Editors’ Note: We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.
“To tell you the truth, the parish was nearly moribund when we first arrived,” admitted Abbot Joel Garner, OPraem, head of the Norbertine community of Santa Maria de la Vid in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We had left the abbey grounds to visit Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, a working-class parish in the city’s predominately Hispanic West Mesa neighborhood. The drive wasn’t exactly scenic. Cruising north along busy Coors Boulevard, we passed a seemingly endless strip of trailer parks, tire shops, and big-box stores.
We crossed historic Route 66, then pulled into the church parking lot. Abbot Joel’s energy belies his eighty-some years. Back in 1985, he was one of five Norbertines sent from St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere, Wisconsin, near Green Bay, to begin a new foundation in New Mexico. The goal was to serve the growing number of Hispanic Catholics in the United States and, eventually, to attract New Mexican vocations. Albuquerque, a mid-sized city with a large Catholic population and natural beauty, seemed like an ideal fit for their vita mixta of active ministry and contemplative retreat.
“Things were pretty rough at first,” Abbot Joel recalled. “We lost two guys to illness early on. Then two others left.” We were walking across a small plaza in front of the church, centered around a stone fountain hewn from a fossilized tree. “But the people embraced us, that’s what kept us going.” As we entered the church, with its bright adobe baptismal font, soaring wooden ceiling, and tiers of semicircular pews surrounded by hand-carved statues, each the work of a local santero, I found it hard to believe the place had ever struggled. I asked how such renewal had come about. Abbot Joel said that Small Church Communities, a program inspired by the Latin American comunidades de base formed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, had been crucial. Members meet weekly to pray over the readings for the following Sunday; their small size fosters a level of intimacy and accompaniment that simply isn’t possible in the context of the wider Sunday assembly. “But most important,” Abbot Joel insisted, “were the changes we made to the liturgy: music at all seven Masses, with the full and active participation of lectors, Eucharistic ministers, altar servers, and ushers, all from the community.”
As we made our way back to Santa Maria de la Vid, Abbot Joel explained how Holy Rosary’s transformation also included the growth of the RCIA and adult-education programs: “People got used to seeing and being around each other; they also began experiencing their faith differently, learning about it and taking ownership of it. They trusted us, and each other; it gave them the confidence to take the lead.”
It also gave the Norbertines the assurance that they could step back. Last summer, they made the decision to cease serving as pastors at Holy Rosary; the abbey’s numbers are too small to sustain such a demanding ministry. Abbot Joel is unperturbed, though: “The parish is a healthy community. They’ll be fine without us!”
Back at the abbey grounds—seventy acres of natural high desert, with dramatic views of downtown Albuquerque and the jagged peaks of the Sandia Mountains beyond—we pulled up next to Santa Maria de la Vid’s next project. Right now, it’s just a deep hole in the sand, filled with plastic pipes and electrical wiring. But come 2022, it will be home to a new spirituality center, complete with private hermitages, additional retreat rooms, and conference space. It will also be, after several recent closures, the only retreat center in the entire Archdiocese of Santa Fe. The Norbertines view it as a sign of hope, and a vote of confidence in their future.
There are currently just four Norbertine abbeys in the United States, home to almost two hundred “canons regular.” Spend time at any one of them, and you’re likely to hear the word communio, something Abbot Joel regards as Santa Maria de la Vid’s primary ministry. The term, which translates to “community,” “communion,” or even “fellowship,” denotes a form of religious life inspired by the early Church, in particular the Jerusalem community as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Santa Maria de la Vid’s Book of Customs specifies that members are to cultivate “simplicity of life,” limiting themselves, for example, to buying only used cars and not owning individual televisions. But for Norbertines the spiritual fruits of communio are more important: being of “one heart and one mind,” as their Rule of St. Augustine puts it.
Abbot Joel has a simple threefold recipe for achieving such unity at Santa Maria de la Vid: “Common prayer, common Eucharist, and common table.” In practice, that means the community gathers twice per day: once in the morning, to chant morning prayer and celebrate Mass (on Mondays it’s in Spanish), and once in the evening, to sing vespers and eat dinner. In between, community members attend to their various ministries, selected to be within easy commuting distance to prioritize and preserve communio.
It’s arguably been that way since 1121, when St. Norbert of Xanten, following a dramatic conversion and a stint as a Wanderprediger preaching poverty and repentance across his native Germany, selected Prémontré, in the dense forests of northern France, as the site for a new religious foundation. The secluded setting was conducive to prayer and fostered an austere common life. (Norbert’s first followers, a group that included both men and women, likely lived in primitive wooden huts.) But it was also located near a major travel artery—a trade route connecting Paris to Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands—which in turn facilitated quick access to lay audiences for preaching, and a path for rapid expansion.
Founded for no particular ministry by a saint whose only consistency was constant change, the Norbertines are unique in the history of medieval religious orders. Scholars liken them to a bridge between preceding monastic movements, such as the Camaldolese, Cistercians, and Carthusians, and the mendicant orders that followed, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians. Their nine-hundred-year-old tradition has accordingly featured considerable variety. Medieval Prémontré may well have been spartan, but later Norbertines built some of the grandest abbeys in Europe: Strahov, with its frescoed Baroque library, still towers over Prague, while Berne, on the banks of the River Maas, remains the oldest extant religious community in the Netherlands.
Santa Maria de la Vid is far more modest. Even so, its architecture communicates the Norbertine values of learning, stewardship, and prayer that have kept the order intact even after centuries of suppression, contraction, and dispersal. The Norbertine Library, dedicated in 2008, contains more than twenty thousand volumes, making it the largest theology collection in New Mexico, and a major resource for retreatants, the scholarly community, and students enrolled in the Master of Theological Studies program, held in conjunction with St. Norbert College in De Pere (the only Norbertine institution of higher education in the world). Public events and other large gatherings take place in Our Lady of Guadalupe Commons, adjacent to the recently completed Pope Francis Solar Field, an array of panels—erected in response to Laudato si’s call to care for creation—that generates some of the community’s electricity, as well as some extra income.
The Abbey Church, designed in the mid-1990s by Robert Habiger with input from Abbot Joel and the Santa Maria de la Vid community, is a small masterpiece. There’s no nave, but rather a circular worship space enclosed by polished wooden arches draped with curving pastel fabrics. Natural light pours in through grids of small yellow, blue, and rose-colored glass squares set within concrete exterior walls. Habiger told me it’s supposed to feel like a “church within a church,” intentionally connecting the community and visitors to the indigenous and Catholic communities that have worshiped on the abbey grounds for centuries. The circle recalls the traditional indigenous kiva, marking the threshold between the material and spiritual worlds, while the arches celebrate the evolution of Catholic architecture over the centuries. “The building materials are significant, too,” Habiger said. “They’re ordinary, and inexpensive; but together they create something extraordinary.”
Something similar could be said for the Norbertines of Santa Maria de la Vid themselves. Not only is Santa Maria de la Vid the smallest Norbertine abbey in the United States, it’s also the youngest, elevated to abbatial status—meaning it’s no longer a “priory,” which depends on a motherhouse, but a self-sufficient community with financial independence and institutional autonomy—by the worldwide Order of Premonstratensians in 2012. (The whole order is celebrating its nine hundredth anniversary this year.) There are just eleven members in the community: seven solemnly professed, four at various stages of formation. They come from a variety of backgrounds. The “old guard,” including Abbot Joel, is from Wisconsin (pillows and blankets stamped with the Green Bay Packers logo fill the community TV room). The others, middle-aged, come from Kerala, India, as well as Michigan, Massachusetts, California, and New York. The four in formation, all in their twenties, are from New Mexico, Kansas, and Nigeria.
For a group of its size, Santa Maria de la Vid has a remarkable impact on the community beyond its walls. In fact, the Norbertines will soon be one of only two male religious orders still serving in the Santa Fe archdiocese. (The Dominicans and the Jesuits, who had been there for nearly two hundred years, recently left; only the Franciscans remain.) Parish ministry, especially in communities of color, remains important: the Norbertines serve as pastors at two nearby churches. The first, St. Augustine, stands on the indigenous reservation of Isleta Pueblo, which was founded by Spanish missionaries in the early 1600s; it’s one of the oldest parishes still operating in the United States, and its parish council is largely run by women. The second, St. Edwin, is situated on eleven acres in a working-class Hispanic neighborhood in Albuquerque; it’s undergoing extensive renovations and now boasts an outdoor amphitheater, a sports field, and a working farm complete with beehives and a herd of goats.
Other members of Santa Maria de la Vid are engaged in different forms of social work. Br. James Owens, a deacon and a lawyer, is involved in homeless advocacy and fundraising. He also works with Catholic Charities, regularly taking on immigration cases pro bono. But he prefers working in family law, especially divorces: “That’s where you get to do the most spiritual accompaniment.”
Fr. Robert Campbell, the abbey’s prior and director of formation, is chaplain at Albuquerque’s Presbyterian Hospital. He’s spent much of the past year and a half administering last rites to patients dying of COVID-19. I wondered how he maintains spiritual and emotional equilibrium in the face of so much suffering. “I exercise, I have hobbies—like cooking, or model rocketry,” he said with a wry smile. But then he grew serious: “My job, in the hospital and at the abbey, isn’t to render judgment. It’s to help people have an authentic experience of God. And not just ‘good’ Catholics—we welcome everyone.”
Continuing to welcome others, of course, depends on a steady stream of vocations, something the abbey has admittedly struggled with in recent years. And apart from the general decline in candidates for religious life, Santa Maria de la Vid was dealt an unexpected blow in late May, when Fr. Graham Golden, the community’s director of vocations, was killed in an automobile accident just outside the abbey grounds.
Ordained in 2015 and just thirty-five at the time of his death, Fr. Graham was described in an obituary written by Abbot Joel as “an extraordinarily dedicated, talented, and intelligent young priest.” That may be an understatement: in addition to serving as director of formation and vocations at Santa Maria de la Vid, Fr. Graham was also a pastor at St. Augustine, regional council coordinator for the Catholic Foundation in northern New Mexico, organizer of the annual archdiocesan pilgrimage for vocations, and founder of the annual Art at the Abbey exhibition. His death was a loss not just for his confreres at Santa Maria de la Vid, but also for the entire Catholic community of greater Albuquerque.
“We’re grieving, for sure,” Br. James Owens told me. “But it’s kind of a joyful mourning; we’ve had to come together to take up the work Graham left behind.” Indeed, memories of Fr. Graham surfaced regularly in my interviews and conversations with Norbertines and lay people alike. (I’d met him briefly at a pilgrimage to the border in El Paso, Texas, in 2019, and was struck at the time by his charisma and spiritual depth.) All seemed to agree that Fr. Graham’s most important legacy was his work to transform Santa Maria de la Vid from a Norbertine abbey in New Mexico to one of New Mexico—in other words, a community that more closely resembles the largely Hispanic population of Albuquerque.
The young men whose vocations Fr. Graham helped nurture bring a markedly different consciousness and sensibility to the abbey, especially concerning culture and race. One of the most outspoken is Br. Alexis Longoria, a second-year novice currently pursuing master’s degrees in social work and theology. His studies and life experience have given him a skepticism of fixed social, racial, and geographic categories. “I grew up as a child preacher in the borderlands,” he told me. “My parents are from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, but I was born in El Paso, Texas. So am I Mexican, or American?” Alexis began discerning religious life in high school after he converted to Catholicism. Fr. Graham and Santa Maria de la Vid seemed welcoming and down to earth; Albuquerque, close to the border and home to sizable Hispanic and indigenous communities, was also attractive. “But there’s racism here in New Mexico, too. Like the myth that Hispanics here are descended from Golden Age Spain—that’s just another way of assimilating whiteness.”
When I asked Br. Alexis about the state of race relations at the abbey today, he was blunt. “Our community has work to do; in a lot of ways, we need to be challenged.” I asked him what that looks like for him. “Systems of racism, white supremacy, privilege, they’ve all been built up over hundreds of years,” he said. “You can’t just tear them down or demolish them overnight. You can only chip away, a moment at a time.”
The Norbertine community has been open to hearing critiques like those made by Br. Alexis, and takes the call to dismantle exclusionary structures seriously. One of the most innovative initiatives at Santa Maria de la Vid is its oblates program, which enables lay men and women to “enter into a covenant of mutual communion” with the abbey through formal promises that mirror religious vows, permitting them to live the Norbertine charism of communio according to their situations in life. There are currently three oblates, two women and one man, all of whom have undergone a rigorous process of formation, wear a modified Norbertine habit on abbey grounds, and share in the community’s common life, especially prayer. Louise Nielsen—married, a mother, and pastoral associate at Holy Rosary—was the first oblate at Santa Maria de la Vid. She told me that despite the sexism and diffidence she sometimes encounters in the Church, being an oblate gives her the opportunity to push for change and help ensure that women’s voices are heard. Christina Spahn, a former nun and now a celibate Norbertine oblate, agreed. “For many, it can be jarring to see women in a habit chanting right alongside the men during prayer. But this community has always backed us up.”
In an address to the Latin American Confederation of Religious (CLAR) this past August, Pope Francis warned religious communities to avoid the “temptation to survival.” Fretting over “numbers” and “efficiency,” or harboring “soul-killing nostalgia” for prior forms of piety and devotion, the pope went on, spells the “siren song of religious life.”
It’s not hard to see what Francis is talking about. There exists, especially in some conservative quarters of the United States (and in the Norbertine Order itself), the conviction that the vocation crisis can only be solved by a rigid, unapologetic return to the traditional trappings of religious life—habits, elevated liturgy, and the like. Afflicted by the economic anxieties and cultural fluidity of modernity, so the argument goes, young people are longing for structure, order, and certainty, and the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council have fatally weakened the once-great tradition of religious life in the Church. Francis believes this is exactly the wrong posture. The way forward for religious communities, especially ones with increasingly smaller numbers, is to adopt a flexible style of living and working that is at once “intercultural, inter-congregational, and itinerant.” In other words, in keeping with the council’s call to ressourcement, it means returning to the primitive origins of religious life itself. “To be with Jesus is to be joyful,” Francis added. “It has the capacity to give holiness a sense of humor.”
Abbot Joel, who’s seen his share of change in the Church, seems to embody exactly what Francis is talking about. He became a Norbertine in 1957, at a time when many abbeys were “total institutions”—elaborate, self-enclosed campuses that had relatively little contact with the world around them. Prayer and Mass were, of course, in Latin, and there was little room for flexibility or innovation in ministry. “But the council brought us new energy and creativity, and gave us room to experiment.” That didn’t mean that new initiatives were always successful. For example, in an effort to serve African-American Catholics, the Norbertines opened St. Moses the Black Priory near Jackson, Mississippi, intending—as at Santa Maria de la Vid—for it to become an abbey. It failed to attract enough vocations, and has since closed. “But what the changes did mean,” Abbot Joel said, “was that we Norbertines could be more free to embrace uncertainty, and to rely more closely on God.”
At its heart, that’s what the Norbertine tradition—and, for that matter, the entire Catholic mystical tradition—has always been about. Few Norbertines at Santa Maria de la Vid knew this as well as Fr. Francis Dorff, OPraem, who died in 2017, yet remains an important spiritual presence at the abbey. Originally from South Philadelphia, Fr. Dorff entered Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, Pennsylvania, then studied in Rome and Paris. (In his autobiography, The Spiritual Journey of a Misfit, he recounts his displeasure at having to ask the local bishop for permission to walk around the city without his habit.) He transferred to Santa Maria de la Vid in the 1990s, and lived the rest of his life in a small hermitage on the abbey grounds, spending his time writing, leading retreats, and working with abusive priests in recovery.
One of Fr. Dorff’s passions was meditative journaling, in which the writer “lets go” of ego and listens for the unconscious mind. During one of his sessions, he “heard” and wrote down a story that would come to be known as “The Rabbi’s Gift.” It’s since been widely anthologized in collections of Catholic spiritual writing, and appears in Santa Maria de la Vid’s Book of Customs as the “Community Story.” There are now many versions—including a series of paintings on permanent display in the Norbertine Library.
It goes something like this: a group of aging monks in a once-flourishing monastery on the verge of closing are afflicted by sadness; their only source of hope is a solitary rabbi who lives in the woods nearby. One day, the abbot goes out to meet the rabbi, who receives the abbot with an embrace. Together, they converse, then weep over an open Bible in the rabbi’s hut. Before the abbot leaves, the rabbi tells him that “the Messiah is among you.” Back at the monastery, the monks misinterpret the message: they think it means that one of them is in fact Christ. They begin to act as if that’s true, treating each other as Christ, and before long, a spirit of levity and joy returns to the monastery, which begins to attract new vocations.
As it happened, my lodging during my week at Santa Maria de la Vid was in Fr. Dorff’s old hermitage. On one of my last nights at the abbey, I made my way over to the church about ten minutes early. I was intending to sit for a while and meditate in silence before evening prayer began. As I arrived near the entrance, I saw Fr. Geno Gries standing next to a large bell nearby. There was a slight breeze, and his white habit, flapping a little, looked almost gold in the setting sun. He had a wide grin on his face, and a large sledgehammer in his hand.
My first thought was that it had something to do with construction on the new spiritual center, and I wondered why he wasn’t wearing a vest or hard hat. But that didn’t make sense—Fr. Geno, who, like Abbot Joel, is in his eighties, had told me earlier during the week that his life was in the process of “winding down,” and that his primary ministry was spiritual direction. I asked him what he was doing. “Oh! I ring the bell for evening prayer when it’s my turn to lead it,” he said, booming with laughter. “I guess we still do some things the traditional way!”
Fr. Geno lifted the sledgehammer and began striking the bell rhythmically, pausing a few seconds between each blow. The sound didn’t travel far—in fact it was the first time I’d noticed the bell all week. Certainly it died before reaching Coors Boulevard, with its rushing traffic. But I’d heard it, and the community had as well. It kept ringing as I took my seat in church, opened my psalter, and watched the other Norbertines arrive for evening prayer.
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