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“Where God Happens”

June 16: Anniversary of the Dedication of the Church of St. Norbert AbbeySt. Norbert Abbey

On June 16, 1959, the long-awaited dedication and consecration of the “new” St. Norbert Abbey began. Two more days of festive celebrations were to follow. Finally the Norbertines of De Pere had a home where the full canonical life could be lived out.

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By Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.

Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.

Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.

In 2017 it’s been 58 years since the dedication of the church of St. Norbert Abbey. I find myself sitting in my choir stall pondering what makes this place holy. It isn’t necessarily the austere beauty of the building with its shining marble and brilliant stained glass. It isn’t necessarily even the fact that this place was solemnly consecrated with walls and altar anointed with Sacred Chrism.

This place is holy because it is a place where God happens. “Where God happens.” The phrase is not my own; it comes from a work by Rowan Williams where he sees God manifest in the interaction of persons—God made present in encounter. I like the image because of its dynamism and its rootedness in experience.

Recall the story of Jacob in the 28th chapter of Genesis: Jacob lays down to sleep, using a rock for a pillow. That night in a dream he has an experience of God’s presence and God’s promise. When he wakes, he’s overwhelmed by the awareness that “Truly, the LORD is in this place and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16). Jacob took that stone pillow, set it up, and poured oil on it. He called it Bethel, House of God, as the memorial of that encounter with the Divine.

The church of St. Norbert Abbey

The church of St. Norbert Abbey

A place is holy because it is there that we encounter God. This is certainly not limited to officially-designated places of worship, for the Spirit of God is “everywhere present and filling all things.”

Yet the abbey church is a holy place precisely because it has been for many people a place of encountering God. It is manifest in the continuous worship throughout these 58 years: the daily celebration of the Eucharist, the Psalms recited or chanted by the community in a continuous river of praise and intercession. Most Norbertines received the habit and professed their vows in this place. Many were ordained here.

… we give hearty thanks for the gift of this place

—Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.
The church of St. Norbert Abbey

The church of St. Norbert Abbey

And there’s more to this history of encounter than the public rituals celebrated here. There are the countless acts of prayer and praise of individuals: community members and visitors, retreatants and guests. There is an ongoing flood of petition, confession, tears of repentance and of mourning, as well as tears and smiles of joy and expressions of love.

The abbey church is a safe place where one is free to encounter God without hiding and in doing so, to discover one’s true self. So we give hearty thanks for the gift of this place and the spiritual resonance of roof, walls, and windows steeped in the beauty of human faith and longing in the awareness of Divine Love made manifest in the abiding presence of Christ in the reserved Sacrament.

“What if they held a bake sale to fund the defense department and the schools got all the money they needed?”

By Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.

CookiesMaybe you have heard the expression or seen the bumper sticker, “What if they held a bake sale to fund the defense department and the schools got all the money they needed?” I am not sure who gets the credit for this clever saying, but the quip has crossed my mind quite a bit the last few weeks.

Earlier this spring, I read an appeal by the Dominican Center for Women. The center, founded by the Sinsinawa Domincans in 1995, is an urban ministry program in the Amani neighborhood of Milwaukee. The center seeks to raise $200,000 to test the water and purchase water filters in this low-income neighborhood. As reported: “… The 53206 ZIP code, of which the Amani neighborhood is a significant part, has more lead laterals, lead-contaminated water, and the highest number of children with elevated blood levels in Milwaukee …”

I was dumbfounded. One year ago, the story of contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, took our nation by storm:

  • A: I rarely considered what was happening “behind the scenes” when I turned on the faucet to brush my teeth.
  • And B: I did not tend to think of who was paying for my water to arrive from Lake Michigan to the city of De Pere.

But a recent visit to a Greater Green Bay Habitat for Humanity worksite educated me on how a city’s water moves to a homeowner’s house and how it is paid for. Most not only pay a fee to the local water utility, but also property owners must pay for the lateral water pipe that connects one’s building to the city’s system of underground water pipes.

Is there anything more basic to human life than water? Why do inner-city residents struggle with lead pipes—a worry that many of us never have to face? Why do peasants in sub-Sahara Africa suffer from drought and famine when others can install irrigation systems to water golf courses without batting an eyelash? To have to independently fundraise for clean water and lead-free pipes flies in the face of the Christian understanding of the common good.

President Donald Trump announced a draft federal budget for fiscal year 2018 on May 23, 2017. Who are the winners and losers? Sr. Donna Markham OP, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA), announced:

“While CCUSA supports efforts to improve vital safety-net programs needed to move people out of poverty and protect life … cuts to anti-poverty programs such as SNAP, Medicaid and jobs training will have a devastating effect on millions of vulnerable individuals and families who depend on them.”

The budget requests an additional $469 billion for defense during the next 10 years. On the other hand, wouldn’t you rather enjoy a lemonade while visiting with a four-star general at a military bake sale?

DISCLAIMER: This blog represents Br. Herro’s own opinions and experiences. It does not represent an official position or opinion of St. Norbert Abbey or of any other Norbertine.

Sharing the Joy of the Good News of Christ

By Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.

Washing of the Feet at St. Norbert Abbey, Holy Thursday 2017: Deacon Michael Brennan, O. Praem. (left) and Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.

My brother Jerome and I were traveling one day. Mind you, we don’t often digress onto theological discourse, but this time he said to me, “We say this at Mass, but what does ‘descended into hell’ really mean?”

Last month as part of the Norbertine Center for Spirituality’s annual Triduum Retreat at St. Norbert Abbey, Fr. Matthew Dougherty, O. Praem., delivered a Holy Saturday conference entitled, “Descended into Hell.” He brilliantly explained how different theologians and literary figures have addressed this concept through the centuries, but his explanation of Jesus visiting people who are so devoid of life and human interaction to free them from the from the imprisonment of isolation from love of God and others really struck a chord with me. In his presentation, Fr. Dougherty included a slide of a prisoner in solitary confinement. I immediately thought that a contemporary example of Jesus descending into hell would be visiting and freeing prisoners from solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is real in Wisconsin prisons. Faith-based leaders from WISDOM (a Wisconsin network of faith-based organizations) and others from the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin have led concerned Wisconsinites in reforming Wisconsin prison practices that include the use of solitary confinement.

The article, “Wisconsin Inmates Report Despair, Little Counseling In Solitary Confinement That Can Stretch On For Years” (Wisconsin Public Radio, April 14, 2017), noted that there were 1,073 Wisconsin inmates in solitary confinement on Februrary 28, 2017. Confinement averages 22 hours a day for 15 continuous days. But Governor Scott Walker’s 2017-2019 Wisconsin state budget requests additional funds for mental health care and outside-of-cell programming and recreation for those in solitary confinement.

Jesus did not descend into hell to have parties with the rich, powerful, and popular. Pope Francis has made a habit of washing the feet of Roman prisoners. And wherever the pope goes, the media follow; the lives of those visited receive at least a fleeting moment of international attention.

Whether we advocate for prisoners in solitary confinement, visit saddened people in hospitals or nursing homes, or pray for an end to the confinement of political prisoners, we are “descending into hell” to bring the joy of the Good News of Christ to men and women separated or isolated from human love and interaction.

Where We Minister

As stated in the mission of St. Norbert Abbey, “We give ourselves in service to one another and to people in need, with special emphasis on service and advocacy for the poor. We commit ourselves to our traditional ministries, while being open to new apostolates.” Members of the Norbertine Community of St. Norbert Abbey minister at the Brown County Jail and at the Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI), among other apostolates.

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DISCLAIMER: This blog represents Br. Herro’s own opinions and experiences. It does not represent an official position or opinion of St. Norbert Abbey or of any other Norbertine.

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