New York Times visits a fading abbey -- that plans to court spiritual-but-not-religious folks

Let's say that you are a reporter and you are going to write a feature story about an order of Catholic monastics.

If you were writing about an order that is growing -- let's say the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville -- it would be very important for your piece to mention the larger context of this story. I am, of course, referring to the overall decline of Catholic monasticism and holy orders in the United States.

For example, see the opening of this classic NPR piece:

For the most part, these are grim days for Catholic nuns. Convents are closing, nuns are aging and there are relatively few new recruits. But something startling is happening in Nashville, Tenn. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia are seeing a boom in new young sisters: Twenty-seven joined this year and 90 entered over the past five years.
The average of new entrants here is 23. And overall, the average age of the Nashville Dominicans is 36 -- four decades younger than the average nun nationwide.

So lots of monasteries and convents are in decline -- but not all. In other words, there are two sides to this equation.

So let's flip this around. Now you are a reporter and you have been assigned to write about the decline and potential death of a Catholic monastery. That, for example, this lovely New York Times feature with this expansive double-decker headline:

The World Is Changing. This Trappist Abbey Isn’t. Can It Last?
Meet the monks of Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina, who are trying to maintain age-old religious traditions in a rapidly evolving world.

You can see half of the equation right there in the headline. Throughout the piece, the challenges faced at Mepkin Abbey are -- as you would expect -- spelled out in great detail.

What is missing? The story does not include the other side of the equation. Are there convents and monasteries that are growing? What are the differences between the communities that are fading away and those that are alive and kicking?

The Times team doesn't include that side of this national drama of Catholic doctrine and demographics (background here). Hold that thought. First, here is the oh-so-familiar big picture:

Mepkin Abbey -- part of a global network of Trappist monasteries that for nearly 1,000 years have provided their communities with reliable sources of prayer, learning and hospitality -- is edging toward a potential crisis. In keeping with broader declines in the ranks of priests, nuns and brothers, Mepkin’s monastic community is dwindling. Only 13 monks remain, down from a peak of 55 in the mid-1950s. Over the same period, the monks’ average age has steadily risen by nearly 50 years -- up to 77, from around 30. The abbey is struggling to attract and retain younger novices. ...
Across all orders, the number of Catholic brothers in the United States has declined by more than two-thirds since 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. But Trappist communities may be particularly vulnerable, since their traditions are more isolating and, in many ways, more resistant to modernization.

So what is the problem? Old traditions appears to be the key. What is the solution? The Times points to the need for modernization.

This raises a logical question: Is modernization and experimentation the common thread that connects growing, thriving Catholic monastic communities?

Obviously, that is not question that is addressed in this story -- since the other half of the equation is never mentioned. The Times feature does mention that some other communities have all kinds of digital outreach programs (Mepkin Abbey does have a website). However, there is little or no discussion of the traditions, ministries and doctrines stressed in communities that are growing, as opposed to those that are not.

Something else is missing. If you search this feature, the word "Jesus" appears exactly once. There is little or no material here -- in terms of specifics -- about the faith practiced by these monks.

It is assumed that they are Christians, of course, and that they pray a lot. But the Times is much more interested in the current state of the abbey's mushroom business, and its gentle approach to gay-rights issues, than in the doctrinal content of its religious life.

Strange, that.

However, the importance of tradition and doctrine -- or the lack of same -- is spelled out in a lengthy passage about Mepkin Abbey's plans to survive in the future. In many ways, this is the heart of the story, so pay close attention:

In recent months, the abbey, in response to its aging population and its lack of young novices, formed a committee for its future development and drew up a set of programs aimed at attracting a younger and more spiritually diverse group of people.

Spiritually diverse? You got it: An abbey for the spiritual, but not religious.

The abbey’s new affiliate program will offer two new short-term monastic options for people of any, or no, faith traditions: a monthlong monastic institute, open to men and women, and a yearlong residency. And in a departure from its otherwise passive approach, Mepkin created an ad campaign -- albeit a small and highly targeted one -- to publicize the program. (It featured copy that read: “BE A MONK. FOR A MONTH. FOR A YEAR.”)
“We’re at such a -- you might say desperate -- point,” said Father Guerric Heckel, “that we’re being forced to try something new and innovative.”
Many young people of the Roman Catholic tradition, Father Guerric added, will simply not be attracted to forms of monasticism that require celibacy and a lifetime commitment. But there’s a growing belief among Mepkin’s brothers that certain elements of the Trappist tradition -- its cultivation of mindfulness, stillness and inward exploration -- are increasingly relevant to today’s youth. And the abbey, they say, is a repository of wisdom about the benefits of contemplative living.
“What young people keep telling us,” said Father Joe Tedesco, the chair of the committee for Mepkin’s future development, “is that they’re interested in the spiritual life journey, but not in institutional religion. So let’s give them an experience of the place without a commitment, and see what happens.”

So, what do Catholics on the other side of this monastic equation think of that approach?

As is often the case, the answer is this: Click here.

So the revised equation seems to look like this: When covering the positive, mention the negative (amen to that). But when covering the negative, do not mention the positive or allow it to critique the negative.

Did I get that right?

FIRST IMAGE: From the Mepkin Abbey website.

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