August 16, 2013

The adventure of obedience

Retired Benedictine archabbot marks 70 years as a priest, 75 as a monk

Retired Benedictine Archabbot Bonaventure Knaebel, 94, stands at the main doors of the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln, the church of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, on July 17. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Retired Benedictine Archabbot Bonaventure Knaebel, 94, stands at the main doors of the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln, the church of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, on July 17. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

ST. MEINRAD—“When you make the vow of obedience, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

That was how retired Benedictine Archabbot Bonaventure Knaebel of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad succinctly summarized his 75 years as a monk and 70 years as a priest.

Born in 1918 in New Albany, he professed his monastic vows during the Great Depression in 1938, was ordained a priest at the height of World War II in 1943 and elected archabbot of Saint Meinrad in 1955, eventually resigning from the office in 1966.

During his 75 years as a monk, Archabbot Bonaventure has also served as a seminary instructor, a missionary in Peru, temporary administrator of monasteries in Mexico and the United States, chaplain of St. Paul Hermitage in Beech Grove and pastor or administrator of three parishes in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

It was to all of these places and these wide and varied ministry experiences that Archabbot Bonaventure’s fidelity to his vow of obedience led him.

Benedictine Archabbot Justin DuVall, Saint Meinrad’s current leader, admires his predecessor’s dedication to obedience.

“He is one of the most obedient monks, really, in a way, that I know,” Archabbot Justin said. “He’s the kind of guy who, as abbot or when I was prior, I could ask him, ‘Could you do this?’ or ‘I need this to be done,’ and he’d say ‘Certainly.’ He would do it.”

Archabbot Bonaventure’s adventure of obedience started while growing up in New Albany.

Discerning his calling early on

The archabbot showed an interest in the priesthood when he was in the seventh grade at the former Holy Trinity School in New Albany after a man from Holy Trinity Parish had been ordained a priest.

He explored that desire in part by serving at daily Mass at the parish—a Mass that started at 6 a.m. In response to this desire to be an altar server, his mother bought him an alarm clock.

“That was her way of seeing how true the idea was,” Archabbot Bonaventure said. “Was it just a fleeting thing or is it steady? I must have walked there. It was more than a mile away. If there was snow on the ground, I could take a street car.”

When he completed eighth grade, he decided to enter the minor seminary at Saint Meinrad. Once he got there, though, he soon yearned to be back home. A monk on the seminary staff helped him through this difficult time.

“The main thing that he did that was a lifesaver was he got in touch with my folks, and told them not to come down to visit until the second Sunday in October … ,” Archabbot Bonaventure said. “If they had come like two weeks after I got here, I would have gotten into the car and gone home with them.”

He was impressed enough by the monks and by reading a biography of St. Benedict that the next year he declared his intention to join the monastery when he was old enough.

From math teacher to archabbot

Early on, his life in the monastery was much like many other young monks—receiving formation in the monastic life and for the priesthood in the seminary.

Ordained in 1943, he asked Benedictine Archabbot Ignatius Esser if he could serve as a military chaplain.

“But we already had six men as chaplains at the time,” Archabbot Bonaventure recalled. “So he didn’t take me up on it.”

He put his vow of obedience into action in accepting that decision. It was soon tested again when Benedictine Father Theodore Heck, then rector of the seminary, asked him to study mathematics in graduate school, even though his last math class was geometry as a high school sophomore.

“He didn’t ask me if I was interested in it,” Archabbot Bonaventure said.

He earned a master’s degree in the field and nearly a doctorate, later teaching math in the minor seminary for eight years.

In 1955, Archabbot Ignatius announced his intention to resign after having led Saint Meinrad Archabbey for 25 years.

More than 100 monks participated in the election to choose his successor. Many ballots were cast before a monk received enough votes to be elected. As each ballot was counted, the name of the monk on it was announced.

During the counting of the last ballot, Archabbot Bonaventure, then only 38, said he “had butterflies” as he kept hearing his name called.

Much like a papal election, when he reached a majority on the ballots, he was asked if he accepted the election.

Archabbot Bonaventure consented “with the help of God” to become the leader of the monastery, treating the will of his fellow monks as another test of his vow of obedience.

“Certainly, it was expected of you at that time that if you were elected that you would accept it,” he said.

The challenge of leadership

The responsibilities that Archabbot Bonaventure took on after his election were wide and varied.

He initiated various projects as archabbot, including the construction of the monastery’s first guest house, a water purification plant and two sewage ponds.

He laughed as he said that this last project was “the only successful thing I did.

“The guest house has been torn down. And the water [purification] plant is now the pottery shop.”

He and the monastic community also established two new monasteries during his tenure—Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, Calif., and San Benito Priory in Huaraz, Peru.

The latter came in response to the call of Blessed John XXIII in 1961 to religious communities in the United States to send 10 percent of their members to minister in Central and South America within 10 years.

Archabbot Bonaventure and the monks of Saint Meinrad obeyed and established their foothold in Peru less than a year after the pope laid down the challenge. In addition to the priory, the monks ministering there also operated a minor seminary in Huaraz, which is located deep in the mountains of Peru.

While being responsible for various brick and mortar projects, Archabbot Bonaventure was also given the charge of caring for the souls of nearly 200 monks.

One of them was Benedictine Father Meinrad Brune, who became a novice the same year that Archabbot Bonaventure was elected.

One day, Archabbot Bonaventure heard Father Meinrad complaining about another monk. He later called him to his office and simply asked him to read an article on what he had done.

“He didn’t even discuss it with me,” Father Meinrad said. “It was a somewhat indirect way to give me correction. But he did it in a very thoughtful way. It was a very good article. And I knew right away exactly what he was referring to. So I thanked him for it, and that was all that was said.”

The Second Vatican Council also took place while Archabbot Bonaventure was the monastery’s leader. He was obedient to the will of the bishops at the council by starting the process to make the changes called for at Vatican II in the celebration of Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office or simply the Office).

“We did make some appropriate adjustments,” he said. “While the last section of the council was going on, we set up a liturgical committee and they started celebrating the Office in English as an experiment in the chapter room [a special meeting room in the monastery] while we were still doing it in Latin [in the Archabbey Church].”

The years that Archabbot Bonaventure served as leader of Saint Meinrad, however, included some trials as well. Nearly 50 years later, he still only talked about them in a measured manner.

“One of the older priests told someone, then I heard it, that Archabbot Ignatius enjoyed being abbot and Bonaventure doesn’t enjoy it that much,” Archabbot Bonaventure said. “That was the impression that the older fellow had gotten. I think, in a sense, that must have been true.

“At the time [of my resignation in 1966], I said that Father Abbot Ignatius served for 25 years, but 11 years of what we’ve been having is like 25.”

Archabbot Justin reflected on the challenging time in which Archabbot Bonaventure served as leader of Saint Meinrad.

“You can’t be the abbot in another era than your own,” Archabbot Justin said. “When he was elected in 1955, who could have foreseen the council and the aftermath of that? And that’s when he was abbot. Those were challenging times not just for him or for Saint Meinrad, but for the Church at large.”

Life as missionary

Archabbot Bonaventure stepped down as leader of Saint Meinrad in June 1966. By November of that year, he was studying Spanish in preparation to serve in Peru.

At first, he served as the rector of the minor seminary.

His ministry there changed dramatically, however, in 1970 when an earthquake struck the country. Some 70,000 people died in the quake, including Benedictine Father Bede Jamieson, prior of San Benito Priory at the time.

When the quake occurred, Archabbot Bonaventure was walking with a local bishop just prior to the blessing of a cornerstone for a new convent for a community of religious sisters.

“There were garden walls along there,” he said. “Then the earthquake came. Luckily, those walls didn’t fall down. If we had been walking in a narrow street in front of houses like they were in Huaraz, the fronts of the buildings would have fallen and hit people in the streets.”

Instead of assisting in relief work in Peru, Archabbot Bonaventure was asked to return to the United States to make mission appeals in parishes across the country. He later did this ministry full time from 1974-79.

Leading parishes, other monasteries

Beginning in the late 1970s, Archabbot Bonaventure began serving in a series of parish and monastic assignments, serving 17 years in parishes and at the St. Paul Hermitage in the archdiocese, and as temporary administrator in monasteries in Mexico, Wisconsin and Texas.

While in Mexico, he also tackled a good amount of parish ministry.

“I had to revive my Spanish. It was interesting work,” Archabbot Bonaventure said. “I had plenty of Masses. I think I had three Holy Thursday Masses and three Easter Vigils [during one Holy Week].”

His last parish assignment before retiring to the monastery was at St. Michael Parish in Bradford. In 1997, its pastor, Father Bernard Koopman, died suddenly and Archabbot Bonaventure, 77 at the time, was asked to fill in for two and a half months until a pastor could be appointed.

He obeyed, thinking he would return to the monastery in short order. He ended up staying there for six years.

John Jacobi, St. Michael’s director of religious education while Archabbot Bonaventure led the parish, continues in that position today.

“He had a lot of energy,” Jacobi said. “He showed up at anything—youth events, deanery events and things like that. Being able to watch him as a younger person kept me moving. It was his love of the Church, his love of ministry what sustained him.”

Archabbot Bonaventure also helped Jacobi grow in his ministry.

“I think he was really good at knowing when to listen and when to put his two cents in,” Jacobi said. “I think he taught me how to be a good parish minister, how to approach people where they are. He was just really good at that.”

Archabbot Bonaventure stepped down from leading St. Michael Parish because of health problems. In the past 10 years, he has had both of his knees replaced and dealt with a liver ailment.

Today however, at 94, he continues periodically to celebrate Mass in Spanish at St. Mary Parish in Huntingburg, Ind., in the Evansville Diocese, and assists in projects in Saint Meinrad’s development office.

When asked to give words of encouragement to men considering life as a Benedictine monk, Archabbot Bonaventure spoke about the purpose of his adventure of obedience—growing closer to God.

“I’m not sure that you would have any of the experiences that I’ve had, but it is a fulfilling life,” Archabbot Bonaventure said. “It does help you to do what the Rule [of St. Benedict] says, to seek God.”

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