By Fr. Stephen James Rossey, O. Praem.
Sr. Joan Chittister, O.S.B., in her 2017 book Radical Spirit, suggests that communio in religious life is built on relationships, not on simply living alone together. In my 66 years of religious life, I have found this to be true. I’m sure Saints Norbert and Augustine, whose Rule of Life we follow, would whole-heartedly agree.
In my lifetime in our Order, I’ve had the privilege of living in each of our houses for extended periods of time. Sharing experiences, revealing one’s own inmost thoughts, being provided the best education to utilize one’s talents, traveling to see and experience what one has spent a lifetime teaching about, are but a few of the joys I have been afforded. And all of these pluses of common life did not begin with me, nor end with me. Happiness is about relationships, interdependence, empathy, and care and concern about the well-being of others.
I have counted so many good men as brothers. Tom Hagendorf entered the order at Daylesford in 1955 and came to De Pere after his simple profession to complete college and study theology. We became immediate friends after a trip to our camp in the northwoods where he learned about rustic living after his youth in the asphalt and concrete jungle of South Philadelphia. Sal Cuccia, from our parish in Madison, joined the order in 1958; the same year I professed solemn vows. We bonded quickly over our mutual esteem for cooking and all things Italian. Xave Colavechio, a couple of years ahead of me in the Order, studied theology in Rome and became well-acquainted with the Order’s houses in Europe. We often traveled to Europe together to acquaint Norbertine Associates, college faculty, friends, and confrères with Norbertine customs and traditions. After my return to the abbey in 1984 from my teaching position at Archmere Academy in Delaware, Bart Agar another Easterner, took over the liturgy at the abbey and we spent hours planning liturgies and recalling our times together at the old abbey, teaching in Philadelphia, relaxing at our retreat on Lake Michigan, and daily chit-chats at breakfast with Abbot Tremel. One really never has to be alone in religious life.
“I attribute my length of days and happiness to the joy and gladness of heart I have found in my vocation.”
Consecrated celibacy has given me the ability to share my inmost life with others; poverty has afforded me the opportunity to share my talents with a wider audience than myself; and obedience has made me accountable for my choices and actions. In this process of self-discovery I found that we are all too human. We all have with our warts and foibles; but even with these, I have the ability to laugh at myself and with others, and this makes for a most joyful, satisfying life.
Sirach writes, “Gladness of heart is life; joy is what gives length of days.” (Eccles. 30:22-23.) I attribute my length of days and happiness to the joy and gladness of heart I have found in my vocation, the apostolate of teaching, and living in common with like-minded giving confrères who help me along the way.