When Íñigo López de Loyola placed his sword on the Lady Altar of the chapel of the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat near Barcelona, he began a revolution that would have a profound effect not only on the Church, but on the entire world.
Amidst all of the impressive events in the life of Íñigo, known to the world today as St. Ignatius of Loyola, it is easy to lose sight of the symbolic value of the setting for this monumental first step in his transformation from soldier into saint.
Like the European culture that he helped to mold, Ignatius began his journey from barbarism to devout Catholicism under the influence of the monks of St. Benedict. It is easy to argue that without St. Benedict and his Order there would be no St. Ignatius and no Society of Jesus. When the Benedictine monks saved Europe from itself after the fall of Rome they cultivated a continent able to produce a man like St. Ignatius of Loyola.
I pondered all of this last Saturday as I sat in the dining room of St. Andrew Abbey and reconnected with one of my former students, Brian Ramsak ’96. No one, not even his old teacher, calls him Brian anymore, for his name is now Fr. Finbar – the name he was given upon his profession in the Order of St. Benedict. Fr. Finbar teaches Theology at Benedictine High School and is a weekend assistant at the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a parish staffed by the Benedictines of St. Andrew Abbey.
What brought me to this luncheon was the profession of First Vows by Br. Simon Corrigan, O.S.B. I know Br. Simon through his work with the oblates of the St. Andrew Abbey because I am blessed to be one of those oblates.
A Benedictine oblate is someone who feels called by God to deepen her or his faith life – her or his prayer and work (Ora et Labora, as the motto of the Benedictines states) – through association with a particular monastery, an oblate master (in my case, Fr. Bede Kotlinski, O.S.B.), and the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. Famous oblates from the distant and recent past are people like St. Bede the Venerable; St. Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor; Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement; and Walker Percy, the highly acclaimed author and essayist.
In fact, it was both Dorothy Day and Walker Percy who drew me to St. Andrew Abbey and the vocation of a Benedictine oblate. For some time I had been looking for a way to bring a new perspective to my Catholic faith, and I was investigating the possibility of joining a religious order as a lay associate.
The Society of Jesus and the Congregation of Holy Cross, the two orders who educated me and with whom I have close personal and spiritual bonds, have no such opportunities. So, without any particular sense of what to do I put the idea on the back shelf.
Then one day I was looking up some information on Dorothy Day and I noticed the letters Obl.S.B. after her name and I was intrigued. What I found out was that she was an oblate of St. Procopius Abbey near Chicago. And then after a little more research I found out that Walker Percy was an oblate of St. Joseph’s Abbey near New Orleans.
To most people, even well-informed Catholics, Walker Percy is much less well-known than Dorothy Day, but to my mind he, along with fellow Southerner Flannery O’Connor, is the greatest of Catholic authors in the American pantheon (leaving aside Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who were much more American than Catholic in both their writing and lifestyle).
So, with Day and Percy as my spiritual parents I began my journey with the Benedictines, or rather with the Benedictines of St. Andrew Abbey. Unlike the “third orders” of other congregations like the Franciscans and Dominicans, Benedictine oblates are associated with a specific abbey, and mine is St. Andrew Svorad Abbey – named for the Polish monk who toiled in the Slovak vineyard in the 11th Century: fitting for me because of my maternal Slovak and Polish roots, but also because my mom’s brother, my beloved Uncle Mickey, was a proud graduate of Benedictine High School.
And as I sat with Fr. Finbar, reveling in some laughs and comparing notes on teaching Theology to high school boys, it was quite enjoyable to take a ribbing from the monks about our Ignatius and Jesuit connection. Yet I also felt a profound sense of peace in the knowledge that by sitting in a Benedictine house of prayer I was in some small way faithfully following – five centuries later – in the blessed footsteps of Íñigo López de Loyola.