In my years as a priest in Oklahoma, I've followed pastors who did well and had to fill in to replace a couple of pastors who did poorly. You'd think it might be better to follow someone who did poorly because then you could be a hero. But it doesn't work that way. It's far better to follow someone who did well because all of the high regard they had for your beloved predecessor gets transferred on to you.
A pastor who serves well leaves behind a community that is united, confident and in love with the Lord. And Abbot Elijah, you follow a series of abbots who have guided this community well for over 142 years. And now you inherit not only responsibility for this community, but also a rich patrimony of blessings and high regard built up by your predecessors. This patrimony includes material possessions and apostolic endeavors, like the Academy and the Coury House Retreat Center, and, of course, Monk Sauce, peanut brittle, sausage and very good beer.
But humanly speaking, the greatest treasure you inherit by far is your brother monks of whom you have now become father. How does it feel to have 34 sons all of a sudden? Most of whom are older than you. Sons who need to receive from you everything any son needs to receive from his father.
This will require of you death to self, which will require of you much patience, love, a good example and on occasion, the courage to give a specific monk helpful reminders of how he can improve his participation in the life of the community — expressed with fatherly solicitude and fatherly authority. Obedience that to a certain degree is mutual because it is born of a listening, loving heart.
But I must warn you: leadership in the Church is not for the faint of heart. It never has been. And so, you must be watchful, vigilant and faithful, which Jesus emphasizes in various places in the New Testament. When Scripture reminds you to "gird your loins" the idea is that as abbot you need always to be ready for action when action is required. When Scripture says you need to "light your lamps" the idea is that as abbot you need always to keep your eyes open.
We know all too well the disasters that occur when Church leaders turn a blind eye to problems that must be addressed and fail to shine the light of truth on evils that need to be exposed and eradicated. This will sometimes require of you a great deal of intestinal fortitude. And you must always be prepared because as abbot, such things will often come to your attention "at an hour you do not expect."
So, Abbot Elijah, have I scared you off? It’s too late for you to back out now. But there is no need to fear. I can tell you from personal experience that the Lord will provide you with every grace and everything else you need to be a good father to this monastic community. This community, by the way, which has always had such a good relationship with the diocese, something which I do not take for granted because that’s not always the case everywhere. But here it is true. As I have said elsewhere, this abbey is in some ways the spiritual heart of the Catholic Church in Arkansas. We from the diocese cherish you and you always make us feel so welcome — Benedictine hospitality at its best. We’re all in this together. So it gives me great joy to give you my blessing, and above all, that of the Lord.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily July 16 for the blessing of the new abbot at Subiaco Abbey, Abbot Elijah Owens.
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