August 25, 2017

Reflection / Daniel Conway

Remembering the lessons that Father Timothy Sweeney taught

John F. FinkI first knew Benedictine Father Timothy Sweeney as a philosophy professor. He taught me logic and metaphysics at the former Saint Meinrad College in St. Meinrad—just after he returned from graduate studies. Father Timothy did not inspire me to love philosophy (mea culpa), but he did teach me the basics, and for that I have always been grateful.

After graduation, I entered the novitiate at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, and I came to know Father Timothy in his role as novice and junior master. What he taught me then was a sense of seriousness about the monastic life that helped me grow out of the more romantic view I brought with me.

(Related obituary: ‘Irish poet,’ former archabbot leaves legacy of building up the faith, foundations of Saint Meinrad)

Although Father Timothy wanted us novices to experience the monastic life as it really is, I remember vividly his reaction when he found out that a couple of us novices had been asked to help an older monk who was addicted to alcohol. He was not at all sure that he wanted us to have that much real experience!

Father Timothy helped me to discern my vocation. I loved Saint Meinrad—the people and the place—but I wasn’t sure that I was called to this way of life. “You have to feel the vocation in your skin,” he told me, but I had no idea what he meant. “Let me ask you this,” he said, “if Saint Meinrad burned to the ground and was no longer in existence, would you search for another monastery?” I didn’t have to think long before I said no. “You don’t have a monastic vocation,” he concluded. “You just like it here.”

And he was right. I didn’t have a monastic vocation, but I sure did—and do—like it there!

Four years after leaving the monastery, I returned to tell Father Timothy that I was engaged to be married. “Now I know what it means to feel the vocation in your skin!”

A few years later, I returned to Saint Meinrad as a member of its development office staff. Father Timothy had been elected archabbot the year before, and as a result I came to know him as my employer, the spiritual father of the monastic community, chairman of the board of its seminary and chief executive officer of its Abbey Press.

Archabbot Timothy was a reluctant leader. He was not an ambitious man, and he naturally shied away from the spotlight. At the same time, he took his responsibilities seriously and did what he believed was necessary to fulfill his obligations as abbot. The result was an inner tension that he didn’t talk about, but which those of us who worked closely with him experienced on a daily basis.

Taking his responsibilities seriously meant addressing the urgent need for a new monastery and library. It also meant ensuring the financial health and stability of the monastic community, seminary and Abbey Press.

Most of all, it meant carrying out faithfully the instructions that St. Benedict’s Rule sets forth for abbots, including to “always bear in mind what a burden he has taken on himself,” to “always exalt mercy above judgment that he himself may find mercy,” and to “love the brethren while hating their vices.”

Finally, St. Benedict warns the abbot “not to be turbulent and overanxious, over-exacting and headstrong, jealous and prone to suspicion, for otherwise he will never have rest” (Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 64).

I will let others decide how well Timothy Sweeney succeeded as an abbot, but from my perspective as his chief development officer for eight years, I found him to be a good, strong leader—in spite of his reluctance. Certainly, the funds were raised, the buildings were built, and the monastic community remained strong and healthy in its prayer and work and its service to the archdiocese and the universal Church.

After resigning as abbot in 1995 after 17 years of service, Father Timothy embraced the simple life of a monk and priest. He served in parishes, helped other monasteries, maintained and managed the archives of Saint Meinrad and the Swiss American Congregation, and once again taught philosophy. For 22 years, he succeeded in avoiding the spotlight while taking seriously his various responsibilities in the monastery and outside it.

Father Timothy carried forward a tradition of priestly service in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis along with his brother, Father James Sweeney and his cousin Father Noah Casey (both deceased), and his cousins, Father James Farrell, pastor of St. Pius X Parish and director of mission advancement at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House, both in Indianapolis, and Father Patrick Beidelman, executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Spiritual Life and Worship and rector of SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis. He is survived by a large family of cousins and by many friends and co-workers.

Timothy Sweeney was a good man, a faithful monk and priest, and a leader who took his role, but not himself, seriously. I miss him. May he rest in peace.

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.)

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