The summer of 2018 had two highpoints for me. I took a “mini-sabbatical” of about five weeks, and I participated in the General Chapter of the Norbertine Order in Europe. I was very grateful for the block of time I was given for my “mini-sabbatical” for a whole hosts of reasons, but at the very top was the opportunity to read with little interruption. The porch of the home of friends on Clark Lake in Door County, WI, was the perfect place to read and reflect.
One of my interests is the Jesus of history. I was not reading for academic purposes but with certain questions in the back of my mind. Who is this Jesus for me? How can I take him more seriously? After all, this is the person I am committed to following by reason of my baptism and also by my own religious vows. Will trying to get to know him allow me to relate to him more deeply? Needless to say, it was a spiritually-enriching experience, offering me insights into how Jesus faced the challenges in his own society as we, his followers, must face them in ours.
The second highlight of my summer involved a trip to Europe. Every six years, the abbots and delegates from our Norbertine communities around the world meet to conduct the business of the Order at the international level. This was my fifth General Chapter, as our gathering is called. I was accompanied by Brother James Owens, our delegate, and Fr. Peter Muller who was the translator from English to Spanish. While English was the primary language of the Chapter, translation was simultaneous in seven other languages.
The 2018 General Chapter took place in Holland at the Abbey Rolduc, which is now a hotel minutes across the border from Germany. This was the Abbey of Augustinian Canons where Norbert spent time discerning the direction his life should take before the Order was founded in the 12th century.
The Chapter did significant work, the most important of which was the election of a new abbot general, and the approval of the re-worked Constitutions of the Order. Jos Wouters, the former abbot of Averbode Abbey in Belgium and the first definitor of the Order, is now our new Abbot General. He is in his late 50’s and possesses advanced degrees in canon law and spirituality. In addition, he speaks a number of languages.
Peter, James, and I brought our little lives from our young abbey in New Mexico into the midst of our brothers and sisters from five continents—all people of faith, all dedicated Norbertines—each of whom carry the unique story as religious men and women.
I became acutely aware of how diverse were the contexts out of which our Norbertine lives are being lived. There were Norbertines in countries where severe poverty takes its toll, where atheistic Communism has totally marginalized Christians, where resources—financial and spiritual—are in short supply, or vocations are not only down but have almost totally dried up.
In Europe the religious landscape is disappearing more and more. In other regions, like the Congo and India, it is flourishing. In still others, modest growth can be discerned.
Two trips during the Chapter were enriching and informative. We visited our grandmother abbey of Berne in Holland on the Sunday in the middle of the two weeks. Abbot Dennis Hendrickx was our visitator, and served as the secretary of this General Chapter, which means he organized it. After Mass we gathered with the townspeople with flags waving and bands playing to welcome the Abbey’s fourth new beer called “The Abbot General.” It is quadruple strength and the first bottle was flown to the plaza and into the hands of the abbot on a drone! Quite a sight and great fun. Then we were invited for a glass of the new brew with the townspeople. However, it was a bit strong for my taste. Many of our abbeys have long maintained breweries as a means of support.
Before the Chapter ended, we made a day trip to Gennep in Holland and Xanten in Germany. They are quite close to one another and each claim to be the birthplace of Norbert. Sometimes you see him referred to as Norbert of Gennep and, perhaps more often, Norbert of Xanten. An uneasy compromise is to say that he was conceived in Gennep, but raised in Xanten.
We were received by the mayor of each town as if we were royalty with speeches, bands, drums, and flags. One hundred-plus Norbertines walking through the town square drew the attention of tourists—some seemingly wondering what kind of invasion this was!
The Chapter ended with a Eucharist with our new Abbot General and a very festive and delicious meal. As a balance to our complaints about the blistering heat, (there was no air conditioning in our hotel) which set some records in Europe, was the excellent food.
I think I can say that most of the participants in the 2018 Chapter left in an upbeat and hopeful mood. Despite the unique challenges we face in our respective communities, the ideals of the Jerusalem Community and the dream of Prémontré continue to animate us in our communal life and ministry.