By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
CONCEPTION, Mo. — The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at Conception Abbey was busy Jan. 15, as monks, Abbey staff and priests were busy with last minute preparations for the Abbatial Blessing of Abbot Benedict Neenan, OSB, by Bishop James V. Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Then, as the bells rang signaling 2 p.m., Knights of Columbus of Councils from St. Gregory Barbarigo Parish in Maryville, St. Columba Parish in Conception Junction, Assembly 566 from Kansas City, and St. Peter Parish in Stanberry processed up the center aisle to form an honor guard for the approaching monks, priests, Archbishop Jerome Hanus, OSB, archbishop-emeritus of Dubuque, Abbot Primate Gregory Polan; Abbot President Vincent Bataille, abbot president of the Swiss-American Congregation, to which Conception Abbey belongs; Abbot President Elias Lorenzo, abbot president of the American-Cassinese Congregation, Abbot-elect Benedict and Bishop Johnston.
Abbot Benedict was elected by the monks of Conception Abbey Nov. 22, 2016. He succeeded Abbot Gregory Polan, who had served as abbot for two decades. Abbot Polan was elected Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation in Sept. 2016. Upon his election, Abbot-elect Benedict received the pectoral cross and assumed his new responsibilities immediately. As is the custom, the official blessing of the new abbot by the local bishop was to be held at a later date.
The Mass was celebrated by Bishop Johnston, concelebrated by all the priests, both monastic and diocesan, in attendance. Abbot-elect Benedict was assisted by Very Rev. Daniel Petsche, OSB, Prior and Senior Monastic Chapter Representative and Brother Maximilian Burkhart, Junior Chapter Representative. Benedictine Brother Etienne Huard served as Deacon.
Following the reading of the Gospel, Father Petsche and Brother Maximilian escorted Abbot-elect Benedict to Bishop Johnston, who was seated at the front of the altar. Father Petsche presented Abbot Benedict to Bishop Johnston for the blessing.
The bishop asked Father Petsche if Abbot Benedict had been examined, to which the prior responded, “Yes.”
Bishop Johnston then addressed the abbot-elect, the monks, seminarians, members of Abbot Benedict’s family, religious nuns and sisters, and all in attendance in his homily.
The bishop began by saying, “Abbot Benedict, you are held in high esteem by all of us – so much so that we have endured the distraction of an ice storm and even seen a Kansas City Chiefs playoff game be rescheduled by the NFL for this special liturgy of your blessing as the 10th Abbot of Conception Abbey.”
When the laughter subsided, he continued: “We are grateful for the presence of so many clergy, including Archbishop (Jerome) Hanus and Abbot Primate (Gregory) Polan, other abbots, priests and deacons. Also of course, the beautiful presence of so many consecrated religious: monks and nuns, sisters and brothers, and certainly so many of the faithful who enrich the world with personal witness and holiness.
“In particular, I want to acknowledge your own family, so critical to your life and vocation. A native son of our diocese, you are one of 12 children born to James and Helen Neenan.”
Abbot Benedict was born Jan. 3, 1949, in Kansas City, Mo. He attended Visitation Grade School and St. John’s Seminary High School. He attended Conception Seminary College before transferring to Colorado State University to earn a Bachelor of Arts in History in 1971. He then earned a Journeyman’s Degree from the Bavarian State School of Wood Carving in 1976.
He returned to Conception Abbey to discern his vocation as a monk, and professed vows as a Benedictine monk in 1980. He completed Theology studies at the Catholic University of America and was ordained a priest in Aug. 1988.
Bishop Johnston added, “We often speak as Catholics of the family as the ‘domestic Church’ — in your case we could probably also call the Neenan family ‘the domestic Monastery!’
“I suspect your vocation was formed early on through this sharing of common life and faith together. So, we thank your siblings, and of course, your parents, for your earliest formation as a baptized Christian.”
He also acknowledged others, both present and “elsewhere,” who influenced and assisted the abbot elect on his faith journey.
“I am often struck by the rubrics (the special instructions for the Liturgy) when they make a point of saying on certain celebrations, ‘the bishop gives a brief homily.’ This is one of those occasions when, for whatever reason, I am instructed to be brief, and I noticed that the monk who put together our worship aid for today made a point of printing that to make sure I saw it!” More laughter.
He spoke, briefly, of his recent retreat with other regional bishops at the Benedictine Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, Calif. “As one arrives at the Abbey, it is hard to miss the two words emblazoned above the entrance to the monastery: SEEK GOD.”
He said that in a particular way, those words were the purpose and goal of a monastic vocation: “to seek God in your prayer and work and life together so as to praise, reverence and serve Him and, through this, accomplish your salvation. You do this in a community of brothers, a family, under an Abbot, who according to the Rule, ‘holds the place of Christ in the monastery.’ This is an important, and humbling responsibility, to ‘hold the place of Christ.’”
Bishop Johnston explained that that responsibility means in part to be a father — the word abbot is derived from “abba,” “father.” In the Rule of St. Benedict, it states, “Therefore the abbot must never teach or decree or command anything that would deviate from the Lord’s instructions … Let the abbot always remember that at the fearful judgement of God, not only his teaching, but his disciples’ obedience will come under scrutiny. Furthermore, anyone who receives the name of abbot, is to lead his disciples by a two-fold teaching: he must point out to him all that is good and holy more by example than by words.”
He reminded the congregation that the Lord’s life did just that: “He not only taught with his words, but by his life, given for us, showing us the way of love.
“… Jesus is the model for the Abbot — the leader as the servant who seeks the holiness of his brothers by ‘laying down his life for his friends,’ such as a good father gives his life, energy and love for his family.
“… This all plays out in a life governed by the Rule, which seeks to make concrete and practical a way of living the Gospel together … also frees one to live the Gospel.”
Bishop Johnston borrowed an image from the great British writer G. K. Chesterton: a fence around a playground doesn’t restrict children at play; rather it serves to liberate them to play. “So, the Rule and the Gospel liberate the Christian to live the abundant life which Christ bestows upon us by His grace and goodness.”
The bishop continued, “One is struck by the fact that the Rule of St. Benedict is based on what might be called ‘Christian Common Sense,’ a realization that growth in holiness and seeking God in a common life requires patience and perseverance and a taking into account the human condition with all its weaknesses and temptations. It also reminds us that we cannot take the journey of faith alone, but only with help of others. In this journey of faith, the abbot leads and guides as a father and shepherd.”
Bishop Johnston reminded the congregation that the First Reading that day, from Proverbs, began, “The beginning of wisdom is to get wisdom, at the cost of all you have.” He suggested that to get wisdom is another way of saying, ‘Seek God.’ “Seek Jesus Christ, who is Wisdom Incarnate. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
“’Seek God’: let those words underpin your life. Seek God so as to love him and those you serve. Abbot Benedict, as you lead your brothers to seek God, as you lead the important seminary apostolate which prepares future priests for the Church, as you guide this monastery which stands as an oasis of prayer and silence for all the faithful, reminding us in our busy, noisy lives, of the ‘one thing necessary.’
“Seek God, with the help of Our Lady, the Seat of Wisdom . . . Seek God.
“A final word: As you undertake this important duty … be encouraged by the fact that you were chosen for this in God’s Providence. In other words, as you seek God, realize that He sought you first. Indeed, our great joy and consolation come from the realization that God seeks after us, pursues us, first! ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you,’ (John 15:16). Amen.”
Bishop Johnston then presided over the Rite of Blessing of an Abbot. St. Benedict refers to the Rite in The Rule; it has been in use since at least the sixth century.
First, he examined Abbot Benedict as to his intentions and adherence to orthodox belief and teaching (cf. Rule of St. Benedict 64.4) The bishop then invoked a solemn blessing upon the new abbot to confirm him by grace to his ministry’s charism. And, as the bishop explained in his homily, “To mark his important responsibilities which come from his office, the abbot is given the Pontifical Insignia that mirror that of the bishop: the ring, marking the sign of his fidelity; the miter, the sign of his priestly dignity, and the crozier, or pastoral staff, the sign of his pastoral authority as a shepherd.”
Through the Blessing Rite, Bishop Johnston renewed and reaffirmed the bond of communion between the monastic community and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
In the religious community that comprises the Benedictine Monks of Conception Abbey, the abbot has a central vocation. St. Benedict states that, as head of the monastic community, he stands in the place of Christ (The Rule of Saint Benedict 63.13). He thus fulfills a three-fold office of spiritual father, teacher, and steward.
Following the Eucharistic celebration, Abbot Benedict welcomed the various abbots of other monasteries who came for the blessing and Abbot Primate Gregory Polan, the titular head of the Benedictine Order and a monk of Conception Abbey. Abbot Benedict promised Bishop Johnston to continue the close relationship with the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
The abbot then outlined his three most important tasks. “My first and primary job is to assist my brother monks on their lifelong journey of seeking God, and my second is to train my successor. My third job, and that … of the entire monastic community, is to encourage more young men to discover this way of seeking God that is beautiful, profound, effective, and worth a lifetime. It’s not that we need monks, but that they need to be monks; these men are … called by God to live a beautiful life dedicated to His service in the Church, and it’s my responsibility to help [them] find this call.”
A reception followed in the Guest Dining Room in St. Joseph’s Hall. Abbot Benedict greeted and thanked many of the family members and friends who traveled to Conception for the Liturgy and Blessing Rite.
Abbot Benedict Neenan’s Coat of Arms
All prelates of the Catholic Church have a right to armorial bearings. The Church’s primary interest in the use of heraldry is that each has his own distinct coat of arms and the achievement correctly reflects his rank in the Church. The armorial achievement or coat of arms of Abbot Benedict Neenan is composed of the shield with its various charges, the external ornaments of an abbot, and the motto.
Blazon: A field azure, a Canadian pale argent dovetailed, in chief ten goutte de sang (gules) (palewise two, three, three, two), in base a fountain (a roundle barry wavy argent and azure).
The main charges of the shield (escutcheon) have particular significance for Abbot Benedict and his ministry to the monastic community. The circle with blue and white waves is called a fountain, and symbolizes the abbot’s hometown, Kansas City, the City of Fountains. The 10 blood droplets (goutte de sang) above it represent the self-sacrificial office of the abbot for the community. Ten droplets signify that he is the tenth abbot of Conception Abbey, which was founded in 1873. Abbot Benedict holds a doctorate in Church history and the two main charges —the fountain and the blood droplets — taken together evoke the Paschal Mystery that birthed the Church and which is the center of all human history, for “This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ, not by water alone, but by water and blood.” (1 John 5:6) Again, both the fountain and blood drops suggest baptism; the monastic life is often called a “second baptism” due to its deepening of the commitment to baptismal vows.
The white (argent or silver) division of the shield vertically is bordered in a dovetail pattern, calling to mind furniture joints. This alludes to the abbot’s training as a woodworker in Bavaria. The blue (azure) on either side of the central white composition represents the Blessed Virgin Mary. A traditional devotional image of the Virgin is the Madonna of Mercy, in which she spreads her mantle as protection over a group of the faithful. This symbolizes the patroness of the abbey’s protection over its monks.
The remainder of the coat of arms distinguishes it as those of an abbot. The shield is ensigned with a black galero (pilgrim’s hat), used in ecclesiastical heraldry for clerics in place of the traditional helmet, mantling and crest. The hat’s black cords terminate in 12 black tassels. Behind the shield is a crozier extending above and below it. This crozier has a veil (sudarium) attached to it, dating back to the Medieval distinction between bishops and abbots — bishop wore gloves and abbots needed a veil to protect the pastoral staff from dirt and perspiration.
On a scroll beneath the shield is Abbot Benedict’s motto: “Discretio.” He took his motto, “Discretion,” from the Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 64, verse 19, on the Election of an Abbot. The verse reads: Drawing on discretion, the mother of virtues, he must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from.”