What novices think about liturgy

St. John’s Abbey is blessed to have seven novices this year – four Americans in Collegeville, and three Asians at our dependent priory in at Holy Trinity Monastery in Fuijimi, Japan. It is especially good news that three of the novices in Collegeville are recent graduates of our university who were drawn to the monastery by their undergraduate experience.

I recently asked the novices about their views on liturgy. PrayTell readers will be interested in their responses. I encouraged the novices to express their views as freely as possible. I did not want them to feel pressure to conform to my views or the community’s views. They know, for example, that I’m a great promoter of Latin chant, so I was at pains not to pressure them to play up their appreciation of chant for my sake. I needn’t have worried – one novice frankly said that he doesn’t care much for Gregorian chant, and another said that he appreciates that we use it sparingly, but he doesn’t appreciate it a lot. And they’re both Americans, products of my novitiate classes on chant! Oh well.

Novices (l to r) Stephen Warzecha, Lewis Grobe,
Michael-Leonard Hahn, Nikolas Kleespie

Japnese novices
Novices (l to r) Maria-Dominic Takahashi Hidenori,
Andrew Lam Hong Ching, John Chrysostom Long Liting


Yes to Vatican II

These novices are strong supporters of the Vatican II reforms. One novice said that “the implementation of Vatican II has gone well.” Another said, “It happened, the church has changed and the average person is quite happy with liturgies. It’s too bad if people cannot accept its outcomes.” One novice stated, “One of the great successes of Vatican II was retrieving some of the laity’s rightful roles in the Church. Personally, I oppose hierarchical and unequal structure, and believe strongly in Vatican II’s attempt to retrieve the laity’s role in the Church. What it disheartening is that at times this model seems to be all too dominant still.” The same novice said about ecumenism: “Another success of Vatican II was to start the conversation on Christian unity. We now see that we don’t need to be suspicious of other viewpoints, but can create a dialogue that brings about greater spiritual awareness.” One novice with some experience of the years of liturgical ‘creativity’ said, “Presently things are better than just after Vatican II. There was too much experimentation – e.g. guitar Masses.” (!) He added, “Making changes slowly is one thing I love about the monastery. If you move too fast you will inevitably make mistakes. Sometimes you only get one chance to impress someone or tick someone off.”

The novice master in Japan, Fr. Edward Vebelun OSB, notes that Asians sometimes tend to emphasize established rules and lawful authority rather strongly. In this case, it means that the Asian novices support Vatican II as the direction given by Rome. One novice stated, “I think there is nothing wrong with the guidelines provided by the Council, together with the renewed rites promulgated after the Council.” Another is rather cautious about cultural adaptations which might deviate from the Roman rite: “I do not oppose inculturation, but whatever we do should depend on the teachings of the Church.”

One age-old way to prepare oneself for a life of monastic misery and frustration is to enter the community with the intention of reforming it. There seems not to be much of this malady in Collegeville. The American novices stated that their views about liturgy are about the same as their community’s views, although one of them noted that he wished the music were a bit less technical and complicated. The Asians, in contrast, do see themselves as slightly more traditional than their community. One said, “In the eyes of Americans, I think that my liturgical sensitivities would be seen as rather traditional.” He referred to his objections to intercommunion, his preference that only ordained priests give blessings at the Liturgy of the Hours, and the importance of each priest celebrating Mass daily. Another stated, “There is no doubt that my liturgical sensitivities are more traditional than the community in Fuijimi.” He has strong objections to the inaccurate Japanese translation of the liturgy and to the adaptations in the official Japanese books which are not “a good kind of inculturation.”

Little Interest in the Old Rite

The question of the 1962 missal came up. One of the Asian novices who has experience Mass celebrated according to the 1962 missal would like to attend it more because “it is good to know the history of Mass.” Another Asian favors, rather, a more traditional celebration of the reformed rite: “I do not have a strong interest in reviving the 1962 missal. Our Roman missal today is appropriate to the contemporary needs of people. I suggest using this missal with more Latin Gregorian chant.” The American novices similarly express little interest in the old rite. One of them explained his disinterest by saying that “Eucharist is all about community.” Another said, “It is not part of my tradition of Mass. I would prefer not to see more of it. One of the things I like best about the liturgical texts we currently use is that they connect us to our Protestant brothers and sisters, and it is disappointing that the divide between us will grow because of our new translation.” Another said, “From what I have heard about it, I’m not particularly drawn towards this manner of celebration because I believe it draws on a hierarchal model and exclusiveness that we as a Church have intentionally moved away from.”

I showed the novices the speech of Archbishop Di Noia, secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, which claims that young people today are not as naively optimistic about dialogue with the modern world as their Catholic elders oftentimes were, and they have had such a strong experience of a secularized culture that they are drawn to a more traditional Catholicism including the 1962 missal. I asked if this sounded right to them. One novice said, “It is not true of me. These kinds of complaints reflect a self-centered response to liturgy which is less interested in community and service to others and more interested in what’s in it for them.” Another novice saw such conservative trends in some of his peers, but not in himself: “It concerns me that some young people too readily recite Church teachings, rubrics and rules. Christ was not on the side of the scribes and Pharisees, but rather the sinners and downtrodden.” Similarly, another novice said, “Sadly, I think this may be true for some of the young people choosing to join the religious life today. They seem to want to dig the bones out of closets that the generation of Vatican II worked so hard to put away. I get very offended when I get lumped into this group of new religious that are fearful of culture and believe that we have become too relativistic as a faith community. I believe that in any society or culture, when we begin to feel attacked by others’ values and belief, some will attempt to grab for the perceived foundations of our beliefs and hold onto them for dear life. There is definitely a small group of young people who would affirm what the Bishop has said and be vocal about it, but I have joined the religious life in the spirit of Vatican II.” Another said, “I am not clear on why the bishop said that youth today have an enthusiasm for the 1962 missal. Pope Benedict XVI focuses on the beauty and truth of the liturgy. I think that it is the right approach for the liturgical renewal of Vatican II.”

Follow the Rubrics? Sure, But with a Light Touch

I asked the novices how important observance of the rubrics is to them. One told me, “I am very pleased to be in a place that pays attention to the rubrics. But I don’t consider deviation from the rubrics as having an adverse affect on the grace we receive.” Another honestly admitted, “I don’t pay too much attention to this.” One reported that he likes being able to participate at Mass in Tanzania, China, or Argentina and know what is going on without understanding the language – a common ritual makes this possible. He said about the liturgy in Collegeville, “When the rubrics are followed I feel more comfortable being able to take part fully.” But he’s open to some variance which might help us to establish whether the current directives are adequate. “Without seeing any variation, how could we know this?” On the other hand, one novice said that “it is critical that the clergy follow the rubrics at Mass,” and another stated, “I really hope that the priest follows the rubrics of the Church as revised by the Second Vatican Council.” The cultural differences are interesting: both of these last comments are from Asian novices.

Some Gregorian Chant – But Not Too Much

Most of the novices appreciate Gregorian Chant, but there is no outcry to increase its use, and there is some skepticism about it as well. One novice says about chant sung by a schola, “Anytime music is performed I am less likely to be in a prayerful mode. I get distracted by the spectacle.” One says that he appreciates the musical beauty of chant as part of the Church’s tradition, but “what I dislike about it is that not many understand Latin.” He gives an example: “At our funeral liturgies we sing Requiem as we enter the church. I have no idea what it means and I am far too busy trying to walk and sing to try to glance down at the translation.” One novice says, “I appreciate Gregorian chant as prelude, at preparation of the gifts, and during communion. I like the contrast that it presents to more modern music, and that it creates an atmosphere for reflection. I wouldn’t say that I appreciate it a lot, but rather, I appreciate it when it pops up as sparingly as it does.” This same novice said, “When we sing staple pieces like the Salve Regina it make me feel connected to the previous generations of Catholics and I like this.” He adds that if we did much more chant, “it might lose its freshness.” One novice says that he does not appreciate singing Gregorian chant very much because he is so unfamiliar with it. But he likes to have it in the liturgy because the Church teaches that it is to have pride of place. This novice states, “I want to maintain our practice of basically praying in Japanese, but some Latin chant is still important.” Another Asian novice states that “it is very beautiful and I appreciate it a lot,” but “very few people can understand Latin, so I do not think it is necessary for our small community to use Latin in our daily prayers.” He is satisfied that some common Mass parts are sung in Latin, and that a specialized choir comes to the monastery occasionally for a Mass celebrated entirely in Latin chant.

Mixed Views on Eucharistic Adoration

I asked the novices if they are drawn to adoration and Benediction. “Absolutely!” said one. “I love the sense of mystery.” But another novice stated, “I am not drawn to this. Eucharist is great celebrated in community, but taken out of that context it doesn’t do much for me.” One spoke of his experience before novitiate of weekly adoration at a Benedictine community in a foreign country when he was a Benedictine Volunteer. “It was reflective, but I see our personal prayer time as Benedictines more geared toward lectio divina. I see nothing wrong with eucharistic devotions, but I am drawn toward lectio as my source of personal reflection.” On the other hand, one novice said that “adoration and Benediction, as an extension of the community celebration of Mass, is good for monastic prayer.” Another novice stated that he thinks reflective eucharistic adoration is well suited to Japanese culture.

Why Join Up?

I asked the novices what drew them to monastic life with lots of prayer. One novice said, “This is what I wanted, a life of constant prayer. I want to make my whole day and my entire life a constant prayer.” Another novice stated, “Actually, I think it is the community at St. John’s that draws me to a life with so much prayer.” Another admitted, “I don’t see myself being able to hold to a structure of prayer in a life focused on God outside the monastery. The thing that draws me to this life is that I’m not doing it alone, but with the help of many brothers. I’m not always excited to go to liturgy, but having that extra push from others gets me there in the choir stall, and I’m (usually) thankful for that.” One novice believes that “the seeds of contemplative life have been planted in my heart.” One novice feels “such peace and contentment” when praying with his community.

Pray for Them

All four novices in Collegeville have been accepted for Simple Vows and will make profession on September 14th, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Simple Profession for the novices in Japan will be on the Solemnity of Christ the King this November.



Photo of St. John’s novices: Sue Schulzetenberg, The Visitor, St. Cloud


33 responses to “What novices think about liturgy”

  1. Kimberly Hope Belcher Avatar
    Kimberly Hope Belcher

    Fr. Anthony, thanks for doing these interviews. It’s thought-provoking to see what the novices have to say about liturgy and especially about their choice of a monastic life of prayer. I love the diversity among them. God has surely blessed St John’s and Trinity this year!

    (Now I just wish I knew for sure which responses were whose! Not that it matters, but you know, people with little curiosity rarely end up in academia.)

  2. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone

    What a breath of fresh air. Thanks, Anthony, for this illustration that not all young religious are moving lockstep into the past, but rather have nuanced views, and a conscious appreciation for the gains and advances that have been made by the postconciliar Church.

    I’ve read (and written) about the Holy Trinity monastery in Japan; a wonderful building in a beautiful setting!

  3. fred moleck Avatar
    fred moleck

    Father Anthony. Is there anyway you can speed along their way to profession, ordination (if they are sacerdotal bound), blessed as abbots and priors, blessed as bishops and archbishops, and direct large amounts of money to them to set up houses for reformation and sane formation before they change their minds? God speed all of them and you,too,

  4. Father Allan J. McDonald Avatar

    Very encouraging to read these comments. In terms of young people in my neck of the woods is trying to keep them engaged in a world where there is a tendency to keep religion private and so personal that the ecclesial aspect (going to Mass every Sunday, etc) is sometimes neglected, especially by their parents who themselves don’t attend or demand their children attend. Our private Catholic high school which is half Protestant has a marvelous choir. When they do concerts or sing at a school Mass, these teenagers appreciate the Mass and the quality of singing and celebrating that goes into these. If our parish could tap that choir every Sunday (and it is a powerfully traditional choir) I think we’d have kids overflowing into the street. But alas, we can’t tap them every Sunday and our own resources for a youth choir like the school’s choir are very limited. But good music will go a long way in engaging the youth with the Mass and the Church.

    1. Todd Flowerday Avatar

      “If our parish could tap that choir every Sunday I think we’d have kids overflowing into the street.”

      That’s sort of the point of the Gospel, isn’t it? Having believers overflowing into the street.

      How long has your finance committee discussed the means of putting that into practice? As parishioners it’s their task, their apostolate, to uncover the resources and make that happen.

      1. Father Allan J. McDonald Avatar

        There are only so many resources possible, in terms of people and treasure and yes, we have a full time music director and a large budget for music and yes, we do well. But no, we don’t have a youth choir of 75 kids like our private Catholic high school has or the mandatory requirement that one joins as a part of one’s “humanities formation” for credit and grade. But yes, these kids are great! Hopefully their high school experience is in fact resources spent on them teaching them to continue to sing in church choirs when they are adult Catholics and Protestants.

      2. Todd Flowerday Avatar

        Oh, I’m very familiar with limited resources. But, working with resources always involves priorities. Sometimes long-honored priorities that don’t overflow the seats need to be pruned.

        You don’t need a choir of 75 to produce good music. You do need inspirational leadership that engages young people outside of adult-imposed requirements. I’ve also worked with academic-required events for young people. It’s great to get a handful of parents into the pews for these occasions. But I would hope the overall vision of the parish is more than wringing hands that we can’t have a Mt Tabor experience every week.

        Sometimes I get the impression that reform2 people think all they have to do is mimic Pope Benedict and everything will be a fine and rosy 1950. Authentic liturgy is a lot more difficult and a lot more subtle than that. It also must have an eye on evangelization. If you have one possible solution to getting bodies in the pew, it would seem that takes priority over otherwise fine ideas that don’t.

        On web sites like this, promoting good liturgy is literally preaching to the choir. But as I’ve mentioned before, when good liturgical pastors and music directors leave a parish, do they leave behind a better-formed laity? Or do their parishioners see good liturgy and liturgical practices as the optional foibles of particular individuals?

  5. John Drake Avatar
    John Drake

    Birds of a feather, eh, Father?

    In all seriousness, I will offer my rosary today for these young men and their discernment.

  6. Ralph Harris Avatar
    Ralph Harris

    “I am not drawn to Eucharistic adoration. Eucharist is great celebrated in community, but taken out of that context it doesn’t do much for me.”

    I find myself 100% in agreement with this opinion, as I am with most things on Pray Tell. I have absolutely no use for Eucharistic adoration, nor do I see it as a prerequisite for a good religious life. Thank you, Fr. Anthony, for once again promoting a theological opinion in accordance with my own, even if it’s ‘atypical.’

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      Ralph, as one who personally is drawn to adoration and likes Benediction, I respect what you’re saying. I think it’s important to note that this type of adoration didn’t exist (for the most part) in the first millennium, and still doesn’t in the East. For those Catholics who draw spiritual nourishment from adoration – great! But it isn’t a litmus test for true Catholicism or a sign of greater Catholic faith. No Catholic needs to like it or do it without feeling a lesser member of the Church.

      1. John Finn Avatar
        John Finn

        Well, as you’ve said before Father, the liturgical customs of the East are different from ours. Adoration and Benediction are an important part of the western devotional tradition and have been for more than one thousand years.
        I can’t help but think that their formation during their postulancy has influenced their views in this area and in other areas. I guess that is to be expected.

      2. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        But John, you have absolutely no information on their formation during postulancy, correct? Do you know whether we have postulancy at St. John’s Abbey, or how long it lasts, or what it consists of? I’m shocked that you make such far-ranging assumptions about this and “other areas,” since you have no idea whatsoever what you’re talking about.

      3. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        Say what, John, Benediction has been part of Western tradition for more than a thousand years?? Please tell me more about Benediction in the 9th and 10th centuries, this would be very new to me!

        You’re off by several centuries, I’m afraid.

      4. John Finn Avatar
        John Finn

        That the traditional postulant has been rechristened an “explorer” & “candidate” does not change the probability that a postulant, explorer, candidate might be influenced by the religious sensibilities of the community to which he is discerning a vocation. If “candidates” are not influenced by the religious sensibilities of the community after three or more months I”d be disappointed. One of the best indicators of any teacher’s efficacy is his student.
        I said that adoration & benediction have been important in the western tradition for a thousand years. I did not say that either necessarily took the same form as they do today. I see it in the history of the elevation that goes back at least to the 1100s but also in the lifting of the Host before the “Our Father” that predates the
        11th c. elevation by many years.

      5. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you meant “Benediction” when you wrote “Benediction.” Which, BTW, didn’t exist in ANY form before the 14th c.

      6. Paul Inwood Avatar
        Paul Inwood

        John Finn said I see it in the history of the elevation that goes back at least to the 1100s but also in the lifting of the Host before the “Our Father” that predates the
        11th c. elevation by many years.

        I’m sure Nocent would have had something to say about this rather bizarre view of the history of liturgy. We need to be careful about what we think we see, John.

      7. Ralph Harris Avatar
        Ralph Harris

        Fr. Anthony,
        I am 100% in agreement with what you say. I’ve never bought into the whole “The Church’s Theological understanding develops over the centuries,” theory. On other blogs (which shall remain nameless) when I dared to voice my opinion about Eucharistic adoration, I was called all kinds of names. Again, thank you for providing a blog where views like mine are actually encouraged.

    2. F C Bauerschmidt Avatar

      I’m not sure Fr. Anthony is “promoting,” but only reporting.

      As for this particular novice’s opinion, one might hope that it will develop, given a bit more theological and spiritual formation.

      1. Father Allan J. McDonald Avatar

        Amen to that F C and certainly growth will occur by the grace of God.

    3. Father Allan J. McDonald Avatar

      Certainly love for our Lord in whatever way God chooses to reveal His Son should be important for our Christian idenity in general and our Catholic identity in particular. I know many people who may not find Eucharistic adoration a spirituality they feel called to participate actively, however, they do recognize that Eucharistic Adoration is one marvelous way to have a focused moment with the Real Presence of Christ over a prolonged contemplative period of time.We really are speaking about God’s personal relationship with each of in Jesus Christ aren’t we? And the gift of faith that enables us to respond to God’s loving initiatives which are many.

      1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        I think reading Scripture and reception of Holy Communion are much more central to monastic life than is eucharistic adoration. St. Benedict established that monks are to pray over Scripture (lectio divina) daily. It is likely that his monks received Communion daily after one of the little hours (they didn’t have daily Mass and Benedict was skeptical of having many priests in the community.)

        Nathan Mitchell (Cult and Controversy) shows that there was honor and respect paid to the holy bread during the liturgy very early, but any eucharistic devotion outside the liturgy was slow in coming. There is no evidence of going to visit the reserved sacrament devotionally before the 13th century. There is no evidence of giving Benediction with the sacrament before the 14th century – and this might have been with the sacrament in a container and not visible at first.

        As much as I like eucharistic adoration and Benediction, I don’t think they are an integral or mandatory part of our Catholic tradition, and I don’t think they should be put on a par with reading Scripture or receiving Communion.


      2. Father Allan J. McDonald Avatar

        I don’t necessarily disagree with your “hierarchical” approach to what came first and what is more important. I agree actually. Certainly for a monastic community, rules would be a bit stricter than for the general lay population of the Church. I was being the “devil’s advocate” in the strict legal sense. Technically, a lay Catholic does not have to read Scriptures for devotional purposes, receive Holy Communion every Sunday (once a year is mandated) or take part in Eucharistic adoration. They could still be a “good Catholic” and not do these things. I do think that liturgical law would say that one should genuflect when passing in front of the tabernacle and once mandated you should go to both knees and bow before the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance. That of course has been relaxed and if one has bad knees, one could simply make a profound bow, unless of course one has a bad back.

    4. Father Allan J. McDonald Avatar

      Ralph, certainly your own spirituality and piety can exist without Eucharistic adoration and you would still be Catholic. But could you imagine someone saying they have absolutely no use for reading the Scriptures apart from Sunday Mass attendance? Or having no use for receiving Holy Communion apart from the once a year “Easter duty?” Receiving Holy Communion every Sunday and reading Scriptures as a devotion are not prerequisites for a good religious life and many people have absolutely no use for these expressions of devotion. However, it does seem like minimalism and not making full use of all that is available. At the least one should not denigrate what others might find important but certainly no one should castigate you for any form of minimalism you might prefer. Catholicism has room for minimalists and maximilists.

  7. Joseph O'Leary Avatar
    Joseph O’Leary

    Young people are not ideological yoyos to be manipulated by cantankerous armchair reactionaries. They are more in touch with the reality of our times than we oldies should presume to be.

  8. Bill deHaas Avatar
    Bill deHaas

    Don’t often agree with Fr. O’Leary but well said. Would add that parishioners are also not “ideological yoyos”.

  9. Jack Wayne Avatar
    Jack Wayne

    Ralph Harris :

    On other blogs (which shall remain nameless) when I dared to voice my opinion about Eucharistic adoration, I was called all kinds of names. Again, thank you for providing a blog where views like mine are actually encouraged.

    What is the opinion that got you in trouble?

    The only time I’ve ever noticed discord concerning adoration is when people who don’t like it think it should be actively discouraged or (more specifically) denied to those for whom it is important. I love adoration/benediction, but don’t go to if very often (I usually only go when it is held directly after Mass). I also know people who never go, as well as people who go once a week or more. I’ve never noticed anyone judging someone else to be a lesser Catholic.

    One of the great beauties of Catholicism is that in addition to the communal worship of the Mass, there are many ways to connect to Jesus in a personal way.

  10. Father Allan J. McDonald Avatar

    By the way, getting back to what this post is about, it is nice to see that these men chose a community that hasn’t abandoned the habit. Are they permitted to abandon the habit on their own accord to add diversity to the community look if they prefer to wear jeans and a tee shirt? In the 70’s our seminary allowed all forms of dress for seminarians but laid down the law when some of our seminarians started to wear bib overalls without a shirt or a tee shirt under the bib! We were ahead of our time too with flip flops! 🙂

  11. Todd Flowerday Avatar

    I think there’s a difference between mendicant and cloistered orders in the approach to religious dress. I can’t say I’ve ever understood the fuss of non-members about men or women religious in the world whose communities wear non-traditional clothing.

    The Trappists I know wear work clothing when performing manual labor–that makes sense.

    As for seminarians, well, a certain professional standard should apply. Outside of seminary liturgy, I’d suggest they all drop clerical dress. That always struck me as license to imitate a priest, and until they’re ordained to the diaconate, they’re still lay people.

    1. Kimberly Hope Belcher Avatar
      Kimberly Hope Belcher

      License to imitate a priest? The Benedictine habit is monastic garb, not clerical dress.

      One of my students last year, a Benedictine seminarian from another monastery, told the class his habit was a real symbol of stability, continuing conversion toward poverty and celibacy, and his attitude of obedience to the Rule of Benedict and his abbot. Those are not the ministry of the priesthood, but they are the vocation of a monk.


      1. Samuel J. Howard Avatar

        I think you’ve missed Todd’s point, which was precisely to distinguish between habit and clerical dress.

      2. Kimberly Hope Belcher Avatar
        Kimberly Hope Belcher

        Whooops, Todd, read too fast.

  12. Samuel J. Howard Avatar

    Fr. Ruff, so from these excerpts, it sounds like the one novice mentioned as having experience with the extraordinary form would like to see more of it: “would like to attend it more”,

    While the others make comments that suggest they don’t have experience with it: “It is not part of my tradition of Mass.” “From what I have heard about it,”

    That seems like an interesting contrast, though perhaps you can comment on whether it’s accurate, it’s hard to tell based on your excerpts.

  13. Ralph Harris Avatar
    Ralph Harris

    @Fr. Allen
    Again, I am very grateful to have a forum (Pray Tell) where my views are not ridiculed, but actually promoted! As stated (like Fr. Anthony’s postulant) I have absolutely no interest in Eucharistic adoration, especially because I have serious doubts about the notion of the ‘development’ of Theological understanding over the centuries. To me, that is complete nonsense, and I am so glad to find so many like-minded people on this blog.

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