That obituary is from Fr. Hugh Feiss, OSB, of Ascension Priory in Idaho. It is from "Reconfiguring Monastic Life," an article he wrote for the March 2010 edition of the American Benedictine Review.
Ascension is one of several "fragile" communities under review by Benedictine superiors. Another is Blue Cloud Abbey in Marvin, South Dakota. Brother Benet from Blue Cloud was in Sioux Falls tonight, meeting with lay Oblates of the Abbey. He read some of Fr. Feiss' article for the group, which meets at my parish.
The statistics show many monastic communities aging and declining. Ascension's monks have a median age of 70, there are no professed brothers under 55, and the youngest man exploring monastic life is 50.
Most men who come to investigate the religious life are older, and increasingly lack grounding in Catholicism. Bro. Benet noted that new men at Blue Cloud routinely require a basic Catholic Catechism course.
At the same time, Oblate groups (lay people who enter into a spiritual association with a religious community) continue to grow. Feiss' article shares one effort to envision a residential Oblate community, where men, women, married couples and single people would live a Benedictine life style on the monastery's grounds.
Fr. Feiss is up front about the difficult practical questions that come up and, in most cases, nip the idea in the bud. Will children be allowed? Pets? Vehicles? Protestants?
Bro. Benet mentioned one community in Texas that has achieved this model, with the Oblate community collectively running a farm.
There are a few exceptions to these trends and questions. Some monasteries have increased visitors and vocations by becoming more traditional in their monastic routines and disciplines.
Fr. Feiss ends his article on a hopeful note, affirming that monasticism has rolled with change throughout the centuries, always building on the ancient practices of prayer while seeking innovative ways to establish communities.
It was an enlightening and challenging evening, and I was honored to listen in. The monks face challenges very much like those in mainline Christian denominations. Answers that benefit one group may well help the other.