Unlike some religious institutes, which were founded for the express purpose of undertaking a particular apostolic mission in the Church, monasteries have no particular work as their primary reason for existence. Rather, they exist solely to provide an opportunity for their members to live the Christian life within a community that seeks to follow the gospel. The primary work of our monks, therefore, is simply to live the monastic life seriously and, by doing so, to grow continually in holiness and in prayer. We believe that by doing this we are contributing to the building up of the whole Church.
This does not mean that the monastic community is self-absorbed and concerned only with its own welfare, for this would be inconsistent with Christianity itself. To live the Christian life in any of the fruitful ways that the gospel suggests always means to live with concern for the welfare of others, because the heart of the gospel is the two-fold precept of love for God and neighbor. We try to do this, for the most part, within the context of the monastery and in ways that are compatible with our life in community.
St. Benedict prescribed that the monk’s day should consist of three primary activities: prayer, work, and reading. The first of these refers to the divine office, for which we gather in choir at intervals throughout the day in order to sanctify the whole of the day by dedicating each hour to the Lord. Holy reading means our silent and prayerful reflection upon the word of God in scripture and in other writings of Christian tradition, together with our response to his word in private prayer. During the rest of the day we work both to support ourselves and to provide the means to be of help to others.
The first way in which we seek to be of profit to the Church and to the world is through our prayer itself. The monk’s day revolves around the hours of the divine office, the daily community Mass, and his own private prayer, reflection, and holy reading. We seek to be always conscious of God’s presence and to stand before him as intercessors. We pray expressly not only for ourselves, but for particular persons and intentions known to us or whose needs are recommended to us, for confreres, relatives, friends, benefactors, and others associated with our community, for our locality and diocese and for the universal Church, for all of humanity, especially those who are suffering or in need, and for the faithful departed.
St. Benedict said that guests are never lacking in a monastery, and that all who come should be received as Christ. Although we do not yet have a special building for guests and therefore cannot receive many people at the same time, we try to fulfill the ideal of St. Benedict within the limits of our situation. A small area on the ground floor of the monastery building is set aside for guests to stay overnight, and they are invited to the monastic refectory for meals with the community or separately, according to their preference.
People today who seek respite from their world of busyness and noise often find that spending some days of withdrawal in the quiet atmosphere of a monastery provides them with rest and spiritual renewal. We do not offer organized retreats, but rather the freedom to design one’s own program or none at all. Guests are free to take part in the public prayer of the monks at Mass and at the divine office, and to use the church and the library for prayer, reflection, and reading. If they wish, they may speak privately with a monk and may receive the sacrament of penance.
Although our abbey church is not a parish, and we encourage people to be active within their own parish community, anyone is free to attend the monastic liturgy. People are welcome to join us for Mass and for the divine office, and some of our oblates and friends do this on a regular basis, as well as visiting the monastery for other special occasions.
Because St. Benedict required his monks to learn how to read and write and to study so that they could assimilate the word of God, monasteries have always been concerned with books and with learning. During the dark ages they became almost the only guardians of the learning of the past, and by copying and preserving books they transmitted the acquisitions of earlier times to succeeding generations. Our patron St. Bede was a significant link in this process. Hence education has always been an important Benedictine concern.
In modern times the interest of monks in promoting education has often been translated into conducting schools for young people from outside the monastic community. Our founders in the United States established schools to instruct the children of immigrants and thereby help them preserve their Catholic faith. The intention of the pioneer monks at St.Bede from the beginning was to establish a school, and this endeavor has constituted the principal apostolate of our community throughout the intervening years.
St. Bede College opened its doors in 1891. The course of studies and the student body have changed several times over the years, and it is now known as St. Bede Academy. The four-year college program was discontinued in favor of a junior college after World War II, and this in turn closed in 1967. What had been primarily a boarding school for boys became solely a day school in 1981, and had already begun to admit girls in 1972. Currently the academy has an enrollment of some 280 students from the Illinois Valley area. The monks continue to own and operate the academy, but are assisted by an increasing number of laymen and women as teachers and staff.
Because Boniface Wimmer and his monks were intent upon caring for the needs of German immigrants to the United States, they emphasized priestly work and undertook many assignments outside the monastery. Consequently our monasteries in this country have traditionally staffed parishes, served as chaplains in hospitals and other institutions, and done missionary work among native Americans and others. It was therefore not unusual that already in the early days the founders of St. Bede assumed responsibility for some parishes in this area.
With the passage of time, the pastoral needs of the Church have changed, and our monasteries have been adjusting their activities accordingly. Since Vatican Council II, the inner life of the community has been emphasized rather than its outward thrust, the monastic life in its own right rather than the exercise of priesthood. The decrease in vocations and the preference of many younger monks for the monastic life without priesthood has necessitated withdrawal from previous external commitments.
We at St. Bede have likewise withdrawn from some parishes for which we formerly had responsibility. At present our monks staff one parish, St. Joseph’s in Peru, Illinois. Additionally, several monks assist on weekends in two parishes in the adjacent Joliet diocese, and, on an as-needed basis, in some nearby parishes in our own diocese of Peoria. Some monks also preach retreats, both public and private, and perform other pastoral services on occasion.
The labora manuum (manual work) of which St. Benedict speaks takes on multiple forms in a monastery today. Even a relatively small community requires a certain amount of administration and maintenance of the buildings, the grounds, and the equipment. There is consequently a variety of work that needs to be done on a regular basis, and there is something that everyone can do, even those of retirement age, unless they have become disabled by illness.
Some monks are occupied by the internal needs of the community itself, serving as superiors, offering spiritual direction, teaching and directing new members. Others work in such areas of administration as accounting and finance, purchasing and conducting business outside the monastery, building and equipment maintenance, landscaping and grounds maintenance, supervising and working with employees. Others work full time for St. Bede Academy as teachers, administrators, or members of the staff. Two priest-monks are presently working full time in our parish apostolate, and others assist in this work on weekends and on other occasions. One monk has been the host of a television program, and others have done writing for publication.
In addition to this, with the help of lay employees, we engage in several enterprises in an effort to produce income for the community. One of these enterprises is agricultural. While the monks no longer do the grain farming themselves but rent out our tillable acres to a tenant farmer, we do maintain a truck garden, chiefly to produce vegetables for our own use, and an orchard, which sells products in the locality.