The Benedictine Monastery of Hawaii altered its status last month from being part of an international religious order to being an independent local church organization. But its mission and work remain unchanged.
The two Benedictine priests and four Benedictine sisters who live in community in Waialua on the lower slopes of the Waianae Range, will continue doing what they have done for many years, living a monastic life inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict, ministering to the spiritual needs of the people of Hawaii.
In a one-page proclamation dated May 23, Bishop Larry Silva established the group, whose formal name is Mary, Spouse of the Holy Spirit Monastery, as a “public organization of the Christian faithful” under his authority.
The new designation was prompted by the decision last November by the Benedictine Congregation of St. Mary of Monte Oliveto, the religious order to which the Hawaii Benedictines had belonged, to shut down the Waialua monastery and move its members to monasteries belonging to the order on the Mainland.
The leadership of the congregation, which had 25 monasteries worldwide including five in the United States, wanted the 67-acre Hawaii monastery shuttered because of the advancing age and small number of its members.
The Hawaii Benedictines, most of whom did not want to move, gained the help of Bishop Larry Silva and two canon lawyers to find a permissible arrangement that would allow them to stay in Hawaii while keeping their identity as a religious community following the Benedictine way of life.
Organization of the faithful
The solution was found in having Bishop Silva establish the group as a “public organization of the Christian faithful,” described by the Code of Canon Law as an entity that “strive(s) by common effort to promote a more perfect life or to foster public worship or Christian doctrine or to exercise other apostolic works” such as efforts in evangelization, worship or charity.
Public organizations of the faithful include groups like the Knights of Columbus, the Legion on Mary and Couples for Christ. Some organizations belong to a local diocese; others are national or international. They can be composed of clergy or laity or both.
The Benedictine’s organization, “created by the bishop, is the highest level of association,” said Father Mark Gantley, judicial vicar of the Diocese of Honolulu and one of the canon lawyers who helped in the transition. The other canon lawyer was Benedictine Father Dan Ward of St. John’s University in Minnesota.
“It’s a new canonical status, but not a significant difference in life and ministry,” Father Gantley said. “Basically, in all outward appearances, there is continuity. The new status enables them to survive, to continue on.”
Bishop Silva’s proclamation also approved the monastery’s new statutes, 20 pages that describe the community’s way of life, values and rules. The document, issued May 13, calls itself “a contemporary articulation of the Benedictine charism as lived by its members.”
It addresses the monastery’s history, identity and mission, governance and decision making, and offers guidance on dozens of topics including finances, vows, formation, prayer, devotions and work. It frequently cites the “Rule of St. Benedict,” the primary guide for Benedictine monasteries around the world.
“It’s their document,” Father Gantley said. “To understand it is to understand them. It defines their purpose.”
Men, women on equal footing
Father David Barfknecht, superior of the Waialua monastery, is pleased with the new statutes.
“I feel good about them. It puts our vision into a canonical format,” he said.
The document also puts the monastery’s men and women on equal footing.
The Hawaii Benedictines had followed the constitution of the Italy-based Congregation of St. Mary of Monte Oliveto, also known as the Olivetan Benedictines, which is an all-male community. While Hawaii’s Benedictine Sisters were always treated as equals by their male counterparts, their status within the international order had been more ambiguous.
The Hawaii statutes are clear about the equality of the male and female Benedictines. Conspicuous throughout the document is the term “prior/ess,” shortcut for “prior or prioress,” the terms for the community’s local superior, who can be male or female.
The statutes also state that the monastery is “seeking in due course to become a religious institute” in the diocese, commonly known as a religious order or congregation, a status higher than that of “public organization” where members pronounce public vows and lead a life of brothers and sisters in common.
But to become a religious institute, “you would need to have 12 members in final vows,” Father Barfknecht said. He does not see that happening soon, but is hopeful that the group’s new independence could spark a renewal.
“The statutes are specific to us,” the superior said. “If it really works out, some day it could be the nucleus of a Benedictine congregation.”
‘We will see if God blesses it’
“I get a stronger and stronger sense that the Olivetans did us a favor,” he said.
“I think this is the necessary step,” he said, “one we probably wouldn’t have done” without the Olivetans’ order to shut down.
“We stepped up to the plate,” Father Barfknecht said. “We are doing what we need to do and we will see if God blesses it.”
“This is a way to be able to go forward with a new energy,” he said. “This is exciting.”
The Hawaii monastery will elect a new prior or prioress on the final day of a June 10-12 retreat directed by Sacred Hearts Father William Petrie.
Bishop Silva will install the new superior for a four-year term at a July 11 ceremony at the monastery that will also celebrate the inauguration of the new association and the renewal of vows for its founding members.
The founding members are Father Michael Sawyer, Father Barfknecht, Sister Mary Jo McEnany, Sister Geralyn Spaulding, Sister Ann Cic and Sister Celeste Cabral.
Brother Gregory Foret, a member up until this year, has moved to a Mother of the Redeemer Benedictine Monastery in Louisiana.
Another monastery resident, Benedictine Father Timothy Ottman, 92, because of his age and physical condition, was not listed as a founding member. But he will continue to be an Olivetan Benedictine under the care of the Waialua community.
While “Benedictine Monastery of Hawaii” remains the group’s legal name, “Mary, Spouse of the Holy Spirit Monastery” will become its public name.
“Mary, Spouse of the Holy Spirit” has long been the title of the patroness of the monastery.
To help sustain their Benedictine identity, Father Barfknecht said, the Hawaii group hopes to forge “informal relationships” with other Benedictine communities on the mainland.
The Benedictine community in Hawaii was founded in 1983 out of Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery in Pecos, N.M., by Father Michael Sawyer at the invitation of Bishop Joseph A. Ferrario.
The Pecos monastery had both men and women members and had embraced the Catholic Charismatic movement.
After a couple of years in a temporary house on Waialae Iki Ridge, the small community of five moved to the Waialua property in 1986. To an original one-house residence, the community has added a seven-sided pavilion which houses the chapel, a conference and dining room, a kitchen and a bookstore, among other facilities.
The monastery enjoys non-profit status in Hawaii and, according to Father Barfknecht, is financially stable.