Boniface Wimmer: Biblical, Catholic, Benedictine
Anniversaries have a way of nurturing nostalgia, but they are far more important as reminders of an original vision that can be a guide for the future. And when the monks of Saint Vincent reflect on the history and future of their institution, they must come to terms with the impressive figure of Boniface Wimmer. He did more than found Saint Vincent; he gave it a direction and a momentum that we still feel today. No one would deny his achievements as a founder and a missionary, but there are still misgivings by some about the direction that Wimmer gave to monasticism at Saint Vincent and indeed to the entire congregation of abbeys and priories that derives from his foundation. This would seem to be a good time to examine this crucial issue.
As we consider this question, we will notice how important it is to go beneath appearances and discover a spirit in Wimmer that belongs to the deepest level of religious experience. His faith was generally expressed in the traditional forms of his day, but at crucial moments it was so creative and confident that it reminds us of great biblical believers like Abraham and David. His Catholic spirit was sometimes expressed in defensive and parochial ways, but his larger vision was as boundless and daring as that of his patron, Saint Boniface. Some questioned his understanding of monastic values, but his efforts were more fruitful than any other monastic renewal in modern times.
Vibrant Faith in Stagnant Times
The mid-nineteenth century was not a particularly glorious period in the history of the Catholic Church. The liturgy was rigid and ritualistic, preaching was florid and apologetical, and pious devotions seemed more important than biblically based spiritually. It is said that Wimmer was bored by the long and rambling speeches he heard at the First Vatican Council. In fact, the subject matter of that Council was not all that interesting. It is remembered for the definitions of papal infallibility and of the Immaculate Conception, but papal authority was already well established and the Immaculate Conception was already honored in the Church’s liturgy. In fact, the Council was largely defensive in the face of rampant secularism. Wimmer was bored no doubt because he had little sympathy with defensive attitudes.
Attitudes are especially important where religion is at issue. There is a kind of faith that is concerned with right ideas and words but does not worry much about right attitudes. One can affirm orthodox creedal formulas and still live in a way that is so fearful and negative that the meaning of the professed words is practically denied. It is strange indeed that one can affirm the resurrection of Jesus while living in a fearful and negative way and never be accused of heresy.
Boniface Wimmer may have lived in a theologically barren era but his faith was vibrant and positive and wonderfully fruitful. He manifested that confidence in God’s presence in human history that is the characteristic of all the great believers. Like Abraham, the father of all believers (Rom 4:16), he trusted God’s promises and dared to take risks when many counseled caution or retreat. “Forward, always forward, everywhere forward,” he wrote. Like Israel’s King David, Wimmer was attuned to the divine goodness that is revealed in history promised in the future and, most of all, sensed in himself. Because of this inner confidence, he was remarkably unselfconscious. There was no hint in him of preoccupation with image. He would not even pose for a formal photograph, and he was embarrasseD by well-deserved praise. His trust in God’s goodness enabled him to focus all his attention on his work for others.
Wimmer also had some of the faults of David. He was so sure of himself and of the rightness of his mission that he sometimes did not take time to listen to others, to persuade them or to explain his intentions to them. Scholars like to point out that most of King David’s sins came from his impulsive behavior. When he pridefully took a census of land, for example, he was typically overreaching his mandate from God. Wimmer’s problems with the Benedictine Sisters and with some of his own confreres seem to derive from this kind of impulsive self-confidence. This does not exonerate him entirely but it puts these controversies into a context that is compatible with his many admirable qualities.
We live today in a period of vibrant theological discourse. Vatican Council II was far from boring as it dealt with issues that touch the very heart of Christian experience: a reformed liturgy, collegiality, openness to other religions and to the modern world. There was nothing defensive about this Council. Wimmer’s action-oriented theology based on prayerful faith would feel quite at home in this atmosphere with all its difficult challenges.
Monasticism without Apologies
Monasticism has an important ascetical dimension but it is primarily a witness to gospel values. It affirms the reality of divine presence in Jesus Christ and celebrates that presence in regular prayer. The image of God found in all human beings is honored, first of all, in love and respect for the other members of the monastic community, and this honor is then extended in love and service to all men and women. Authentic monasticism has always been apostolic; it has always sought to share its treasures of spiritual wisdom and human knowledge with all humankind.
It has been noted with justice that Wimmer’s monastic formation was rather sketchy. In the early day of Metten Abbey’s restoration there was probably much that was makeshift. However, Wimmer was a well-educated and well-read man and the suggestion that he did not really understand monasticism seemed quite arbitrary. This charge was made against him throughout his career as abbot and is still heard today. Specifically, he was accused of sacrificing monastic values for the sake of his single-minded devotion to missionary activities. Wimmer would probably be the first to admit that monastic observance suffered from the constant bleeding of his community for the sake of new foundations. However, that does not mean that anything essential was lacking. His monastic observance was fruitful in spiritual benefits because it did not spend its energy in preoccupied self-measurement against the theoretical ideals of others.
The Romantic Temptation
Human attitudes toward life can range from the illusion of the very romantic to the cynicism of the very realistic. There is little doubt that Wimmer’s attitude was on the realistic side. He was remarkably down-to-earth and pragmatic. When some of his monks criticized his monastic observance and listened to the siren song of Beuron or Gethsemane, he concluded that they were being attracted to a form of monasticism which, though beautiful, was more out of touch than his own practical and pastoral approach.
From a romantic prospective, appearances acquire a special importance. This attitude is a constant temptation in religion because to create appearance is much less costly than to achieve true and painful interior conversion. It is easier to look like a monk than to be one. Wimmer was not one to be greatly concerned about appearances. If there ever was a picture worth a thousand words, it is the photograph of Wimmer, seated with his capitulars, his skullcap slightly off-center, behind a table whose cloth cover is all askew. This image is an apt metaphor of his concern for substance and results rather than for an external patina of order or charm.
A romantic monasticism looks for the glamour of soaring towers, bucolic setting, lilting chant, and flowing robes. It is not that these are unmonastic themselves. The danger is that they may be given priority over hard work, personal generosity, and patient fidelity. Wimmer certainly appreciated good music, beautiful art, and fine architecture. But, most of all, he cherished a generous heart, a steady and reliable obedience and a deep pastoral sensitivity for the needs of others. His monasticism was not sophisticated but it was very fruitful. There is little evidence that those who criticized him found a better way to render Christian service or to be a witness to monastic hope.
God’s Best Opportunities Are Revealed in Plain History
One of the most striking manifestations of Wimmer’s commitment to gospel ideals and authentic monastic tradition was his ability to look for God’s gift in the reality of life as it unfolds, rather than as it is planned or contrived. He took what life offered him and made the most of it. He did, or course, have a general vision of missionary work for German settlers in the new world but the realization of those hopes took surprising turns as history offered him both unexpected opportunities and sobering disappointments. The parish at Saint Vincent was not really a German settlement, but he chose it over the very German but less promising Carrolltown. Conventional wisdom maintains that monasteries should avoid cities, but Newark was the proverbial exception. There were very few Catholics in the South, but the poverty and need there could not be ignored. He came to care for German Catholics but he promoted a Bohemian parish in Chicago and an Irish foundation in Iowa.
Wimmer was not wedded to any rigid plan and therefore he could accept disappointments cheerfully and seize opportunities gratefully. Like King David, he was so sure of God’s goodness that he could trust his instincts; in his own way, he too leapt and danced before the ark of the covenant (2 Sam 6:14), and he too was criticized for his boldness. He allowed the American mission field to tell him what was needed and he resounded with enthusiasm. As a result, he found beautiful flowers in God’s meadow and he did not complain because he happened not to know the names of some of them.
God certainly provides an abundance of obvious gifts in this world but the best gifts are wrapped in mystery. We all prefer the obvious, beautifully wrapped gifts but we must avoid the tragic mistake of accepting only these comprehensible favors and ignoring or rejecting the gifts that come in plain brown wrappers.
God gave the people of Galilee a Messiah who would give them what they wanted: miracles, exorcisms, and glowing promises. But then God gave them a mysterious Messiah who spoke in parables and lost his power and was put to death. Only those who could accept and embrace this mysterious Messiah were able to witness and enter into the ultimate gift of resurrection glory.
Wimmer was blest in many obvious ways. But there were ambiguous and mysterious gifts in his life too. They came mostly in the form of talented but predictable fellow monks. Time and again he gave positions of trust to men who turned against him. They reported him to Rome; they concocted small conspiracies; they even led some away to supposedly greener pastures. The fact that they were a disappointment to Wimmer is not however the real story. What captures one’s attention is Wimmer’s willingness to forgive them and to entrust new and greater responsibilities to them: Zilliox became abbot of Newark Abbey; Moosmueller was offered the abbot’s office at Belmont; Hintenach was allowed to stay on as prior at Saint Vincent and later succeeded Wimmer as archabbot.
Wimmer was so confident that he was doing God’s work that he could make the most of imperfect situations and draw the best from resistant collaborators. He would have concurred completely with the comment of one of his successors as archabbot. When Denis Strittmatter was criticized once for not leading Saint Vincent to greater achievements, he replied simply: “I only have the cards that were dealt to me, and they’re not all aces.” The test of a true leader, and an expert card player, is the ability to make the most of less-than-perfect resources. Anyone can play the aces. Wimmer did not sit and complain about the cards that were dealt to him but was able to rise above hurt feelings and to challenge talented people to be productive in spite of his own and their human feelings.
Trust Crowns a Faithful Life
Boniface Wimmer was a man of sturdy constitution and exceptional energy. His psychic balance was also manifested in his ability to remain calm and even-tempered in the most stressful circumstances. But it was especially his spiritual strength that emerged as his physical powers began to weaken. He was realistic to the very end: “I am afraid of death, but likewise of a long life, since it is very doubtful that I could or would do much better.”
His trust in the goodness of God, which had enabled him to be optimistic in the days of his strength, became even more evident as he approached the end. He reflected: “I am therefore not sad, nor do I feel discontented or unhappy. Human beings are human beings, and suffering is suffering.” It is especially difficult for strong and forceful people to deal with weakness. Wimmer had been very strong, and at the end he was very trusting in God’s goodness and mercy. Trust does indeed crown a faithful life.
The accomplishments of Wimmer speak for themselves. Commenting on these achievements shortly after his death in 1887, Sadlier’s Catholic Directory would say of the Saint Vincent Benedictines: “Nothing in the growth of the Church in this country exceeds the wonderful development of this community.” The New York Herald commented about Wimmer: “His acts of kindness and of charity extended to all classes and conditions of society, and there is scarcely a poor family in all the region about the monastery that, at some time or another, has not been the recipient of his bounty.”
Those who question the direction set for the future by the founding community may, after more careful thought, discover in Boniface Wimmer’s heritage the daring wisdom and goodness needed to face the unique challenges provided by the dawn of a new millennium.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.