Tasmania’s first Benedictine monastery is gradually taking shape on over 3,000 acres of green pastureland, felicitously named Jerusalem Estate and abutting an eponymous creek in the island’s idyllic Midlands. On a visit in late August 2018 – in the middle of Australia’s winter, drawing in an Antarctic chill – the monks were still living in trailers and sheds fashioned from corrugated iron on a rented paddock at Rhyndaston, several miles down the road from their future home.
Once a day they travel to the neighboring town of Colebrook, to pray and celebrate Mass in the local church. They have decorated the altar and put out fresh flowers for Our Lady. Though they live like beggars, their liturgical prayer is dignified, and their Gregorian chant nothing short of divine.
Soon, thanks to the archdiocese, an old church will be brought in by truck from the north of the island, the monks tell CNA. Then the young Benedictines – their average age is less than 30, and most of them, with the exception of one monk and the American prior, hail from mainland Australia – will at last have a first church of their own in which to sing, pray and celebrate.
Notre Dame Priory is led by Father Pius Mary Noonan, a monk from Kentucky who lived previously as a monk in a French monastery in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain.
The monks are there in sparsely-populated Tasmania because Julian Porteous, the Archbishop of Hobart, invited them in:
To tackle this situation, Porteous says, over a cup of coffee in his unpretentious office, “we have to find a way of strengthening Catholic life, Catholic identity, Catholic spirituality. And at the same time, we mustn’t withdraw from society.”
Paradoxical though it might seem, that is why the Benedictine monks play an important role, the archbishop tells CNA.
“I think it’s very important at this moment when there are strong secularizing tendencies in society that do permeate through the Church, that we have, if you like, some pockets of strong Catholic Life that firstly can be a source of encouragement to many in the Church but secondly, can become a witness to the society.”
Referring to Rod Dreher’s influential 2017 book “The Benedict Option,” the archbishop tells CNA: “One of the possible implications behind the Benedict Option would be a certain withdrawal in to a safer environment, a more consistently Catholic kind of life that the people were kind of close in.”
But just like Benedictines did in Europe over centuries, Porteous says that his work is about striking a balance – and cultivating the beauty and richness of Catholicism by using the different charisms to strengthen, rather than compete with, parish life.
What an honor to have had some small, ancillary part in this marvelous initiative. Here, from the priory’s website, is its history. Notice the key role played by two devoted lay Catholics, Stuart and Martine Watkinson. And the bishop, who is so eager to try to revive Catholic life in his diocese that he was willing to take a chance on these traditionalist monks.
In Spain, I visited a local outpost of the Chemin Neuf community, an international Catholic movement with a vocation to sponsor ecumenical life. I’ll write more about them separately. Near Zaragoza, they took over an old Carthusian monastery after the declining community of monks left and gave it to them. Most of the community there now is from France, but not all. They’re restoring the monastery, and have even turned monastic cells there into living quarters for small families. I met a Russian Orthodox woman living there with her Polish Catholic husband and their family.
The worship style and spirituality of Chemin Neuf is charismatic and evangelical, which is rather different from the austerity of Carthusian life and worship. It was visionary, I think, of the Carthusians to welcome the Chemin Neuf to restore their charterhouse and to make it a living community of prayer and Christian life. At this difficult point in the life of the Catholic Church in countries like Spain and Australia, things like the traditionalist Benedictine monastery, and the Chemin Neuf reinventing an abandoned Carthusian charterhouse, are necessary experiments in Catholic living.
As Archbishop Porteous observes, one shouldn’t see things like this competing with life in the parish, but rather as ways to strengthen it. Unlike cloistered religious, lay Christians are called to live in the world, to serve it as Christians. But they cannot give the world what they do not have. If you’ve ever spent serious time praying and worshiping at a monastery — Catholic or Orthodox — you can’t help but be built up spiritually by the experience, and taking the gifts that come to you through contemplation there back into the world.
Many are those today who are opening their eyes to a terrifying reality: modern man has lost his way; humanity itself seems in dire peril of ceasing to be human. Having lost contact with who he really is, with what makes up his own God-given nature, he is in real danger of destroying himself. As Pope Benedict XVI once put it, having removed God from his horizon, man can only come up with recipes for destruction. And that is precisely why we need a recipe for reconstruction. St Benedict, his Rule, his community life, his divine liturgy, are invaluable for helping man rediscover who he really is. Man — body and soul —, placed in a universe that unites matter and spirit, can only achieve the fulfilment of his nature by taking the full measure of what it means to be both corporal and spiritual. And this is admirably done in the very structure of Benedictine monastic life.
We live in common to help each other; we pray in common to encourage each other in our pursuit of God; the other is there to help us as we trod our personal path, and we are there to help the other in his. “A brother that is helped by his brother, is like a strong city” (Prov 18:19). The very organisation of daily life in a monastery, with its attention to details that a man needs to be able to rely on, the delicate attention paid to each other, and the paternal guidance of the father of the community who watches over all so that all may be at peace and glorify God while saving their souls, such are the most fundamental aspects of the life which reaches its climax in the communal celebration of the Divine Office.
No doubt about it, St Benedict is relevant to our times, just as in the VIth century. He still offers his monasteries as havens to men and women who really seek God, want to save their souls in eternity and find peace here below. This young man who left the world to save it, becoming founder of monastic life in the West, magister of civilisation, and herald of the Christian religion, is also a messenger of peace, divine peace, which exudes from his person and his true sons and daughters. Peace – Pax, that other great Benedictine motto –, is the fruit of a life lived within the harmony willed by God, a life which creates peace and harmony for others, moulds unity in families and among peoples. Is there any more urgent need today?
The men of Notre Dame Priory could use your prayers and your donations.