate of St. Louis Priory School and as one who owes his faith to the good monks of the Abbey, I say that though EoinOBolguidhir says Portsmouth should have been the Ampleforth of America, St. Louis Priory School is the Ampleforth of America! Indeed, better, for Ampleforth has gone to the dogs ever since they went co-ed.

  16. Max Hernandez says:

    As M.K. noted, there are three EBC monasteries in the United States. Each runs a rather rigorous preparatory school. Out of the three monasteries, Saint Louis Abbey is the most conservative and the most ahead of the liturgical curve. They are also the home of the Extraordinary Form Oratory of Saints Gregory and Augustine. There are currently six alumni in the monastic community.

    To the first commenter, don’t give up too easily just because of the chapel. The Abbey Church of Saint Louis Abbey is in the round with an altar in the middle. Nevertheless, their liturgy has developed very nicely, and you will not see any girls in cassocks serving at any of the Conventual Masses, which are all served by boys from the school–for vocations, Fr. Z et al. have discussed the wonders of having a strictly maintained crew of serious altar boys. The Saint Louis Abbey Servers are a very tight-knit group of young men often retreating together for spiritual and fraternal betterment, with the Divine Office and Mass (for the most part in the Extraordinary Form).

    I do believe that being an all-boys Catholic environment has much to do with the vocations. Saint Anselm’s also is all boys, but is lacking in other areas and does not benefit from the same liturgical renewal of tradition.

    Saint Anselm’s and Portsmouth are each making concerted efforts to grow, and we must pray for them. Pray for continued blessings falling upon and issuing forth from the Abbey of Saint Mary and Saint Louis. Continue to pray that more may respond to the call to be Benedictine monks, especially of these American houses of the English Benedictine Congregation.

  17. PeterK says:

    here is an Abbey that is thriving. and note how many young men have joined
    and yes they have a preparatory school associated with them



  18. Mark R says:

    Compared with other monasteries 20 plus yrs. ago, the English Benedictine Congregation had some of the better ones in the United States. Now monasticism has taken a more “primitive” turn, which may have sapped some of the monasteries where prep schools and colleges are the main apostolate. The one abbey in St. Louis, however, has had an increase of vocations, as attested to above.
    I really had a wonderful experience visiting the abbey in D.C. in the 1980s. I can never forget it, but truly it is mostly comprised of very old men. There may be a connection here with men in general being little drawn to teaching.

  19. DIgoe says:

    Another alumnus from St Louis Priory School either just or wil soon begin his postulancy at the Abbey of St Mary and St Louis, making it 7 alumni who are now in the monastery there.

  20. MikeM says:

    I think, if pitched right, monastic life could have a particular appeal to young people today. With the world getting so loud and, in many places, so debauched, I think this would be a good time to begin a monastic renewal.

  21. Marysann says:

    I ask everyone to pray for the monks at Portsmouth Abbey. One of our sons is a graduate of the Abbey. He left there with a fine education, a great love for the faith, and a profound respect for the monks. Their chapel may be modern, but there is no padding on the kneelers. You know that you are in a monastery after you attend Mass there!

  22. Martin17773 says:

    You’re all used to anecdotes of this flavour I know but for what it’s worth:

    Tried to become a diocesan priest first: but it was made known to me in time I had to be a liberal Catholic.
    Taught Chemistry for three more years then tried to join a cloistered monastery in the US learned that a significant minority had voted for Obama!
    Joined a well-known teaching preaching order here in Australia and as novice was completely isolated because I was a conservative despite censuring myself as much as possible.

    I didn’t join in a group – but that is easier said than done these days.

    Too many diocese and religious orders want to act as the spiritual face of Caesar and function as QUANGOS.

    I thought I’d done enough homework. But with trust in the Holy Spirit and disbelief that in a time of a vocations desert three attempts could fail . . . . .

  23. Mary Pat says:

    Fr. Damian J. Ference had a wonderful article in the February 2011 edition of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, entitled, “Why Vocations Programs Don’t Work.”

    His thesis: “Disciples beget disciples. If more married couples, priests, religious and faithful begin to take discipleship seriously, there won’t be a vocation problem, because ultimately our vocation problem is a lack of discipleship.”

  24. moon1234 says:

    If they want to learn about advertising their order try this:

    I think it would have a profound effect on the young! Tradition is NOT some old idea that’s time has past. It is a living tradition that connects us to all of the saints/Priests/Religious and ordinary Catholics who have come before us and will come after us.

  25. moon1234 says:

    Imagine what YOUR funeral could be like:

    THIS is what is attracting young people. “I” wish I could sing in, or even attend, a Mass such as this. Granted this is external, but the amount of effort that one would put into this…..

  26. robtbrown says:

    I am firmly in favor of Latin liturgy, incl mass (esp. the TLM), and kudos to places like St Louis Abbey.

    The unum necessarium, however, of any Benedictine abbey is the weekly Psalter, in particular the schedule for the Psalms found in the Holy Rule. I have at times questioned Benedictines on this matter, and they usually replied that St Benedict said that if anyone knows a better way of saying the Psalms, let him use it. Of course, they omit what follows: “by all means seeing to it that the whole Psalter of one hundred and fifty psalms be said every week” (XVII).

  27. Random Friar says:

    I am going to go here with a HUGE caveat: do not enter a monastery, or any sort of religious order or house in order to convert it or change it. You enter in order to be changed and converted – you, yourself- towards God. You enter into an arena of spiritual combat, and you better not presume to be the General, or you’ll find yourself fleeing as quick as a doe-eyed buck private when the real monastery life hits the road.

    Your time will come for leadership. Benedictine tradition urges that the young be listened to, for perhaps that is why they were sent. But do not go in with a ready-made “Marshall Plan.”

  28. robtbrown says:

    Random Friar says:

    I am going to go here with a HUGE caveat: do not enter a monastery, or any sort of religious order or house in order to convert it or change it.

    Agree. Further, don’t enter assuming it is going to change.

  29. DHippolito says:

    Has anybody ever studied the possibility that organizations such as Opus Dei, Regnum Christi and the Legionnaires of Christ are getting people that would normally go to monasteries? If that is the case, then why?

  30. E says:

    “In our congregation, we used to have adoration once a week for one hour, and then
    in 1973, we decided to have adoration one hour every day. We have much work to do.
    Our homes for the sick and dying destitute are full everywhere. And from the time we
    started having adoration every day, our love for Jesus became more intimate, our love
    for each other more understanding, our love for the poor more compassionate, and we
    have double the number of vocations. God has blessed us with many wonderful vocations.”
    – Mother Teresa of Calcutta

  31. Dr. Eric says:

    Clear Creek Abbey is an EF Benedictine Monastery in Oklahoma:


    I remember seeing a program on EWTN in which the Abbot explained that the Abbey was almost too full and they might have to turn some postulants away.

  32. robtbrown says:

    Dr. Eric says:

    Clear Creek Abbey is an EF Benedictine Monastery in Oklahoma:

    And they have the Benedictine Psalter.

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