The Heritage of Boniface Wimmer
It is wonderful to be at Saint Vincent once again, in this community that nourished me when I was young. And it is truly an honor to have been invited to speak to you this evening. I am particularly delighted to see so many friends-old and new-here tonight.
For those of us who spent much of our youth in these hallowed halls, to return to Saint Vincent is to return home…because Saint Vincent is more than a place, more than an institution, more even than an alma mater. It is a community, a Benedictine community that embraces everyone who has ever been part of it. And its embrace is not something one can ignore. The embrace of a Benedictine community is the equivalent of a bear hug.
What is a Benedictine community? Saint Benedict calls it a “school of the Lord’s service.” But for him, the Latin word “schola”—school—signified not a building or an institution, not a college or a seminary… but rather a family-a family whose members include the young and the old, the wise and the inexperienced, the elders and those who come to learn the wisdom of the elders. Such a school as this exists so that its members may serve the Lord by serving one another. It exists for the purpose of passing on a sacred inheritance, an ancient wisdom, from one generation to the next.
In his sixth-century Rule, Saint Benedict makes clear again and again that the Benedictine community is a family-a family where members are valued for who they are and not for what they do, a family whose members devote their lives not principally to taking care of themselves and their individual needs but to supporting, caring for, and taking care of the needs of others, particularly other members of the family.
That is the kind of community Saint Vincent is, and that is why, for those of us who are, or who ever have been, part of this community-and I include all of us here this evening-to return to Saint Vincent is to return home.
I don’t want to overstate this, or to exaggerate it, or, God forbid, to sentimentalize it. But I do want to emphasize it. In the sixth century, Saint Benedict created a community of monks who came together to seek God through work and prayer and to support one another in their spiritual quest. The core of that community was the monks-and soon, when Benedictine communities of women were formed, the nuns. But very quickly the community came also to include young people who arrived to study at the monastery school; orphans who were abandoned at the monastery gates; youth who were left by their parents to be cared for by the monks; local people who turned to the monks for spiritual comfort, material assistance, and even advice on how to plant their crops; benefactors who came to the monastery’s aid when their aid was needed; travelers who sought the hospitality of the monks. All these good people-whom Saint Benedict called “guests”-soon became part of the Benedictine community too and participated in the prayers and celebrations, the joys and sorrows, the intellectual pursuits, the work, and the spiritual quest of the Benedictine family.
An important point to remember is that from the time of Saint Benedict-and since then for the past fifteen centuries-the Benedictine family has in a very real sense been both inclusive and diverse. It has embraced multitudes. “Let all guests who come to the monastery be welcomed as Christ,” Saint Benedict says. “Let them be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Think for a moment about what that means. When we come to the Benedictine community, we are welcomed as if we were Christ himself. We are not simply received politely, as if we were registering at a hotel, where we are asked to fill out a registration form and to give our home address and telephone number, and, of course, to provide a credit card that can be conveniently swiped so that we can be charged at the end of our stay without even realizing it. Nor are we received as inconvenient nuisances who remind our hosts of Benjamin Franklin’s comment, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”
No, we are received in the Benedictine community not as guests in the usual sense but as members of the family, and-astonishingly -as if we were Christ himself. In the chapter of his Rule that Saint Benedict devotes to guests, he says, “Great care and concern must be shown especially in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly is Christ received.”
Over the centuries, the Benedictine family has offered to all those who seek truth, who seek a life in accordance with Christ’s good news-to all those (in fact) who seek God-an opportunity to carry on their search and to encounter these realities in an ambience of prayer and peace, in a caring and supportive community, in a nurturing family.
That is why when we speak of the Saint Vincent community, we refer not just to the monks who work and pray and spend their lives here-though they are an essential part and indeed the core of it-but we also refer to all others who have been welcomed into this inclusive family-the students, of course, but also the faculty and administration; the friends and benefactors; those who visit often and those who come just once in a while from faraway places like Haiti.
This family includes alumni; oblates; parishioners; those who come to pray and participate in the inspiring liturgies; those who come for retreats; those in the college s adult education program; seminarians from distant dioceses; those who come to seek spiritual renewal or to do research in the library or to attend a Threshold Lecture. All of us are guests who are received as Christ himself, and thus, we become part of the Saint Vincent community and are warmly welcomed into the Benedictine family. We all experience the Benedictine bear hug.
So when Archabbot Douglas asked me to come to Saint Vincent to speak about Boniface Wimmer, I accepted immediately-because I always like to come home to the family. But I was worried. Coming home is one thing. Standing up before the community-which God knows can be a very daunting audience and saying something that keeps their interest and attention, is quite another thing altogether. I wondered what I would say.
When I asked for ideas from a few of my friends here, I received many suggestions, all of which boiled down to “Oh, talk about whatever you’d like-something to do with Wimmer, of course.’ Then someone-Archabbot Douglas I think it was-said, “Why don’t you talk about the heritage of Boniface Wimmer?” I liked that idea because it’s a topic that provides a speaker with plenty of fodder. I could stand up here and talk for a very long time about the heritage of Boniface Wimmer. (How much time do I have?)
In the end, however, I resolved to have mercy on you. And while I will speak about the heritage of Boniface Wimmer, I will keep my remarks simple and try to make them brief. Therefore, I want to tell you simply, but with great conviction, that in my view the most important aspect of Boniface Wimmer’s heritage is…us-all of us who are in this room, and in this college, and on this campus; all of us who are or who ever have been part of this community. All of us, in fact, who make up the Saint Vincent family comprise the most important aspect of the heritage of Boniface Wimmer…because it is not the impressive buildings that you see at Saint Vincent, not the beautiful basilica, not the college or the seminary, not the library, not the parish, not the football field or the bookstore or the summer theater-not the institution! These are all things, of course, that would not exist if it weren’t for Boniface Wimmer. But they are not the most important aspects of his heritage.
The most important aspect of Boniface Wimmer’s heritage is the Saint Vincent community as it exists today and as it will exist tomorrow-the community of monks and students and faculty and guests and friends and benefactors and parishioners and attendees at Threshold Lectures. In fact, the community of all those who have been welcomed into the Saint Vincent family as Christ himself.
Boniface Wimmer’s letters show clearly that this community, this family, was the heritage that he valued most. It was he who took the ancient Benedictine idea of community-Saint Benedict’s idea of community as family-and brought it to the United States, where he firmly established it at Saint Vincent in 1846 and then, over the next forty-one years, in dozens of other places.
He established it in Saint Cloud, Minnesota; Atchison, Kansas; Newark, New Jersey; Belmont, North Carolina; Covington, Kentucky; and Baltimore, Maryland. He established it in Savannah, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Cullman, Alabama; Saint Leo’s, Florida; Chicago, Illinois; Saint Marys, Pennsylvania; Carrolltown, Pennslyvania; and many other places. He went to all these places and established Benedictine communities there. And in most of them, Wimmer’s heritage-which is Saint Benedict’s idea of community as family-still exists, still flourishes, just as it does at Saint Vincent.
Like members of Benedictine families in other parts of the United States, we look around this room and see in ourselves the heritage of Boniface Wimmer. It is this heritage that the Saint Vincent community is celebrating throughout the course of this year, which marks the 200th anniversary of Wimmer’s birth.
One of the events designed to mark that anniversary was the recent publication of some of the letters of Boniface Wimmer, which I had the privilege of editing. I had been reading, translating, and thinking about Wimmer’s letters, off and on, for almost 40 years-that is, ever since beginning the research into American Benedictine history that led to publication of An American Abbot, the biography of Wimmer, and Mission to America, the history of Saint Vincent.
As the 200th anniversary of Wimmer’s birth approached, Archabbot Douglas suggested that I consider editing a volume of Wimmer’s letters, and the book that was published in January, Letters of an American Abbot, was the outcome of that suggestion. I want to thank him and the many members of the Saint Vincent Community who helped in the production of this book.
But let me acknowledge immediately that while my name is on the cover as editor, and is listed among the translators, this book is the product of many hands, of which mine are only two. Dozens of translators from the Benedictine family were involved over the years in preparing English versions of these letters from the originals in German and Latin. Many of them-like Father Hugh Wilt, Archabbot Leopold Krul, and Father Felix Fellner-have passed on to their eternal reward. Others are happily still among us and continue to make important contributions to the Saint Vincent family-like Father Warren Murrman, Father Aaron Buzzelli, and Professor Emerita Vera Slezak. Still others came from Benedictine communities elsewhere in the United States-like Sister Incarnata Girgen from Minnesota, Sister Gonzaga Englehart from Kansas, Father Clement Bloomfield from New Jersey, and Father Anselm Biggs from North Carolina.
The Acknowledgements section of the book provides a long list of other members of the Saint Vincent community whose contributions to publication of Letters of an American Abbot were essential-without whom, in fact, it could never have seen the light of day. Among these-and I’m taking a big risk here because I have time to mention only a few-are Kim Metzgar, Liz Cousins, Father Chrysostom Schlimm, Father Omer Kline, Father Vincent Crosby, Father Jerome Purta, Father Campion Gavaler, Father Brian Boosel.
I recite this litany of collaborators not in order to take up your time unnecessarily and certainly not in order to try your patience, but rather to emphasize a point already implicit in what I said earlier. And that point is this. Most successful human endeavors-I am tempted to say ALL successful human endeavors-are the result not of individuals laboring and struggling alone in an agonized and agonizing act of creative genius-but of persons working and struggling together, in community, to produce something of value. That is what the Benedictine community does in a very meaningful and all-encompassing way all the time. In a modest way, that is what those who worked on this book did-starting with Boniface Wimmer himself who, after all, wrote the letters.
It is noteworthy, I think, that the 200th anniversary of Archabbot Boniface Wimmer’s birth falls within the Jubilee Year 2008-2009, announced by Pope Benedict XVI to mark the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Saint Paul. The fact that these two celebrations are occurring concurrently is a happy coincidence and reminds us of some salient parallels between the life of Wimmer and the life of Saint Paul. Like Saint Paul, Wimmer was a missionary who preached the Gospel over a wide geographic area. He was a community builder who traveled extensively and established Christian communities everywhere he went. He was a man of strong faith whose zeal and single-minded devotion to duty strengthened the Church of Christ. He was a prolific letter writer who through his persuasive correspondence urged and inspired those to whom he wrote to remain faithful in the face of adversity. It is an interesting coincidence -or more than coincidence, perhaps evidence of providential design-that Wimmer began his work in the United States at a church dedicated to Saint Vincent de Paul, and that his second major missionary undertaking occurred in the Diocese of Saint Paul in Minnesota. There are many such coincidences (if coincidences they are) that link Boniface Wimmer with Saint Paul and throw a universal light on the heritage of the Benedictine monk who founded Saint Vincent.
Wimmer came to America from the Bavarian Benedictine abbey of Metten in 1846 to establish the Order of Saint Benedict in the New World, to evangelize the immigrants, and to preserve and strengthen their Catholic faith by providing them with pastoral care and formal education. The Benedictines had already experienced a long and notable history in Europe when Wimmer introduced them to America. They had founded communities-centers of spirituality, learning, and culture-throughout the Old World, and for nearly thirteen centuries, these communities had made unparalleled contributions not just to the dissemination but at times to the very survival of Christian civilization in the West. During the early Middle Ages, for example, Benedictine communities, and the schools attached to them, had kept the light of Christian faith and classical learning alive as barbarian tribes descended upon Europe, destroying the fabric of the old Roman civilization. And then when the invasions ended, the Benedictines set about converting the barbarian invaders to Christianity and welcoming many of them into their communities. Europe and the Old World owed a great deal to the Benedictines. Wimmer’s intention was to make America indebted to them as well.
The Benedictine tradition that Wimmer brought with him on his mission to America in 1846 was founded on such values as a firm and practical faith, a deep respect for history and tradition, a sense of community as family, and a life-long commitment to hard work and frequent prayer. Wimmer’s single-mindedness and persistence-which some called his perseverance and others, his stubbornness-were manifest throughout his life. He set out as a missionary in 1846, and forty-one years later was still at it.
He was deeply conscious of his participation in a tradition, in a history by which he himself had been shaped and which he, through his life’s work, would reshape and confirm and pass on to the next generation. He saw his work in America as a continuation of the work of the Benedictine missionaries in Europe-who brought the twin lights of faith and education to a period called the Dark Ages and who evangelized and essentially Christianized the northern part of the continent. Wimmer was quite specific about his relationship to history.
“When we consider North America as it is today,” he wrote in 1845, “we can see at a glance that there is no other country in the world that offers greater opportunities . . . , no other country that is so much like our old Europe was. [In America one finds] immense forests, large uncultivated tracts of land in the interior, most fertile lands . . . . The [people] are scattered, uncultured, ignorant, hundreds of miles away from the nearest priest . . . . In a word, the conditions in America today are like those of Europe 1000 years ago, when the Benedictine Order attained its fullest development and effectiveness by its wonderful adaptability and stability.”
Wimmer was born in the first decade of the nineteenth century, a time when Europe experienced the devastation of invasion, war, economic uncertainty, and spiritual decline. Christian faith was at low ebb in its history. It was a time when the enemies of religion manifested their disdain more through cynical indifference than active persecution and when relativism, materialism, and secularism were embraced as the new gospel by the people who counted. Only the “simple-minded,” the dreamers, those prone to “outdated” thinking actually believed in the gospel of Christ. The sophisticated, the educated, the enlightened European at the time regarded Christianity as perhaps a curious historical relic but certainly as something that had no relevance in the modern world.
As so often happens in history, however, it was precisely at the moment when Christian faith was at low ebb that a spiritual awakening took place. In the third decade of the nineteenth century, when Wimmer was a young man, a revived spiritual commitment to Christian faith arose in Europe to counter the secularism and materialism of the Enlightenment. One manifestation of this awakening was the revival of Benedictine monasticism in Italy, France, and Germany, a monastic revival that confronted a rampant secularism and reasserted those Christian values that for centuries had formed the spiritual and intellectual foundation of Western culture. Like Saint Paul, Wimmer became a convert to this reawakened Christianity. Then, after an apprenticeship of prayer, work, and spiritual formation, again like Saint Paul, he became a missionary.
Wimmer’s aim was to imitate the model of his Benedictine predecessors and to establish strong, stable communities devoted to the service of God, the pursuit of learning, the preaching of the Gospel, and the education of youth. He believed that America was fertile soil for the planting of this ancient Benedictine tradition and that the tradition itself would contribute a new and vital spiritual energy to the young nation. In 1849, he wrote: “I have determined that our monasteries should not be simply schools for religion and learning, but should also serve as custodians of the fine arts and thus foster greater appreciation for culture, and protect our fellow country-men from the mercenary spirit which can think of little other than how to make money.”
With the aid of eighteen young recruits from Bavaria, he established at Saint Vincent in Pennsylvania the Benedictine community he had envisioned. Then for the remaining forty-one years of his life, he worked tirelessly to strengthen the monastery and school in Pennsylvania and to establish others throughout the United States.
By 1880, only 34 years after Wimmer and his eighteen companions arrived at Saint Vincent, nearly 900 Benedictine monks and nuns were working and praying in 60 Benedictine communities in the United States. Numbers never tell the full story, but it is interesting to note that as early as 1880, these Benedictines served 138 parishes where they provided pastoral care for 44,000 souls, operated three major seminaries, six colleges, and 63 elementary schools, and educated an estimated 7,000 students. By 1880, Benedictine monks and nuns served in 21 American dioceses, located in 20 states and territories of the Union. The Benedictine monks and nuns who carried out this work of pastoral care, evangelization, and education in nineteenth-century America regarded Boniface Wimmer as their founder, their leader, and their inspiration. The work continues. Today, American Benedictines who trace their roots back to Wimmer serve in more than 20 American states, as well as in Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Colombia, Brazil, Taiwan, and Japan. By 1887, when he died, Wimmer was recognized throughout the American Church as an outstanding missionary, ecclesiastical leader, builder, and educator-a worthy successor of Saint Paul, the prototype, and of Saint Boniface, his patron and the Benedictine who had introduced Christianity to the Germans in the early Middle Ages.
Wimmer emerged at a moment in history when Christian Faith was regarded as passé; when relativism, materialism, and spiritless rationalism were dominant in the world. How did he respond? With boldness and intelligence, with strong faith and a deep understanding of history, and with an ability to look at the world with an impressive clarity of vision. It also helped that he was stubborn. He came from a region in Bavaria where the people, like those of New England, are still famous for their stubbornness. Wimmer’s letters show his strong will and stubbornness on virtually every page. They dramatically reveal that his achievement and the heritage he has left us were not easily won. An old Latin proverb says Omnis sanctus pertinax-every saint is stubborn. By that standard, Boniface Wimmer was a very great saint indeed.
When he was a young priest in Bavaria stubbornly attempting to convince his superiors to allow him to become a missionary in America-he was turned down three times before he finally was allowed to go-his confreres at Metten mockingly called him the community’s Projektenmacher-the “plan-maker,” the unrealistic visionary, the Don Quixote whose extravagant projects were bound to fail. Wimmer was a plan-maker, but he was no romantic dreamer. Nor was he history’s slave, seeking to recreate in the present the rose-colored image of an idealized past. His pragmatism, his ability to look at the world around him with a clear and sharp vision, made him recognize that while he had been shaped by history, it was his responsibility to take the sacred inheritance he had received and create from it something new, something rooted in the past but inexorably focused on the future. His mission to America involved drawing strength, insight, wisdom from the past in order to transform the present by prayer, hard work, and strong faith. Wimmer was a planter, a cultivator of trees. He said: “People plant trees, although they know for certain that their fruits will benefit only the next generation.” His plan called for planting saplings all over America. Many of them grew to become great Benedictine communities, centers of evangelization, oases of Benedictine spirituality, wisdom, learning, and faith.
Possessing an outspoken character, Wimmer was frank and sometimes intemperate in his language. “I speak plainly,” he said, “even in Latin.” He once referred to the bishop of Pittsburgh as a &quout;scoundrel,” but he struggled to check his tongue and his temper, and always expressed genuine remorse after such outbursts. He faced opposition and betrayal from some of those in whom he had placed his greatest trust, but he showed uncommon magnanimity towards those who opposed him. “I have been accustomed to every kind of treachery and ingratitude,” he wrote, “and would be tempted to be a misanthrope if I had not learned to make God alone witness of my intentions and actions.”
Wimmer was a man of strong faith-faith in himself, of course, but above all faith in God. When the students who were to accompany him to America expressed their fears and doubts about the wisdom of leaving their families and homeland and accompanying him to an unknown fate, he reminded them of the cross of Christ. He wrote: “We should consider it a great privilege that God deigns to use us as instruments in founding an institution which, if the foundation is well laid, will confer untold benefits on the people of the United States . . . . If these are your sentiments, you will never have cause to regret having followed me [to] America. The main reason is not that you are in quest of beautiful surroundings, a comfortable home, or a life of ease, but rather that you are seeking the opportunity to carry the cross of self denial after the crucified Jesus, to save or regain souls that otherwise would be lost and for which His blood would have been shed in vain.”
Many years later, when he had nearly completed his life’s work and had time to reflect on what he and his companions had accomplished, he wrote one of those same students who had been reluctant to come to the United States, but who had come and who for forty years had been a Benedictine monk and missionary in America: “No one imagined us capable of accomplishing anything significant, and yet we did accomplish something. God s grace was obviously with us. . . . May unbounded thanks be given to God a thousand times, for He chose and made use of us as instruments for the execution of His designs. . . . Inasmuch as things have come this far only with the evident protection and grace of God, so may we not expect from ourselves success in the future, but again only from the grace and protection of God, who cannot fail us so long as we work not for ourselves, but for Him, for His holy Church, for the Order, and for souls.”
Wimmer’s letters reveal a man of many facets-dedicated priest, conscientious monk, inspired community builder, successful land speculator, enthusiastic farmer, shrewd businessman, wily ecclesiastical politician, fearless risk taker, loyal ally, formidable adversary, outspoken but fair&39;minded opponent, indefatigable correspondent, wise counselor, generous friend, compassionate confrere, forgiving father, tireless missionary-and a plan-maker who when at last he came to the end of his life was reluctant to stop making plans. There were still communities to be established, converts to be made, immigrants to be evangelized, young people to be taught, missions to be accomplished. Like Saint Paul, however, he turned his thoughts in the end from earthly plans to eternity. “Let us pray for one another that we shall be saved,” he wrote a friend shortly before his death.
Like Saint Paul, he fought the good fight; he finished the race; he kept the faith. And when it was time to go, he handed the work over to his successors in the Benedictine communities he had built and inspired. It is a mark of the ultimate success of Boniface Wimmer the plan-maker-and of God’s blessing upon the plan-that his heritage is alive and well today, and continues to flourish in the Benedictine communities he established all over America-including the very first one, here at Saint Vincent.
Dr. Jerome Oetgen
The Heritage of Boniface Wimmer, Threshold Lecture
Saint Vincent College March 19, 2009