Saturday, June 10, 2023

Post-Conciliar Turmoil Memorialized in Stone

I recently paid a visit to Belmont Abbey in Belmont, North Carolina. Belmont Abbey was founded as a Benedictine monastery back in 1876; there is still a functional Abbey there, though today it is better known as the site of Belmont Abbey College.

During my visit I was given a tour by someone associated with the Abbey. I asked to see the Abbey cemetery, as I am an aficionado of burial places. The cemetery is a lovely green space behind the abbey, whose focal point is a centrally locaed circular mound where the abbots of Belmont Abbey are entombed:

The most notable tomb on the mound is that of Leo Haid, the great missionary abbot-bishop who was the first Abbot of Belmont Abbey and the Vicar Apostolic to North Carolina from 1880 to 1910 and territorial abbot from 1910 to his death in 1924, possessing the canonical jurisdiction of an Ordinary over eight counties in North Carolina. His tomb is adorned with a bronze plaque with a Latin inscription detailing his titles and accomplishments; there is a marble effigy of a sarcophagus with his episcopal insignia and his episcopal coat of arms at the foot with the motto VINCIT LEO, "The lion conquers," a reference to Revelation 5:5 ("The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered"):

The succeding abbots were entombed in a circle going counterclockwise from Abbot Haid. Next to Haid is the second abbot, Vincent Michael Taylor, Abbot of Belmont Abbey from 1924 until his resignation in 1952 after a heart attack; the abbey was governed by a vicar, Walter Coggin, until Taylor's death in 1959. Under Taylor the college continued to grow, assuming its modern proportions during his latter years. Abbot Taylor's modest tomb contains Latin inscriptions identifying him as abbot nullius and recording his dates of birth and death. 

The third tomb is interesting. This is the grave of Abbot Walter Coggin, the former vicar who now succeeded Taylor as abbot. Coggin served from 1960 to 1970, encompassing the years of the Second Vatican Council. Walter Coggin was a professor at the abbey and served as its president as well. The tomb identifies Coggin as a "Father of the Second Vatican Council," as Rev. Coggin attended all four sessions of the Council as a Council Father. He was a zealous promoter of the Conciliar vision and eagerly implemented the reform (or whatever he thought the reform was) in the abbey and college. It was during his tenure that the beautiful neo-Gothic abbey church was wreckovated in 1964-65 to the bland, minimalist structure visitors see today. The spirit of the Council is also manifest on his tomb; Latin has vanished and been replaced with English:

Coggin resigned the abbacy in 1970. From what I was told, this was somewhat of a novelty. The rules of the American-Cassinese congregation, to which Belmont belongs, states that an abbot must offer his resignation at age 75, or after his eighth year in office he was over 60 when elected. As Coggin was only 44 years old when he became abbot and 54 when he resigned, neither of these applied. He should have stayed in office until 1991. But he resigned in 1970, contuning at the abbey as a teacher until his death in 1999. I was unable to discern from my host the reason for Coggin's resignation, nor have I been able to find anything online on the matter, so I will leave it at that.

Now, as Rev. Coggins was the third abbot, one would expect the next tomb in the succession to be the fourth abbot. In fact, the next grave after Coggin is that of Rev. Oscar Burnett, the seventh Abbot of Belmont Abbey, who served from 1991 to 1999.

The tombs thus skip from the third to the seventh abbots, leaving a gap of 21 years between 1970 when Coggins resigned to 1991 when Burnett was elected. Abbots four, five, and six are missing. What happened between 1970 and 1991?

I inquired about this and my host told me these abbots were not here because they "left the monastery"; i.e., left the Benedictine order. When I pressed my host for more information, all I was told was, "Yeah, those were crazy decades for the abbey. There was a lot shaking up."

What happened in Belmont Abbey during those 21 years that caused three abbots to not only resign the abbacy but leave the order entirely? It's hard to say exactly. Monasteries aren't known for airing their dirty laundry to the public; there are little bits of information scattered here and there throughout old publications, obituaries, and memoirs. What seems evident, however, is that the monastery was thrown into some sort of chaos severe enough that it caused multiple men in leadership positions to question their vocations.

Before we judge any of these men for leaving, consider that they may not have left because they were giving up, but because they sensed the monastery had changed dramatically. Consider the case of the fourth abbot, Fr. Edmund McCaffrey, who served for five years from 1970 to 1975. Likely these would have been the extremely trying years, encompassing the implementation of the Novus Ordo and the avalanche of novelty that characterized the 1970s. McCaffery abruptly resigned the abbacy in 1975, citing only "personal reasons" (see page 2). He stayed for a time at Belmont but eventually left the monastery, dropping his Benedictine affiliation and becoming incardinated in the Diocese of Charleston as a parish priest where he served until his death in 2016. Fr McCaffrey appears to have been of impeccable orthodoxy, as he was a close companion of Fr. John Hardon, S.J. and, with Fr. Hardon, founded the Institute on Religious Life in 1974 for the purpose of revitalizing religious vocations in the wake of the collapse that had already taken hold of monastic life even at such an early date. Fr. McCaffrey continued his labors as a diocesan priest, preaching on the Eucharist and Confession regularly till his dying day. It therefore appears Fr. McCaffrey left Belmont not because he had lost his way, but because he believed Belmont had.

It does seem, however, that the fifth and sixth abbots completely gave up on monastic and clerical life altogether. Fr. Edmund McCaffrey was replaced in 1975 by the fifth abbot, Fr. Jude Cleary, whose tenure was consumed by disputes about Rome's impending plans to suppress abbatial dioceses, eliminating the historic designation of Belmont's abbots as abbots nullius and turning them into simple abbots. Paul VI suppressed abbatial dioceses with his motu proprio De Abbatiarum Nullius Diocesos Innovatione of October 23, 1976. After this, Cleary, too resigned in 1977 after scarcely two years in office.* Fr. Jude Cleary left the monastery in 1978 and apparently repudiated his vows, as he took a wife the same year (Theresa Cleary née Muller) and lived as a married man until his death in 2005.

Fr. Jude Cleary was replaced by Fr. Peter Stragand, who served as sixth abbot from 1978 to 1988. The 1980s were a bad time for the abbey, as for Church universal, and Stragand left the monastic life in 1988 to marry. Because of the considerable turmoil within the abbey at this time, the monks were not permitted to elect a new abbot, instead being placed under an administrator (Fr. Timothy Kelly of the notorious Collegeville Benedictines, of whom 18 have been credibly accused of sex abuse). Fr. Kelly himself would later be accused of solicitation of sex in the confessional. Belmont Abbey was under Fr. Kelly's administration until finally permitted to relect an abbot (Oscar Burnett) in 1991. Burnett was replaced by the eighth and current abbot, Fr. Placid Solari, in 1999, who by all accounts is a man of genuine piety, orthodox sentiment, and desire to maintain the Catholic character of Belmont College.

As I stood in the cemetery of Belmont Abbey looking at the three missing abbatial tombs, I could not help but consider all the chaos that wracked this institution in the wake of the Council. Reading its history, 1969 through 1991 seemed like years of utter chaos (and I didn't even mention the secular turmoil, like when the abbey college was briefly taken over by protestors in 1969 over racial grievances and Vietnam). The introduction of the new liturgy, the reformation of monastic life, the controversy over the status of abbots nullius and Paul VI's suppression of monastic dioceses, multiple resignations of abbots who abandoned the monastic life to marry, the monks being prohibited from electing an abbot for almost four years due to the turmoil. It boggles the mind to think of.

I am not suggesting all of this was directly caused by Vatican II; but the constrast between the growth and stability of the abbey under Haid and Taylor stands in stark contrast with the chaos that prevailed in the two decades after the resignation of Coggin in 1970. The abrupt omission of three abbatial tombs immediately after the grave of the "Father of the Second Vatican Council" seems emblematic of the problems faced by modern religious orders. The abbatial graves of Belmont are like a cross section of the post-Conciliar turmoil memorialized in stone.


*For those interested in the controversy over the status of abbots nullius and Rome's suppression of them during the pontificate of Paul VI, there is an excellent article from the Catholic Historical Review entitled "An Abbatial Diocese in the United States" (1993) on the history of this matter in Belmont Abbey, authored by Paschal Baumstein, OSB. Unfortunately, it is only accessible to readers with a JSTOR account.


Anonymous said...

The legacy of Pope Paul VI is becoming increasingly murkier.

I have taken to bring a tiny pre- Vatican II missal to mass and I feel the priests eyes marking me like a dissident.

Anonymous said...

Comparing the before and after pictures, everything seemed so perfect in scale prior and with the removal of all the decor, the interior looks small and narrow.

Alexander Verbum said...

More proof that Pseudo-saint Paul VI was a disaster. His (non-existent) cult should be suppressed and he should be removed from the (new) calander.

Also, that wreckovaiton is extremely harsh, both saddening and maddening.

Anonymous said...

Pope John the 23rd is also a mystery why he was declared a saint, and yet Pius the 19th is only “blessed,” I have a personal devotion to Pius the 19th on account of several of his declarations. Plus he was the Pope when OL of Lourdes and OL of Pontmain occurred.

Marissa said...

A fictionalized version of this could be done very well, the symbolism of the stone/graves could be very powerful - it's already very powerful in this post!

Shawn Albert said...

With respect, Anonymous, are you from the future? There was/is no Pius 19th. If you meant Pius 12th, fair enough.

On another note, good article. It would be interesting if a more in depth history of the Abbey were available.

Shawn Albert said...

Or rather Pope Pius the 9th.