Interview with the Abbot General

During the visit of the Abbot General last month he was interviewed by James Kelly of the Catholic Times and this week the interview appears in print. You can read the full interview below.

What’s in a name? Call them Norbertines, Premonstratensians, Canons Regular of
Prémontré, even White Canons; the chances are most people on these islands haven’t
a clue who you’re talking about. Yet this many-monikered order has a fine pedigree:
founded a hundred years before the Dominicans and a good 400 before the Jesuits,
its monasteries could be found in abundance across the UK and Ireland before the
Reformation.
Two Norbertine communities can still be found in England. One is located in Storrington;
founded at the foot of the South Downs in West Sussex in the late 19th century, it houses
the shrine to Our Lady of England. The other community has been at St Phillip’s Priory
in Chelmsford, Essex, for the last two and a half years and it was by visiting them that
the order’s Abbot General, Thomas Handgrätinger, finally finished a self-set task.
Visiting the communities in England, he first stopped off at Storrington before heading
to Chelmsford, thus completing his aim of visiting every Norbertine community in the
world since his election as Abbot General in 2003.
With the Norbertines not possessing the profile of some other orders in England, the
Abbot General is quick to explain the order’s chrism.
“We are canons regular,” he states. “This means that, from the beginning, most of
our members have been priests so we are very much orientated to the pastoral field,
especially work in parishes. We are based on the rule of St Augustine and this is
emphasised very much in our community life. Our first pastoral thinking is to establish a
community and to be one heart and one soul on the way to God – to live together, to pray
together and to build a strong Christian religious family in this community. From this
community we go outside to work in different fields: it could be in parishes, schools or
other pastoral areas. We have three points that we are really looking for: to build a strong
community life; to be together in a contemplative life of prayer; and to go out to work
for the people. Many monastic communities also do this but, for us, it’s very important
to build a community based on a good, developed liturgy, with common prayer in the
choir.”
“We are not a typical Eucharistic order,” he continues, “but from the beginning, and
especially since the 16th century, the Eucharistic aspect has become increasingly
important for our order. So our founder St Norbert is always depicted as holding in his
hands a monstrance, a sign of the Eucharistic presence – it gives our order a special
image. To have a High Mass everyday with the whole community has always been a very
strong tradition in our order. So from that point of view you can say that our community
life is based on the Eucharist.”
Despite Fr Handgrätinger’s German birth, the order is usually associated in people’s
minds with Belgium, where it has the well known abbeys of Tongerlo and Park, not to
mention the order being the original brewers of the Leffe beer. Is it still the case that the
order is strongest in Belgium?
“We are still European-orientated but slowly it is changing. The Indian confreres coming
up represent nearly 20 per cent of the order. But Belgium is going down. Our biggest
abbeys were in Belgium and Holland but they are struggling a lot with vocations. Slowly
in Africa, India and Brazil the order is growing. So maybe in the future it will have
changed even more.”
Strikingly, the Norbertines wear an all white habit and dress remarkably – even
disconcertingly – like the Pope. Is such a visual presence in the secular world a vital
aspect for the order?
“I think so,” replies the Abbot General. “From the beginning the white habit was a
sign of the resurrection. In the tomb from which Jesus rose, the angels announced his
resurrection in white. So it has always been a tradition in our order to give a testimony of
the resurrection and to live it as a community. In this sense the habit is not only for us a
common sign but it is a testimony also.”
Naturally, such an answer leads to another question: what do religious orders like the
Norbertines bring to the Church?
Fr Handgrätinger is quick to reply: “That there is a group of faithful people who want
to live their faith in a strong community life and to realize what it means to love one
another, to forgive one another, to stay together and strengthen one another on the way to
God. This is an important sign and important testimony for all Christians. In that sense,
the Church needs religious – in so far as they are living these important signs!”
Recent liturgical reforms undertaken by Pope Benedict, as well as the forthcoming
introduction of the new translation of the English Missal, appear to sit well with the
Abbot General’s description of Norbertine life.
“It is very important and central to us to celebrate the liturgy in a solemn way,” he
says. “So all is going well for the moment – it is in our line! There are three points from
St Norbert and they are that you should always be very careful around the altar; to be
very careful with the house chapter and the brotherhood; and that you are very caring for
poor people. But Norbert was thinking that the altar is the centre of the community and
all must be proper in that respect. There is a lot of care for this and that is an important
sign for our order.”
Unfortunately, the order has recently made headlines in Ireland for less positive reasons:
one of the most notorious cases in the country’s recent spate of revelations involved a
priest of the order. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, has done
much to address past wrongs. How does the Abbot General think the situation can be
healed?
“One important thing is that the Church’s point of view has changed. Before, the Church
was always protecting itself. Now, we have to look more to the victims of all this, people
who are damaged or are in trouble because of people involved with the Church. There is
an absolute change to concentrating on the wellbeing of these victims and to do what we
can to support them in different ways. We have to care for these people, not for our own
honour or reputation. That, I think, is a big change and a necessary one.
“We also have to be very careful in the future which people we accept in our
communities. We have to look with great care at the formation of our people.”
Despite the justified recent furore and the less reasoned general secularist distaste for
anything Catholic, many are seeing green shoots in the Church’s life. What does the
Abbot General think the future holds?
“I’m not sure of the situation in this country but if you look worldwide, the Church is
not in decline,” he states. “Worldwide, the Church is growing, even in the number of
vocations. In certain parts of the world – like Germany where I come from and Europe
– there is decline, but if you look in other places there is a lot of growth, a lot of joy and
a lot of hope for the Church’s future. All we can do as Catholics where we are living is
to be a sign of hope, to live out the Christian truth in this time and place rather than just
lamenting the past – that is not helpful to anybody. It was said at the synod of Wurzburg
in Germany following the Second Vatican Council that we should not be a sign of doubt
and anxiety for people, but a sign of hope. I’m convinced that for us and the future, we
must be full of hope and live that way.”
Such an answer is in stark contrast to the narrow view of the western media: whilst Abbot
General Thomas Handgrätinger looks out to the world, the increasingly narcissistic West
looks in on itself. Perhaps that is why the one statue that looks outwards from those that
circle St Peter’s Square is that of St Norbert, the order’s founder. That may be a good fact
to remember for the pub quiz, but it is also a pointer to the Norbertine mission.

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