St. John’s Abbey vocations increasing; 13 men in formation
By Sue Schulzetenberg
Every morning, 27-year-old Benedictine Brother Lew Grobe makes a conscious decision to not hit the snooze button as he gets out of bed to start praying.
His day will include participating in prayer and Eucharist with other monks at St. John’s Abbey, work, meals with his community, classes and free time.
It’s a life different than what he thought for himself just a few years ago when he was studying German and the humanities at St. John’s University. And it’s a life he’s still discerning. Brother Lew, a junior monk — one who professed temporary vows but not yet final vows — has at least two years before making a permanent decision.
“Only by jumping into the life and truly attempting to seek God by living under obedience, putting down roots in this certain place, and taking part in the communal life can I discern if this vocation is the one I should be seeking,” he said.
Brother Lew is not alone in his discernment at St. John’s Abbey, where 13 men are in formation — making the abbey formation floor fuller than it has been since 1981. With the possibility of four candidates joining St. John’s this fall, it is likely that the trend will continue, at least for a few years.
“Of course, I cannot tell for sure; however, I think it may level off at about 16-18 [men in formation],” said Brother Paul-Vincent Niebauer, St. John’s Abbey vocation director. “This latest upturn in numbers is just a snapshot in our 154-year history.”
The abbey currently has a total of 144 monks.
While it can be said that “there is no cookie-cutter monk” because each brother or priest has his own personality, background and interests, there are some similarities in these men in formation wishing to seek God and fellowship in community.
All but three of the men in formation are in their 20s and 30s. One-half hail from Minnesota. About one-half were students at St. John’s University. Three of the men participated in Benedictine Volunteer Corps, which was established in 2003, and providing St. John’s graduates opportunities to volunteer in a monastery in another country or in the United States.
One aspect that is helping vocations at St. John’s grow is the Internet, Brother Paul-Vincent said. St. John’s vocation’s website has more than 40 videos, a blog and an online application for a first visit.
With the website, more potential candidates are knowledgeable about St. John’s Abbey. Brother Paul-Vincent also manages a Facebook account and carries a cell phone.
The vocation director position itself is a fairly new concept to monasteries. The position at St. John’s became full- time four years ago. One of Brother Paul-Vincent’s major tasks is getting the word out about the abbey. He speaks at schools and to summer camp participants at St. John’s Preparatory School and has a booth at the Los Angeles Catholic Congress.
The St. John’s Abbey community has also been reaching out more broadly.
The monks pray regularly for vocations during community prayer and make a deliberate effort to be hospitable to guests, said Brother Paul-Vincent.
Many reasons to join
Brother Eric Pohlman, a 29-year-old junior monk at the abbey, first heard about St. John’s through seeing the abbey church in a book about architecture. A native of Delphos, Ohio, he felt called to Benedictine living and sought out St. John’s because it was a larger community with various employment opportunities, interesting architecture and a reputable history in liturgy renewal and ecumenical dialogue. He also feels good about the way St. John’s has addressed and handled sexual abuse allegations when they have been made against monks.
“Seeing their openness and willingness to do the right thing is a very positive thing,” Brother Eric said. “I think they have a legitimate desire to do the right thing.”
Before men become candidates for St. John’s Abbey they need to pass background screening. While in formation they take classes regarding boundaries and also learn about the abbey’s history, including the sexual abuse cases.
Brother Lew, who chose to enter the monastery after spending time in the Benedictine Volunteer Corps in Tanzania, said people today are looking for something real. They want something without media spin and the pressure of artificial expectations and ladders in society, he said.
“Coming to this place, you see [a] kind of authenticity that is becoming less and less in society,” he said. “You have that time to do formation and see where your gifts are.”
Brother Paul-Vincent said the community also helps the men find their talents and sometimes suggests they try occupations or tasks they would not have thought of on their own. Often these suggestions become very good fits for the monks.
“The question is, ‘Will you flourish here?’ not ‘Can you make it?’ ” he said.
As Brother Lew and Brother Eric come closer to making their final vows, they will have to ask themselves whether the abbey is a place they can flourish.
Brother Eric, who calls himself somewhat of an introvert, said he benefits from the mealtime conversations with fellow monks. He’s enjoyed getting to know the community and finds it to be supportive.
In meeting monthly with his formation director and a spiritual director, Brother Lew said he checks in to see where he is at spiritually, physically, mentally and in relation to the rest of the community. So far, his inkling that St. John’s is a good fit seems correct, he said.
“I didn’t join the monastery because I knew that it was exactly what I wanted,” Brother Lew said. “I joined the monastery because I had an inkling that this way of life would best support me in becoming the person I wish to become.”
Sue Schulzetenberg/The Visitor
Brothers Eric and Lew are junior monks in the discernment process before making their final vows. St. John’s Abbey currently has 13 men in formation.