By Robert Hiini
Celebrating their 50th anniversary, a group in Perth have shown that you don’t have to be a monk to share in the spiritual heritage of St Benedict.
The lay people of the Benedictine Oblate Chapter of St Gregory marked the occasion with a Mass celebrated by Perth Archbishop Barry Hickey and Benedictine priest Anthony Lovis, the group’s spiritual director.
Afternoon tea followed where Chapter President Tony Smurthwaite spoke about the Chapter’s development over the past five decades and presented Fr Lovis with a copy of a paper he had written entitled ‘Five Decades and Still Counting’. Mr Smurthwaite mused that St Benedict might have envisioned lay involvement in the Benedictine mission.
“It is not beyond belief that perhaps St Benedict would have glimpsed the size of the legacy that he would leave Christians by his Rule and how the Rule would allow countless people to become part of the world-wide Benedictine family,” Mr Smurthwaite said.
“Just maybe St Benedict would have looked past the multitude of monasteries and convents to see bands of ordinary people who had come to each one through reflection and instruction.” One of the Chapter’s longest standing members Adrienne Byrne, described by Mr Smurthwaite as St Gregory’s “memory”, was presented by Archbishop Hickey with a Papal Blessing given to the Chapter.
The Oblates meet on the third Wednesday of the month to read the Gospel and a section of St Benedicts Rule – a text dictating the operation of Benedictine monasteries written by St Benedict in the sixth century. The group is principally Catholic in membership but also includes Anglican and Anglo-catholic members. Members are made Oblates at New Norcia after a year of novitiate and faith formation. They are given a scapula or “mini-habit”, signifying their commitment and belonging to the Oblate community. The chapter was established in Perth in 1958 after many years of preparation and necessary ecclesiastical approval.
In 1944, New Norcia’s Abbot Anslem Catalan OSB asked his Monastic Prior Theodore Hernandez OSB to find lay people to unite themselves spiritually to the monastic community. Beginning in the monastery’s immediate surrounds, Fr Hernandez spent the next 14 years gaining Oblates for New Norcia, establishing chapters in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.
In 1956, Abbot Gregory Gomez obtained permission from the Benedictine’s Abbot General in Rome to formally establish Oblate Chapters of lay people. Then Archbishop of Perth, Redmond Prendiville, gave his approval for a chapter to be established in Perth in 1958, writing that he thought the group’s establishment would “result in higher spiritual standards for its members and will be a means of gaining further blessings for the Archdiocese as a whole”.
Fittingly, the chapter was founded at St Benedict’s Parish, Applecross under the chaplaincy of Fr Albert Lynch.
The Chapter’s secretary Doris Walton says that being a member has strengthened her faith and the Rule of St Benedict has given her a new outlook on her own life saying that it is amazing that “something written 1500 years ago is still very relevant to your everyday life”. Archbishop Hickey agrees describing the Chapter and associations like it as needed in our time.
“It seems to me to be an answer to the line in a poem by James McAuley where he says “set pools of silence in this thirsty land.”