The Order of Saint Benedict

Monastic Topics: Life in Common


Wild and Woolly:
The General Chapter of 1968

by Terrence Kardong OSB            

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It may seem ridiculous to reapply Charles Dickens' label for the French Revolution to the single year 1968, but I doubt whether any year since 1795 better merits that moniker. 1968 was the year when both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, provoking terrible riots in the nation's ghettoes. It was the year students fought the cops in the streets of Chicago and all over Europe. The war in Vietnam ground on, with no American victory but increasing conflict in public opinion. The Czechs attempted to revolt, but the Russian army put a quick stop to that. The Pope issued an encyclical against birth control, and a lot of Catholics rejected it. Last, and no doubt least, it was the year of the "Renewal Chapter" of the American-Cassinese Congregation.

The average person might be excused if she never heard of the latter event, but it was important to the monks of our Congregation. Change was in the air. The Second Vatican Council had mandated an adaptation of religious life to the circumstances of our time. What that might mean for the monks was a good guess. We had already seen a lot of significant changes in the Church's Liturgy and now we wondered what might be in store for our extremely traditional monastic way of life.

In early 1968 each monk of the Congregation received in the mail an extensive questionnaire soliciting opinions on topics ranging from the nature of the abbot's authority to the place of the lay-brothers. Understandably the recipients of those questionnaires assumed that their opinions would be taken seriously at the next General Chapter. No doubt some of them assumed they would be put into law. When you ask people their opinions, you had better be ready for some home truths, especially if they have never before been consulted.

Young Turk

Personally, I had a special stake in the Chapter that year since I was elected the delegate of Assumption Abbey. It was something that I was unprepared for since I was only 32 years old. In most areas of modern life, 32 is not considered an especially young age, but in monastic elections it was extremely young, at least in those days. Pope John XXIII was elected at age 78, and the monks thought that was a bit young. At any rate, I remember that very few monks were present at a meeting that day in December, 1967, when Abbot Robert informed them as a kind of afterthought that they also had to elect a delegate for the Chapter at Shawnee, Oklahoma, the next June. Since most of them were young turks, they elected another young turk, namely, me. I'm sure some of the elders wished they had been present that day to vote for someone else.

To tell the truth, I had no particular qualifications for the job: I had little experience of monastic life, I had never been elected to the Senior Council and I was by no means an expert on the history or theology of monasticism. All I had were a big mouth and a lot of ill-considered opinions. As I was to find out later, that was a bad combination to bring to such an august meeting at such a critical moment in history.

To begin with, I almost didn't get there. Fr. Brian drove me to the Bismarck airport in a fog so dense that we could only see the markers on the side of the interstate. How he avoided running into slow-moving vehicles, I cannot not say. The planes weren't flying that morning, so he deposited me at Annunciation Priory, where I spent the day with the one and only Fr. Stan Sticka. I remember crawling around the construction site of Mary College with him that day. The wonderful Breuer buildings were just rising out of the ground. All the world was new in 1968.

Greenhorn Rube

I got a later flight to Denver, and then flew to Oklahoma City where we arrived about 10 p.m. Being a real greenhorn rube, I had not informed St. Gregory's of my delay. It did not occur to me that nobody on the receiving end would know where I was. Slowly my predicament came home to me. It was the middle of the night; I was 75 miles from my destination, with no way to get there except by car. But God was watching over me that night.

I had struck up an acquaintance with my seat-mate on the plane and he volunteered to drive me to Shawnee, even though he was from Oklahoma City. It was an unusual act of charity, and that fact impressed itself on me as we drove through the night. But it did not exactly surprise me, for the man had told me that he was a member of a Mormon sect who was returning home after a long retreat in the mountains of Utah. We had a pretty serious conversation in which I told him a lot about monasticism. He had emphasized that his particular sect had a theology rather different from main-line Mormonism. One of their main points of difference was this: They did not believe in Jesus. But when we at last found St. Gregory's Abbey and he was about to depart, all I could think of blurting was: "Man, you are a real Christian!"

This problem with me and airplanes and the General Chapter continued the next year when I flew to Caņon City, Colorado, for the continuation of the 1968 Chapter. For some mysterious reason, when I had arrived at the airport in Colorado Springs I threw away my return ticket! The next day I discovered with horror what I had done and called the airport. I told them to look in the wastecan in such and such a place; they did so, and sure enough, there it was. This confirms my feeling that God was watching over me. Only God could protect such a dumb cluck.

So there I was, at the General Chapter in Shawnee, Oklahoma. St. Gregory's had just built a new student center, and the meetings took place in a sparkling new air-conditioned reception room that was ideal for the purpose. The tables were set up in a large circle, with the delegates in a good position to see each other and communicate. It was very impressive. There were about forty men present; each abbey sent its abbot and one elected representative. I also noticed that I was the youngest delegate by about ten years. So I kept my mouth shut -- for the first half an hour.

Actually, I wanted to intervene before that because the meeting started off with what seemed to me a ridiculous event. A delegate rose to give a long, rambling discourse on how each abbey should have public rosary each day and every monk should be obliged to attend. I wanted to get up and say that I could not imagine what this had to do with the General Chapter. We had important business at hand, and here he was wasting our time. But someone whispered to me that this same monk had been making this same speech at every General Chapter for years. The only thing to do was to wait him Out. So we did.

Wild Men

As it turned out, this speech was by no means the most outlandish thing we heard at that meeting. One abbot, whom we will call Ichabod to preserve his anonymity, said he could not figure out most of the complicated questions we were discussing. He said that most people had no idea of monastic matters. When his Baptist friends asked him "What's an abbot?" he told them it was like a mule bishop. Why? Well, like a mule an abbot is usually hard-headed and he "cain't beget his own kind." He said we should be discussing faith, hope and charity.

All the delegates had received a strange, rather insulting letter from one of the monks belonging to this particular abbot. In it, he upbraided us for various things on the agenda, assuming that we would surely make the wrong decisions on all of them. When I asked Abbot Ichabod about this monk, he said: "Some of the Desert Fathers paid guys to walk along behind them all day and insult them. Well, Fr. Bernard does it for me free!"

Insulting letters were part of a delegate's life back in those days. Before a later Chapter meeting, we all received a letter from the "Renewal Committee" of the abbey where the Chapter was to be held. It said that they had looked over the agenda for the coming meeting and found it completely irrelevant and worthless. Therefore, they recommended that we all save ourselves a lot of time and money by staying home. It was not the most hospitable gesture.

But when we got to that abbey, we found out that the Renewal Committee was not the only thing that was out of control. The abbot himself, call him Fred, was totally bored by the whole business of sitting at a meeting for a whole week. He spent a lot of time out on the front lawn in shorts practising his chip-shots. Even during the sessions, Abbot Fred paced around the room, unable to stay put. He, too, complained about the agenda, saying that we were discussing the fine points of monastic theory while he had "guys swinging from the trees." In fact, Fred gave the impression that he himself would rather be swinging from the trees than slogging through the tedium of the General Chapter.

But the meeting was not as boring as I feared it might be. Part of this was due to the personnel. Some of the abbeys had elected interesting delegates, and there were several abbots who were anything but conventional. Perhaps because it was a time of great upheaval, some of the abbeys had chosen abbots who broke the mold of the institutional leader. They tended to be loud, quirky, unpredictable, funny and generally confused. One such abbot made a speech saying that the traditional, strict novitiate should be maintained at all costs. When he was asked how this squared with the rather loose discipline of his monastery, he shouted: "By God they are going to be monks at least for one year!"

Of course, some of the abbots and delegates were "company men" and expressed only orthodox opinions. One abbot and delegate were so like-minded and impressed with each other that they continually echoed each other and complimented each other. Thus Abbot Tweedledee would make a long, soporific speech, and then Fr. Tweedledum, from the same abbey, would rise and say that he agreed with Abbot Tweedledee and wished to expand upon his comments.

Not all the abbots got along so famously with their delegates. One pair continually argued with each other in front of the assembly, not afraid to hang out the family wash. In one of his speeches, the Fr. Homer advocated something or other that his abbot did not like. At that point, Abbot Jethro could restrain himself no longer: "But that's the way the Jesuits do it!" Fr. Homer countered with: "What's wrong with the Jesuits?" "Plenty," hollered Jethro. So that settled that.

Since the work of this particular General Chapter was to dismantle the existing constitution and regulations of our abbeys in view of the renewal of the Congregation, no doubt there was a need for participants who were open to new ideas. Deeply conservative people would find such a demolition process so distressing that it could not be accomplished. Still, it would not be accurate to portray this group as a bunch of flaming liberals. By and large, they were old fogies.

Not realizing this, I created something of a sensation by using the phrase "do your own thing" in one of my interventions. The phrase created a mixture of laughter and puzzlement. One man asked me to define this mysterious expression, and people kidded me about it all week. It was standard 1960s jargon for the college students I worked with, but most of these monks had never heard it. By 1998, of course, it has become intelligible to all Americans and perhaps all English-speakers.

Term Abbots?

Of all the topics that Chapter took up, the matter of the abbot was by far the most inflammatory. When we got into that discussion, the dynamics of the assembly suddenly came clear to me, namely, half of us were abbots and half of us were not. In regard to this topic, the first half wished to make clear that the second half did not have a clue. They insisted that to understand what it is like to be an abbot, you have to be an abbot. Of course, this did not leave us delegates with a lot of ground on which to stand, so we could do nothing but listen quietly.

One after another, the abbots rose to explain that an abbot is not like any other religious superior. An abbot is like a father to his monks, so naturally he must be elected for life. Your father is your father for life, is he not? Furthermore, to have term-abbots and constant elections would create a political atmosphere unsuitable for a monastery. "I will not be made into a political football!" exclaimed one abbot, despite the obvious fact that he was shaped like one.

At one point, a delegate cautiously asked what we should think about the results of the survey. After all, some 65% of the monks of the Congregation had stated a preference for term-abbots. A sociologist in the assembly explained that, for some obscure reason that I have long forgotten (perhaps never understood), 65% really was not much of a majority. Besides, it was said, the delegates had no mandate whatsoever. They were to vote their consciences, not the results of some opinion poll. So much for participatory democracy.

So there was no contest. With half the members of the assembly dead-set against the idea from the start, term-abbots had no chance.

This did not go down well with the monks in the trenches. When I proceeded on to Catholic University after the Chapter meeting, I found myself unable to explain it to the many Benedictines who lived with me in Caldwell Hall. And it made me furious. After all, I had voted for term-abbots. Why should I have to explain why the other delegates did not?

Actually, though, the Chapter had opted for term-abbots when it decided on a mandatory retirement age of 65 years. In effect that guaranteed that communities would elect older men. Not many would take a chance on a young stinker who could not be constitutionally ousted for decades. At a later Chapter, every abbot was guaranteed eight years, no matter how old he might be. So no matter how much our Congregation has piously resisted the idea, we now have term-abbots.

Be Quiet and Vote!

This same question of abbots briefly thrust me into the limelight for the first and only time at the Chapter. When it came to whether the abbot has to be a priest, someone (perhaps it was Tweedledum) gave a homily in which he solemnly intoned that of course the abbot had to be a priest since abbots had always been priests and so on and so forth. By the time I had recovered from the overwhelming force of this argument, someone had handed me a ballot. At that Chapter someone was always handing you a ballot. I think there were some 90 votes taken, all secret.

At any rate, I lost what little there was of my composure and said out loud to my next door neighbor: "Henry, how should I vote?" At this, the presiding abbot, a tough, no-nonsense type, said sharply to me: "Be quiet and vote, Terrence." That didn't sit well with me, but fortunately there was a higher power who was more sympathetic. The Abbot President asked me to explain myself. So I got up and made a speech, the only thing resembling a coherent statement I made during the whole week.

I pointed out that there was something strange going on. Earlier in the day, we had abolished the distinction between Benedictine priests and brothers. Now we were saying that even though the latter were equal, they weren't that equal. I remember adding that such a distinction did not sit well with modern thought. In secular society, it was well-understood that if you could not rise to the top of an organization, you really were not a full member of it. Therefore, we were undermining our new order of all monks being equal.

Apparently this speech was deemed to have some merit, for the ballots were quashed and the discussion reopened. A few delegates found the courage to creep out of the woodwork and make some additional points. As the talk flowed, it became apparent that the problem was not theological at all, and not even historical. In fact in the early days many abbots had not been priests. So what was the obstacle now?

Simply this: Rome will not allow it! Ah, now there's a different sort of problem. Now we admit the true facts of the matter. Because we know Rome will not permit it, we will not bother them by asking for non-ordained abbots. Thus we save them the trouble of saying no; we censor ourselves first. How convenient. But, said others, if we think that we are right, then we really should petition. After all, how can Rome know what we are thinking and feeling unless we tell them? But what if they say no? Then ask again. Finally we voted again and I believe the result was 24-16. The assembly still voted for priest-abbots, but I am convinced that this case showed what can happen when discussion is prematurely closed off.

Since I was the "star" of this particular episode, it is natural that I remember it. Perhaps I do not remember it exactly as it was, but I certainly remember the main gist of discussion. I am sure that there were more important things from that Chapter that I have forgotten. After thirty years, I'm sure I have confused a lot of the details of that whole experience, but I do remember very well that it was exciting. Since I was a participant in several subsequent General Chapters, I can say for sure that this was the most exciting one.

A Necessary Fiasco

In a sense, it was also a fiasco. We spent all our time retooling our rules and regulations, but it was painfully apparent that we were not clear on our philosophy. That was so obvious that a committee was appointed to draft a theoretical statement to be reviewed at a special session of the General Chapter the next year. That was the genesis of Renew and Create approved in 1969. A more logical approach would have been to clarify our theory before reworking our practical rules. But life must go on and if we are to wait for a perfect theory before we act, we will never act at all.

No doubt that Chapter was quite painful for some of the delegates. Many of them were older men who were comfortable with the old order. The past had to be set aside, or at least radically re-examined, and that must have been tough for them. But for me it was a wonderful time. I was young and it was a great time to be young. Vatican II was one of the most re markable reform councils in the history of the Church. Perhaps it was one of the biggest catalysts for change in human history. Change is a young man's game, and I played it with gusto. I can look back now and see that we made a lot of mistakes, but at the time it was extremely exhilarating. 1968: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

This essay originally appeared in Assumption Abbey Newsletter 26:3 (1998; Richardton, ND 58652). Hypertext format and publication here made with permission of the author who otherwise retains copyright.
Update: Thirty years later, at the General Chapter of 1998, the issue of non-ordained abbots was dismissed from the agenda by the Chapter organizers without discussion. Over the same 30-year period, the Cistercians managed a similar issue differently. (R.O.)

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