As seen in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Abbey Magazine (pages 11-13)
By Judy Turba
In this world two things are essential: life and friendship. Both should be highly prized and we must not undervalue them. Life and friendship are nature’s gifts. God created us that we might exist and live: this is life. But if we are not to remain solitary, there must be friendship.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing three Norbertine seminarians: Deacon Michael Brennan, O. Praem., Frater Patrick LaPacz, O. Praem., and Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.
We discussed their life together within the Norbertine community, specifically their time at Holy Spirit House of Studies, the Norbertine home in Chicago, located near Catholic Theological Union, where they are pursuing graduate studies.
By living, working, and praying together throughout the past few years, these young men who once had been strangers have become not only brothers in Norbert, but also treasured and most likely lifelong friends. Here they share their journey of life and friendship.
What are the joys and challenges of living in a home together, where you are responsible for cooking, cleaning, and other household chores, as well as praying and studying together? How has this environment enhanced your friendship with one another?
Deacon Mike: In America, we live in a culture that fosters individualism, where there’s not a lot of actual face-to-face interaction. Here, we rub elbows—we live together. And while we often study alone, Patrick, for instance, might suddenly pop in and say something like, “Talk to me.”
Frater Patrick: Or Mike will sneeze really loudly and I’ll yell back to him, “God bless you.”
Deacon Mike: These little interactions really pull us out of ourselves. I think that’s one of the reasons many of us have chosen community life. We long for relationships. Our tradition understands the Trinity as the God of relationship. Sometimes we want to isolate ourselves from one another, but in the end it’s good to bump elbows, it’s good to have someone intentionally come into our space and say, “I want to hang out.” It gets us out of our own heads a bit.
Frater Jordan: When I was taking classes at Notre Dame last summer, I got a call from Mike or Patrick every week, or I called them. Being away made me really appreciate them and the Norbertine way of life. And making each of us better people is what religious life is all about: growing in “one mind and one heart on the way to God.”
Realizing all relationships include a bit of conflict or misunderstanding, or simply a case of others getting on our nerves, how do you three handle conflict when it arises?
Deacon Mike: One of the ways we deal with conflict is we have fun with it. We really do enjoy each other’s company and all of us are good at teasing one another. I have a tendency to be a bit loud and assertive. When that happens, I’ll be referred to as “coach.” Meaning I don’t have to go on and on as I sometimes do. But we definitely have some serious conversations, too, depending upon the person, the topic, and the day.
Frater Jordan: Depending on the day—that’s important—being able to really read one another before we bring out the teasing. Also, humility plays a part in this. I know I have my own quirks and there are days I’m not easy to live with. But humor can ease that tension. Fraternal correction is in our Rule, but it’s so hard to directly correct someone. Humor softens those edges.
Judith Viorst, author of Necessary Losses, asserts that it is much easier to stand by our friends in their sadness and their adversity, but that the true test of friendship is being able to stand by our friends in their joys and their successes. Is there truth for you in this statement, and if so, how?
Frater Jordan: I recently read that 94 percent of priests identify as “happy”—a rate higher than doctors, teachers, and lawyers. But most of the support and affirmation for these priests comes from family, friends, and people they shepherd; sadly, it does not always come from other clergy. We’re here to support each other when we’re down, but how often do we take time to celebrate each other’s successes? This is a challenge not only within priesthood, but also throughout humanity.
You pray together three times a day, everyday—Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Mass. How does this impact your friendship?
Frater Jordan: You heard us sing, Judy!
Deacon Mike: Yeah, it’s not always a “joyful song unto the Lord.”
Frater Patrick: I think prayer is time spent together in a special way, even though it can be a bit frustrating if someone is off pitch, or when I can’t get the right tones.
Deacon Mike: Living together, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. But it’s in communal prayer that I think we are most forgiving because everyone is making his best effort. In shared prayer, we are more charitable with one another—perhaps more so than in other aspects of life. When I’m away I’ll pray my breviary alone. But it’s worlds apart from communal prayer, which I desperately miss. Here in the house, praying together makes us more than roommates; we are a community of brothers.
Frater Jordan: I learned when people pray or sing or chant together, they start to breathe together, and their hearts become in sync. Even though there are differences among us, this aspect of our prayer life brings us together as Norbertines. Our lives are rooted in prayer.
As you mentioned, none of you knew each other before you entered the community, yet today you call each other friends and brothers. What have these relationships brought to your life? How are you a better, more faithful Norbertine because of each other?
Deacon Mike: Patrick has this attention to detail, especially when it comes to anything liturgical or any project for that matter. While he might not be the first one to start the project, he’ll make sure it’s done right. He inspires me to be in tune to the sacredness of the liturgy. Jordan has a dedication to running and healthy living. Because of him, I’ve started running again and we both signed up for the Chicago Marathon.
Frater Patrick: Mike has a strong private prayer life, spending time in the chapel before communal prayer and at other times throughout the day. He motivates me to spend time on my own spiritual life. Jordan is a model of healthy living, consistently running and eating well. When it comes to academics he’s always on the ball. He never procrastinates. I trust both of them and am able to talk with them about deeper issues.
Frater Jordan: When Mike is passionate and on fire, he goes for it. He is extroverted. I tend to be introverted and have to try to be more outgoing. I admire his care and concern for other people. Whenever an opportunity arises to build relationships, Mike is always willing to take me with him.
Deacon Mike: I have really good college buddies, but I don’t have the day-to-day conversations with those guys that I have with two of my best friends right now: Patrick and Jordan. I anticipate having them walk with me throughout life. It’s a blessing to reflect upon the idea of friendship this early in our religious life, and to anticipate the ways that will challenge and benefit us as we live out our Norbertine vocation.
Ideally, how do you imagine your friendship 10, 20, 30 years from now? What are your hopes and dreams, regarding not only your friendship with each other, but also relationships within your entire community?
Frater Jordan: A few questions were recently posed to us in class: How are we as Norbertines different from diocesan pastors? What is distinctive about our form of religious life, and how do we remain committed to it? For us, it’s not all about work. It’s also about community and being committed to one another. It’s about being intentional and constantly reminding ourselves about our commitment to one another. I’ll be there for my brothers, and I may have to sacrifice something at my work to be present to them.
Deacon Mike: I’ll be ordained a priest on May 27, and as I move closer to priesthood, I realize I’m not worthy to be a priest. None of us are. I’m not saying this in a self-deprecating way. As Jordan says, this life—this vocation—is such a grace. It reminds me how much I’ll need to rely upon my family, my friends, the People of God, my Norbertine brothers, and especially on God, for love and support.
To find out more about men in formation for the Norbertine priesthood, see the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of Abbey Magazine (pages 8-10).