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Norbertines enjoy growth at St. Michael’s Abbey in California

St. Michael’s Abbey in Southern California is the home to Norbertine priests and seminarians, otherwise known as the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré, or Premonstratensians. Courtesy photo

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Nestled in the hills of the Silverado Canyon in Southern California lies a monastery that is bursting at the seams.

The prevailing narrative in the Church in the United States is one of a vocations crisis: churches without pastors, priests stretched thin trying to cover several parishes, religious orders shrinking and fading away.

Not here. St. Michael’s Abbey is the home to Norbertine priests and seminarians, otherwise known as the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré, or Premonstratensians, founded by St. Norbert of Xanten in 1120 in northern France. The California order was established in 1961 in Silverado by seven Hungarian priests from the St. Michael Norbertine Abbey in Csorna, Hungary. It was elevated to the status of abbey in 1984. Situated on over 300 acres in Silverado Canyon, the abbey serves people of the dioceses of Orange, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Fresno and more.

There are many signs of growth at St. Michael’s. Beyond the obvious signs, such as the modular buildings added to house seminarians numbering beyond the abbey’s capacity and additional new construction, there are initiatives such as the Abbot’s Circle and “City of Saints.” The Abbot’s Circle is a subscription-based initiative that supports the ministries of the abbey. In thanks for that support, members of the Abbot’s Circle have unlimited access to a digital library featuring videos, audio and written content from the Norbertine community. “City of Saints” is a groundbreaking seven-part web series that the abbey created in partnership with director Charles Francis Kinnane.

At St. Michael’s Abbey, there are currently 33 men in formation, with four who are solemnly professed and recently ordained deacons. In August 2019, two more will make solemn profession of vows, which will be perpetual vows. There are 50 priests attached to the abbey, which brings the total of the abbey’s Norbertine community to 83 men. This number includes members of the community who live away from the abbey in what are called dependent houses.

Beyond capacity

Around 70 men live at St. Michael’s, which is beyond the abbey’s normal capacity. Several years ago, modular buildings were placed on the property to accommodate the increase in the community’s size. On March 18, 2018, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the construction of a new abbey. In a massive capital campaign, the community raised $120 million for this new abbey, which will be completed sometime in 2020.

“Over the years, you see the hunger in the youth for good, reverent liturgy and for tradition,” said Father Miguel Batres, a Norbertine priest. This was his experience, as well. As a sophomore in high school, he made his first abbey visit as he was just passing by and decided to stop. He then attended Thomas Aquinas College, where he graduated in 2008. While there, the college’s Norbertine chaplain caught his attention.

Many times after that, he visited St. Michael’s and made a great connection with the community. When he entered the seminary at St. Michael’s, his class was only two seminarians. “Generally, there were around nine seminarians, maximum, when I first joined,” Father Batres said, which is quite a difference from the current total of nearly 40 in formation.

Brotherhood

The confreres often hear that people notice a certain brotherhood at the abbey. “Living in community is not the easiest thing,” said Father Batres, “but at the same time, it is one of the most beautiful things. Unity of brotherhood, the charity that holds us together: This is why we’re growing so much.”

Frater Basil Harnish has been in the community at St. Michael’s for nearly two decades. He was a student at the prep school run by the priests located onsite in the early 2000s. In June 2019, he professed solemn vows with the Norbertines, and a few days later was ordained to the transitional diaconate. From his unique perspective over the years, he has witnessed some interesting changes in the community’s makeup.

What is a frater?
Upon entering the Norbertine community, novices are referred to as either “Frater” or “Brother.” The title “Frater” (Latin for “brother”) identifies a clerical-candidate pursuing Norbertine priestly formation.

As a student, he had daily contact with the confreres/priests. “During that time, you could tell there were only a few seminarians, not many,” he said. “You would see them running around doing work, and it was not a huge group of seminarians.”

Frater Basil refers to a boom in vocations shortly after the priory was elevated to an abbey in 1984, and says some of this was reactionary. Men saw the use of Latin, the chanting of the Divine Office in choir, the vibrant community life and were drawn to it. The numbers of incoming seminarians were certainly lower at times, but Frater Basil’s class entered with eight men.

“Seminarians are a huge part of life here now,” he said. “They hold the fort when the fathers are doing apostolic labors, they are the ones chanting every hour of the Office, always starting the Rosary.” He credits the community life as a critical factor in the abbey’s growth. “The community life is super strong, very rich here,” he said. “If you didn’t have that, I don’t think anyone would persevere.”

Orthodoxy

Father Chrysostom Baer has been the prior of St. Michael’s Abbey for the last two years. He entered the community in 1993 after graduating from high school and was ordained a priest in 2004. When he entered, St. Michael’s was seen as an oasis of orthodox truth. “There was a lot of nonsense going around in the world,” Father Baer said, “and I found solid preaching and teaching there.”

In recent years, there has been a shift among the men coming in, he said. “It’s not that they don’t care about orthodoxy — they do, very much so — but it doesn’t seem to be the same struggle as it was to find orthodoxy. There is still a lot of nonsense out there, but there seem to be more lights in the darkness than there used to be. So we’re not standing out in the same way.”

While there may be more places to find orthodox truth, St. Michael’s still offers something that more and more people are seeking today. “Our community has had the opportunity to offer people a sense of the sacred,” said Father Baer. “In a lot of places, when you go there for Mass, you get the sense that it is not something that a lot of people take seriously. But, by and large, we sing Gregorian chant, and we try to be really careful and attentive in our ceremonies. That really makes an impact on the faithful, really helps to draw men in.”

Father Baer sees the massive and rapid growth of St. Michael’s as, first and foremost, a gift of God’s grace. “As with any gift, you have to take it seriously and use it appropriately,” he said. “We want to be good custodians of God’s grace. It’s the future of the Church, and that’s not something to be taken lightly.”

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.

Talking vocations
The Norbertine community is growing, as many young men are responding to the call for a religious and priestly vocation.

Men ages 18-40 who are discerning a vocation or interested in learning more about St. Michael’s Abbey are invited to a come-and-see visit. The visit may last from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. Visitors stay in their own private room in the seminary, pray with their canons in the liturgy, attend classes with the novices and students, participate in manual labor, eat meals with the seminarians and partake in recreational activities.

Interested men should contact Father Ambrose Criste, vocations director, by visiting and completing the come-and-see visits form at stmichaelsabbey.com/vocations.

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