The news that the monks of Downside Abbey in Somerset are to abandon their home of more than two centuries, including the fabulous Abbey Church which is one of only four Minor Basilicas in England, came as a shock to English Catholics. It is difficult to imagine them surviving as a separate community, and we know that many other religious communities are not far behind the monks of Downside in terms of declining numbers. Which will be the next to go?
Fr Christopher Basden, long-time Parish Priest of St Bede's Clapham Park, and now Parish Priest in Ramsgate and Minster in Kent, has written the following letter appealing to the community to think again. St Bede's has been a model of the integration of the Traditional Mass into a territorial parish, and demonstrates the way this can contribute to securing the future of a church. Decline is not inevitable: some monastic communities are growing today: those who have reconnected themselves with the roots of tradition.
Reproduced with permission.
OPEN LETTER OF APPEAL TO DOWNSIDE
On behalf of untold people throughout the world I write to appeal against the monks of Downside surrendering to the current zeitgeist and leaving their monastery. Downside is part of the fabric of English Catholic history. The restoration of the Catholic Church and of monasticism is one of the great victories of Grace after the horrendous rape and interruption by Henry VIII in the 16th Century. We appeal against this decision in the face of a more insidious enemy: that of secularism, relativism and modernism which destroys the Church from within.
Surrendering does not solve the problem. We have faced enemies before and a flight or dispersal to another location(s) is simply the recipe for swift extinction as we have seen previously (Fort Augustus and countless female communities). Have we no faith in the grace of God and the irresistible attraction to the consecrated life and the eternal truth of the Catholic Church?
Let us look at the success stories in the otherwise devastated vineyard of the modern Church. The French Abbey of Fontgombault have made five successful foundations in the last forty years; Randol, Triors, Pyrenees, Clear Creek in Oklahoma (which after twenty-one years is making moves for its own foundation) Wisques. What is the secret of Fontgombault? Simply - traditional Catholicism from observance to worship to belief. This is true also of the Benedictine Communities of Le Barroux (with its foundation near Toulouse), Norcia in Italy, Silverstream near Dublin and countless other smaller communities in the USA.
I can hear the immediate scornful repudiation that this simply going backwards. In so many fields we have to go back to rediscover the genius of our respective traditions from Education to Architecture to Entertainment. We have to have the humility to admit mistakes in seeking renewal and modernity.
Look at the great Empire of American Catholic University Education. With the infamous “Land of Lakes” Agreement of 1967, Catholic universities in the name of renewal and academic freedom surrendered their distinctive Catholic identity to the forces of modernity and secularism. This resulted in a disastrous cessation of vocations and a complete erosion of the ordinary regular transmission of the practice of the Faith from one generation to the next. Fifty years later the great Catholic Universities are Catholic in name only, often benefiting by federal money but no longer bearing fruit for God’s Church. Starting again from scratch there are five Universities (Ave Maria in Florida, Steubenville, Christendom, Thomas More and Thomas Aquinas). What is the result? The transmission of a confident, orthodox faith to the younger generation and the spawning of Catholic marriages and a huge variety of consecrated and ordained vocations.
If you have an allergy to undiluted Catholic tradition, then distil it slightly. Go for orthodoxy and challenging observance. If you are wedded to the Second Vatican Council, then follow its central and novel precept: ‘The Universal Call to Holiness’. Sanctity and schools of The Lord’s Service are simply irresistible! There are so many dioceses and religious groups (Community of St. Martin in France) which are merely conservative and not traditionalist. If we want to conserve the precious treasure of the Catholic Faith and all of its fruits, we simply have to move towards this direction even if not espousing it completely.
It is said that there is no unity in community today. We have to surrender our differing individual preferences to the Science of The Saints to ensure the hermeneutic of continuity and not of dissipation. We have to unite in order to preserve; we have to surrender our own wills to forestall the disintegration of the Institutions of the Catholic Church.
One example from our otherwise devastating English monastic scenario – Parkminster, our only Charterhouse. In 1990 my dear late friend, Dom Bernard O’ Donavon, then Prior, felt they simply could not go on. They were down to eleven old men. The buildings were crumbling all around them. Continual Postulants and Novices simply came and went with none persevering for almost twenty years. The wisdom was that they were finished and that they would have to move. Thankfully, a higher wisdom intervened, Dom Cyril Pierce took over and as a remarkably successful Master of Novices at The Grand Chartreuse (twelve men to solemn profession) also oversaw a confident formation of new men. In addition to this he oversaw lottery funding to repair the sorry state of the monastery. Thirty years later they have twenty-seven monks. It takes but one man with the vision and determination and grace to succeed.
Why do we have to see our Catholic Church in this country despoiled? Why do we have to despair in the face of secularism, so called modernity and the ugly rotten fruits of the sexual revolution which have infected and corrupted our morals and our minds? Many mistakes have been made. Can we not learn for our mistakes and proceed humbly towards a better future?
Fr Christopher Basden, Parish Priest of Ramsgate and Minster, England
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