Passion for Christ
On the occasion of the inauguration of the bicentennial celebration
Of Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B.
“Forward, always forward… “, “We need to expand…”
When you read or hear these words you think to be in front of a conqueror running on a horse on top of his army. This impression will be reinforced when you think of the motto of Boniface Wimmer’s coat of arms: In hoc signo vinces – in this sign you will be victorious,” the words of Jesus Christ to the Great Emperor Constantine. This gives you all kind of associations. And before Boniface Wimmer joined other fellows to restart the abbey of Metten again, he twice had applied for being accepted as a soldier in the Greek war for liberation.
It sounds different when he writes: “Each Abbey must become the mother of other abbeys.” Conquering for Christ, for the Benedictines on one hand, we may say. But it is also natural to give birth to children and to survive in one’s children. There have been monasteries that have given birth continuously to other monasteries. Think of this monastery here, of St. Walburg in Eiehstätt, Maria Rickenbach in Switzerland, Stanbrook in England or St. Ottilien in Bavaria, my own monastery.
To Boniface Wimmer, mission work and founding Benedictine monasteries have been the same. The Benedictines in the Early Middle Ages of Europe have evangelized the continent. Although this might be a romantic interpretation of the real monastic situation in the Middle Ages, there is no doubt that the monks played a key role in the Christianization of Europe and in building up European Civilization by transforming the Greek-Roman, Celtic, Germanic and other traditions. Monks have been the stronghold of stability and culture in the times of the European migrations during the 5th to the 7th century. They were the stabilizing factors in times of unrest. Monks were not only conserving values but producing and developing them as teachers, farmers, artists, craftsmen, librarians, musicians, poets. They preserved us through their scriptoriums the ancient literature, which makes you think of the microfilm library in St. John’s, Collegeville, Wimmer’s first daughter house.
Inspired by these examples of the importance of monasteries among migrants Boniface Wimmer had a great vision of his task and his vocation. He worked out strategic plans to set up Benedictine monasteries in the whole of North America, from East to West, the South to the North including Canada, not in order to increase the Benedictine statistics but to win through Benedictines the whole continent for the Church. Looking again at his motto he could be called a “Benedictine Constantine the Great.” In hoc signs vinces is a promise and a call. He followed the example of the great missionary monk Boniface from Ireland who established in the then area of Germany the ecclesiastical structure but in the same time had been most eager in establishing monastic communities as the spiritual and cultural centres for the local churches. Fulda has become the most important place where he is buried and each year the German Episcopal conference has its meetings. (It may be a slightly humorous observation that like St. Boniface, Archabbot Boniface was on very good terms with Rome, and when he got into trouble over the autonomy of the monastery activities with Bishop O’Connor of Pittsburgh, the Propaganda Fide was on the side of the abbot as St. Boniface had won over Bishop St. Virgil in Salzburg. To St. Boniface, The Rule of Saint Benedict has not just been one monastic rule among many but the real Roman Rule as the Rule of the Church.)
But Boniface Wimmer was a strategist in a modem sense. He not only had developed plans for spreading monasteries all over the continent, but also for keeping them united in a monastic congregation. Remaining united they would be stronger and safer. He also thought far beyond that. He had been the first in line to send personnel — 2 professors and 2 students — to the newly revived Collegio di S. Anselmo Rome. This common centre of the Benedictine Confederation had been the apple of the eye of Pope Leo XIII. Long before the Benedictine Confederation had been started in 1883, already in the sixties Wimmer has published the first Benedictine Catalogus, i.e. the first directory of the Benedictine monks of those days.
He had been a man of strong autonomy for each monastery, but he foresaw that in the future we shall only flourish and survive by strong collaboration. S. Anselmo has developed since that time and is nowadays a living quarters for 120 professors and students, mainly Benedictines from 40 nations, and the residence of the International Papal University of S. Anselmo with 450 students.
Boniface Wimmer continued to develop new plans relentlessly throughout his life: “The fervour must not be allowed to cool down,” he writes. This may be understood in a psychological way, but it touches the real core and heart of Boniface Wimmer, his passion for Christ and his Gospel. “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel,” St. Paul writes in his 1st letter to the community in Corinth and underlines it several times. In the beginning of the letter to the Romans he writes: “I am under obligation. That is why I am eager to preach the gospel also to you.” In this context it fits very well that the celebration of 200 years of Boniface Wimmer coincides with the jubilee of 2000 years of the birth of St. Paul, proclaimed by the Holy Father. Abbot Boniface and St. Paul are so close in their fervour, in their passion for Christ, in their strategic mindedness, their visions, their aspirations, their fights with some church authorities, in their hard-headedness, which may also be called sacred stubbornness, in their endurance, perseverance, in their sufferings, sacrifices, sleepless nights.
Deep in their hearts they were one in their unending love for Christ and in their desire that everybody in this world may come to know Jesus as Saviour of Humankind. So, Boniface Wimmer has been a great missionary but no real monk, many said and many still would say. It is the old and continued discussion based on the dichotomy of active and contemplative life dating back already to the beginnings of monasticism. During German and French Romanticism in the 19th century it resurfaced strongly again. Whereas in Germany the abbots Congregation Beuron helped Abbot Norbert Weber from St. Ottilien to find a convenient solution to combine both aspects, La-Pierre-qui-Vire in France, founded by P. Muard as a monastery for foreign missions, after some decades turned completely into a mere contemplative community. The Marianhill Fathers who once had been Trappists and wanted to work as missionaries and monks had been forced to leave the order. Nowadays they regret so much for having lost their monastic roots and their Benedictine identity.
Without starting a profound discussion, please, allow me two observations:
— Many bishops nowadays knock at the doors Benedictine monasteries asking for a contemplative foundation. “This expression cannot be found in the Rule of Saint Benedict. The elements of Benedict’s definition in the 1st chapter are: life in community, under a rule and an abbot. Some Benedictine communities, esp. of women, may follow closer a contemplative way of life, but the character of Benedictine monastics is their cenobitarian way of life. The individual contemplation of God is not the first aim but it is rather the completion of Christ’s love by living together and serving the people of God. Of course, his rule deals only with the daily life of the monastic family, the monastic enclosure should prevent monks from roaming around and being lazy. It would be contradictory to say on one hand “Nothing should be preferred to Christ,” and on the other: “A monk IS not allowed to preach and witness the Gospel.”
— There follows my second observation. As Christians we all have to follow Jesus Christ, and we as monastics are doing so in a special way. Now, has Jesus been contemplative or active? Paul the doubtlessly great mystic has he only been active or also contemplative in the same way? There is no such dichotomy in Christianity. Reality is one. Only because our human intellect cannot think this kind of oneness and concreteness. It has to separate both into two distinct entities in order to understand them. Throughout the History of Western Philosophy and Thinking we can observe such a dichotomy that dates back to Plato. Yet there is a big difference between Plato and Christ: Plato and also modem esoteric people are looking for some mystical encounter with the Divine, for some enlightenment, and in search for liberation from all bodily tendencies and instincts, a Christian monk finds his liberation, as all Christians should, in his complete union or oneness with the love of Jesus Christ. In the poor and the needy a monk encounters Christ. And it is the oneness with the love of Christ that also carries monks out of their walls and countries in order to serve the people, proclaim the Gospel, witness the merciful love of God, baptize and teach people.
If we want to understand the craziness of the vision and work of Boniface Wimmer, we must understand the craziness of the love of God to send his son as a sacrifice for the liberation of humankind from the bonds of sin. Even the most contemplative monastery must have its missionary dimension and interest. In the mission of the church and of the monastics we can find a great variety of missionary charisms. Also this charism finds its incarnation according to the character of the individual. Not everyone will be so courageous, strategic, fearless and stormy as Wimmer had been and before him St. Boniface and St. Paul. There are many types of missionary and monastic vocations.
Yesterday on the plane Iread in a newspaper a word of your new president Obama. When he was asked how he is going to treat the people who have done harm at Iraq or Guantanamo he answered: “Our task is the future. Let us look forward. ” A word which would fit also to Boniface Wimmer. Don’t allow to be blocked by the past which is gone nor by the present. We have to tackle the challenges, the problems of aging communities, lacking vocations and so on. Maybe we can overcome them more easily by opening new horizons, new perspectives, and as a result our present problems will be put into perspective. Don’t be afraid, don’t be so much concerned about yourself. “Be concerned about the kingdom of God, and everything will be given to you.” If we are no longer generous, how should God be still generous to us?
A last word which came up to my mind when we were to listening this wonderful choir and singing vespers together with their beautiful voices the praise of God. This is real Benedictine culture in top-form. But imagine what would have happened, what would we have here if Boniface Wimmer would have given up or given in to the many critiques in his time, the warnings not to start? No St. Vincent with all its contributions to the Church and the education, to its foundations and all their contributions! Nothing, nothing at all! Thank God he withstood all these people with his stubbornness which in view of the display of God’s works through him I would call “sacred stubbornness”. May the Lord revive that spirit in our times in all of our monastic communities!
Notker Wolf O.S.B.,
January 14, 2009