On 5th May Br Joseph Benedict made his Solemn profession of vows during Mass in the Abbey Church. In due course, we will publish a full photo gallery and a story of the day, but for the moment, by request, below is the welcome and homily of Fr Gabriel.
Fr Gabriel's welcome
On behalf of our Abbot and the monastic community, I welcome you all to this solemn profession Mass of Br Joseph Benedict Donleavy. I would like in particular to welcome his parents Anne and Bernard and most if not all of his seven brothers and sisters: Rebecca, Stephanie, Felicity, Jennifer, Hugh and Christopher and an especial welcome back to his youngest brother Peter who was in our school here. I welcome Br Joseph’s other family and friends, thanking you all for the efforts made to be here.
It is a particular joy too to welcome Sisters Maria and Audrey representing Sr Josephine Mary and others of the monastic community of Hyning and Mother Andrea and sisters from Stanbrook, our nearest monastic neighbour and a contemplative enclosed community which dates back like ourselves to the 17th century – your next door neighbourliness to us, sisters of Stanbrook, represents one of the greatest current blessings of our monastic life and presence here. As all are aware Ampleforth is currently undergoing a particular time of trial and challenge and I bear witness and give thanks to the communities of Stanbrook and Hyning who stand by us in this present time. I think today is the most difficult day of Fr Abbot’s long exile and absence, because he so wanted to be here.
I also welcome Brother John of St Gregory’s at Downside, the first house of the Congregation and the group of Manquehue oblates from Chile, though more immediately from Downside, who are linked in a spiritual communion and juridical consociation with Ampleforth and all the houses of the English Congregation.
I would like to name in particular Sisters Therese and Marion of Stanbrook as well as Br Augustine of Belmont in absentia, who have shared Br Joseph Benedict’s studies variously in Scripture and Philosophy, and former Br Alberic, who accompanied Br Joseph Benedict in all the studies of these years of formation and whose presence here says much and is a particular joy. Indeed welcome back.
In preparation for the abbatial election of 2005 we had a talk from then Abbot Hugh of Pluscarden now Bishop of Aberdeen who suggested that in the questions for a new Abbot in the rite of blessing such as ‘are you willing with God’s grace to undertake the duties of your calling’, he could see scope for adding some others such as ‘are you ready to spend hours of your life waiting in airport departure lounges as you travel on abbey business?’ and ‘are you willing to spend 90% of your time dealing with safeguarding and other such intractable and insoluble matters?’ How true. But dear Brother Joseph Benedict I would like to add to the list of questions which comes later in your rite of profession, this one ‘which would be your favourite subject and teacher of the past four years’; in the presence of those who have taught you Philosophy, Human Formation, Liturgy, Patristics, Church History, Latin, Greek and one who would have also wished to be here, your teacher of Scripture, this is a question about which I have no doubt you would wish to ponder carefully before answering and of course that answer would have to be Church History. This comment, however, gives me my way of finally mentioning and thanking Fr Paul Shaw, your teacher of Philosophy, who indeed taught you and Sr Therese yesterday, then returned to his busy duties in his parish in Chester, is now here for your profession Mass, then straight after and before even a crumb of lunch has to return for the Vigil Mass of Sunday in that pesky parish, which keeps him so much from his real work in Ampleforth. Fr Paul, you are my last yet heartfelt welcome and thanks for being here today at this ceremony, which means so much to us all and for all you do here as teacher of Philosophy.
A further thought: the oldest monk of Ampleforth (technically former monk), Fr Timothy Horner, is being buried today in St Louis Abbey in the United States. He went from Ampleforth as one of the founding fathers and the first Headmaster of the school in St Louis. There seems somehow a providential connection between him, a very remarkable and faithful monk and priest, his funeral and our ceremony today, which across an ocean is nonetheless taking place in the monastery of his final profession. I think he is praying for us and for you, Br Joseph Benedict.
Thank you then indeed to all here present for joining us in praying for Br Joseph Benedict who is to make his solemn life profession. I apologize for a double homily today but I promise that the second one which will follow the gospel has been time adjusted accordingly, though you may not think quite sufficiently. My point here Br Joseph Benedict is that you are here today with two families – Donleavy related and Ampleforth related (your Joseph and your Benedict), both of which have a central importance and role to play in the work, the sacrificial offering and the consecration of today.
The readings for this Mass for the life profession of Br Joseph Benedict, readings which he has chosen, focus on the two central themes of monastic consecration and of monastic communion or community.
From the book of Acts we heard the description of that first apostolic Christian community in the days after Pentecost: ‘the faithful all lived together and held everything in common’ and ‘they went as a body to the Temple every day’. It was therefore a life consecrated to prayer and it was a life lived in a common life. St Paul in the second reading, which came from his letter to the Philippians, urged those early Christians, to whom he wrote, to be united in their convictions, that is their faith, and to be united in their love, that is their life together. He wanted them to matter to one another.
Another way of describing a life consecrated to prayer, is to say that it is a life lived longing, searching, yearning for something: longing, searching, yearning of course for God. This came clearly in the responsorial psalm: ‘My soul is thirsting for God, when can I enter and see the face of God … Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God.’ Without this monastic life is a pretence and an empty shell, a curse more than a blessing. It is for this reason that in the Rule of St Benedict, the novice master is told to consider carefully whether one seeking to make his profession in fact truly seeks God. If he is not, it will be an utter misery for him and for the community he joins.
But if he does truly seek God, then he hears the words that ‘he who seeks always finds’ from the gospel and St Benedict promises him that his heart will expand, and though he may find things difficult to start with, and maybe also for quite some time thereafter, nevertheless he will in the end find that he is running on the way, his heart expanding with the inexpressible delight of love. From St Paul again: eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered the human mind to begin to imagine what God has prepared for those who love him, for those who embark upon this wildly exciting love affair.
Then in the Gospel, Jesus talks to his disciples about joy and about love. He says: ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you’. We learn about this love, which ultimately always has the same source, first from our parents. We may then learn it, with much of its beauty and delight but also of course with some of its great difficulties, in the love of marriage. We may even, strange at times though it may be to say it and unappetizing though it may appear to be at times and particularly looking in from the outside, learn about this love from a band of brothers God gives us. But whatever the form of love that belongs to our vocation, ultimately it is a love from God and it is a love towards God.
It is also always and sometimes most painfully, a sacrifice in blood: ‘This is my commandment’ we heard ‘love one another, as I have loved you. A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends.’ Sooner or later in life, and usually more than once and at deeper levels, we, like Abraham, have to offer God our Isaac, we have to sacrifice on his altar as a whole offering our heart’s desire.
Brother Joseph Benedict, on this day on which you make your life profession, Jesus looks at you and he says ‘I call you friend’ and he says ‘I have loved you’. This is the Gospel you have chosen and it is the the way you have chosen. St Benedict’s first word is ‘Listen’ then he says walk, indeed run on the way, then his final word in the last chapter 73 of the Rule is ‘arrive’: you will arrive. This is his promise to you today.
God is never outdone in generosity. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, Abraham’s faith was such that he was ready to offer up in sacrifice his Isaac, and so it was, as it were, that God gave him his Isaac back from the dead. We are celebrating this solemn life profession in Eastertide. God gives us back what we offer him, all restored and yet all transformed, our life becomes his life and at the same time more truly ours than it ever was before.