Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Changing ways of life

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published May 19, 2017

During a recent community meeting, one of the monks mentioned that when he came here in 1974, the Trappist order was undergoing more changes than it had experienced in hundreds of years. Specifically, he cited the newness of the term “contemplation,” the practice of Divine Reading or “Lectio Divina,” the shift from a life of silence to one where talking was allowed and the need to adjust to a life in which a monk was encouraged to get to know and love his fellow monks. The last point basically meant a switch from a private spirituality to a public or communal one.

As he spoke, I thought about how difficult a time that must have been for the monks who had been here for years and who, in a matter of just a few years, had to grapple with leaving a secure and somewhat comfortable terrain for a totally new one.

I also thought of Charlie.

Charlie was the second pastor I had when I was a parish priest in the Archdiocese of Newark. I moved to that parish about the same year referred to by the monk at our meeting. We were going through changes, too, in the archdiocese. In fact, it was a time when seemingly everything was changing—the wild winds of the 1960s were still tossing about long-held sureties well into the 1970s.

One night over dinner, Charlie was telling me about his previous years in the priesthood. He was ordained in the early 1950s, a time when the church seemed unchanging, sure of itself and its place in the world. Charlie went on to tell me that in those years, meetings were rare and non-dialogical. Priests, especially the bishops and pastors, ran the show. Lay people—the parishioners—were expected to “pray, pay, and obey,” as the old saying goes.

The Masses were in Latin and there was no participation among the faithful. The church fostered a very private and personal kind of piety. People created their own religious worlds, helped along by the sweet aroma of incense and reverence for a God that was believed in but little understood, apart from what could be gleaned from the Baltimore Catechism.

Then along came the Second Vatican Council. Charlie said that one of the most unsettling experiences in his life was the day he had to say Mass facing the people. He said that the day before, he celebrated his last Mass facing the wall. And the next morning he was facing the people. He said that he felt in every cell of his body the momentous change that turnaround was bringing about, a change that in many ways is still reverberating in the church.

Charlie had to deal with his shyness. He had to brush up as best he could on contemporary theology and current events. He had to learn to respond to new expectations, new problems, new situations, new ways of approaching dialogue.

He managed very well with it all. He looked about for whatever lights that may have been shining, and he followed them. Many of the maps that once laid out the terrain for religious and cultural security were no longer of any use.

Charlie entered a new world and learned new things, new ways of loving and hoping, new approaches to people. Looking back, I think his biggest accomplishment was to learn to trust the light of God that is people—that is the living and questioning church.

Many years later I thanked him for the pastor he was for me. He was a man who taught me that no matter what our time, place or circumstance, when we are asked to make a major turn in our lives, there are always people waiting right before us, willing to show us new ways of living.

Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery web store at