By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff writer | Published August 18, 2016
CONYERS—On the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Aug. 15, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory conferred the abbatial blessing on Dom Augustine Myslinski, OCSO, the eighth abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers.
Joining the 34 monks of the community for the Mass and rite of blessing at the abbey church were 10 Cistercian abbots and abbesses from the United States and Venezuela, members of the lay Cistercians, and family members and hundreds of friends of the new abbot and the monastery.
Bishop J. Kevin Boland, bishop-emeritus of the Diocese of Savannah, and Bishop Felipe de Jesús Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, also witnessed the blessing. Bishop Estévez was rector of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Florida when Abbot Augustine was a seminarian there.
Abbot Augustine, 57, is a native of Chicago and the middle child in a family of three.
His parents, Connie and the late Lawrence Myslinksi, moved the family to Stone Mountain in 1970 when he was 11. He attended Clarkston High School and DeKalb College before earning his bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the Pontifical College Josephinum, in Columbus, Ohio. After college, he considered the diocesan priesthood and studied for three years at St. Vincent de Paul Seminary, earning a master’s degree in divinity.
However, before ordination to the diaconate, he felt drawn away and after leaving seminary immediately felt his vocational calling was to the Conyers monastery. In 1999, he joined the monastic community. He professed solemn vows as a religious brother in 2005 and discerned a further call to the priesthood within the monastery. In 2011, he became a priest, ordained by Bishop Luis R. Zarama.
During 16 years within the community he has served as the novice master, sub-prior, business manager, and most recently as the prior, or second superior.
He was elected abbot on Corpus Christi Sunday, May 29, by his brother monks and will serve for a six-year term. He succeeds Abbot-emeritus Francis Michael Stiteler.
Betting on a man to be abbot
In his homily, Archbishop Gregory tied the idea of gambling to the risks embraced in faith by Mary, and by those who follow Christ, including the election of the abbot to lead the community.
The Scriptures, noted the archbishop, contain examples of how people took chances. The apostles cast lots to choose the successor of Judas.
“They were convinced the Holy Spirit could use a roll of the dice to fill an apostolic position,” said Archbishop Gregory. “Church leadership always involves taking a chance. Bishops and abbots are chosen, elected with a gamble that God’s Spirit will fill those who are selected with the grace to fulfill their new responsibility with merit, fidelity and compassion.”
The archbishop acknowledged it’s not customary to associate heroes and heroines of faith with gambling.
“But every person in Scripture who listened to God, who followed the Lord’s plan and who trusted in providence, did, in fact, make the life-changing bet,” he said.
Never was there one who trusted more willingly in the Lord’s providence than the Blessed Mother, he emphasized.
“This young woman of faith had only the inkling of voice, a shadowy image and a whisper perhaps, asking her, inviting her to take a chance in accepting what God wanted her to do for him, and indeed for all of creation,” said Archbishop Gregory. “She took the bet. She made the wager. She kept her bet on the table of hope despite all circumstances.”
Celebration of the feast of the Assumption recognizes that Mary was given a full share in God’s bounty.
“We witness how God always satisfies his promises in the most generous ways,” he said.
The monks of Conyers are celebrating their wager, selecting Dom Augustine to become their father and guide.
“They placed this bet on a man that they have come to love and cherish and to respect for his faith and devotion to the model of Cistercian monastic life,” said Archbishop Gregory. “Today we bless and dedicate Abbot Augustine as he fully accepts his election as the abbot of the monastery of Conyers and places all of his trust in God’s fidelity which never forsakes.”
The Rule of St. Benedict
In the rite of blessing, the abbot promised to persevere in determination to observe the Rule of St. Benedict and to encourage the brothers in the love of God, the life of the Gospel and in fraternal charity.
As Abbot Augustine lay prostrate before the altar, the community sang the Litany of the Saints, asking the Lord for the grace to sustain him. After this prayer, he knelt before the archbishop, who extended his hands and prayed a lengthy blessing for the new abbot’s manner of life, realization of his great responsibility for the souls of others, for his compassion and servant’s heart, for wisdom, understanding and the gifts and fire of the Holy Spirit.
“In his life and teaching, may he set Christ above all things,” the archbishop prayed.
Following the blessing, the archbishop presented him with the Rule of St. Benedict, a ring as a sign of fidelity, and miter and shepherd’s staff. Then the archbishop, each visiting abbot and abbess and each monk of the Conyers community embraced Abbot Augustine in a sign of peace.
Following the Mass, many people lined up to greet the new abbot. Many priests of the archdiocese concelebrated the Mass, including those who were his classmates at St. Vincent de Paul Seminary. The monastic community hosted a buffet luncheon.
Brenda Griffin, a founding member of the Conyers monastery lay Cistercians, recalled the first time she encountered the future abbot as he took care of gardening chores on the grounds.
“I met him clipping a hedge,” remembered Griffin.
A parishioner of St. James the Apostle Church in McDonough, Griffin was drawn to the Cistercians because of love of silence.
“In my view, he’s going to bring a lot of unity and love,” she said of the new leader.
Marla Bennett, who sat in the front row alongside the abbot’s family members, was a classmate of his at Clarkston High School. Her husband, Tom, who could not attend, has known him since elementary school. She brought photos with her to show her old friend of their recent 40th high school reunion.
Mark is the abbot’s given name. He chose Augustine as his religious name when he was a novice.
“Mark was always a thoughtful kind of person,” said Bennett.
Bennett said he had a calm spirit, was a handsome track star, and was “always a good friend.”
“I think a lot of people looked up to him,” she said.
They keep in touch mostly through email and cards.
While not Catholic themselves, the Bennetts pray for their former classmate in his journey.
“And it’s a great comfort to know we’re in his prayers,” added Bennett.
Abbot’s role “a grace”
Father Francis Michael, the abbot emeritus, led the community for 12 years during a time of renewal. Recognized as a naturalist photographer, he was happily armed with a camera typically used to document species of butterflies and dragonflies on monastery grounds. At the blessing, he captured memories of the day for his successor.
“I’m very grateful that he was open to receiving the service,” said Father Francis Michael.
He said he told Dom Augustine that being abbot is a pretty straightforward job for a good guy, who loves his brothers and the monastery.
“It’s a job that somebody’s got to do. It was a grace. It was a difficult grace for me,” he reflected.
The abbot-emeritus said he felt as if he was holding down the fort during his two terms, but that his successor will be different.
“He’ll have a lot more creative ideas. I couldn’t be more pleased,” he said.
Dom Augustine’s mother, Connie, lives in Suwanee and was joined by her daughter, Mary Jo, and her son, Michael, along with other family members for the abbatial blessing.
“It’s bittersweet. His father is gone. He would’ve been so proud,” she said.
Her husband was interred in the natural burial grounds open to the public on monastery land.
Witnessing their son and brother’s faith journey is inspiring to the extended family.
“He was a good child. He cherishes his family,” his mother said.
Described as the “little Italian gal” by her monk son, she remembered the first time the family ever visited the monastery. Mark was just starting high school and asked, “Why are we here?” Over the years, the Polish-Italian family would frequent the monastery regularly. “Every time someone would visit from Chicago, we would bring them here,” said Myslinski.
Her friend Pat Budz, whose late husband, Ted, was a spiritual mentor to her son, carried a colorful gift bag for the new abbot and was beaming with pride.
“It’s more than I expected,” said Budz of the rite.
“I resisted this call”
In his words to those gathered in the church at the end of Mass, Dom Augustine said his preference would have been for Archbishop Gregory to drop by privately to give him his blessing.
“I say this because I’m not that used to big crowds. … I’m a monk,” he said, to laughter. “I love silence and solitude.”
However, he acknowledged, “This blessing is not just about me. … It’s also about the monastery itself.”
The rite is for all who love the monastery, for the clergy and the lay people of the archdiocese, for family members, and all who visit the abbey church in search of a sacred place to pray.
“I know there are many people who love this monastery. I love it. My brothers here and I love it so much we decided to stay here and give our lives to it,” he said.
Dom Augustine has spoken many times about the monastic life to his brothers.
“This is a beautiful vocation; a beautiful vocation, not without its challenges and trials, as all the brothers here know,” he said.
The abbot said he could not help and reflect on how he barely made it into the religious life.
“I resisted this call for many years. When I first heard God calling me to monastic life, my response was, ‘Go pick on somebody else.’”
In the poet’s words, he fled God “down the labyrinthine ways.”
“I resisted it with every fiber of my being … yet now here I am, eighth abbot of this monastery,” Abbot Augustine said.
One might use the expression “go figure,” he said.
“We figure it by God’s grace and mercy, which is open to all of us,” he said.
The abbot said he will not be leading singlehandedly, but in consultation with the abbot-emeritus and the brothers.
Prayer builds unity
Dom Augustine knows the abbey church speaks to all who come to worship and pray there and values the friendship of those who give time and talent to its sustenance and growth.
The monastery dates to 1944, when 21 monks were sent from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to found the new community in rural Rockdale County where there were at the time virtually no Catholics. It was built from the ground up by the monks.
He also thanked the communities of Corpus Christi Church, Stone Mountain, St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Smyrna, and the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta, parishes supportive of his personal faith and formation.
He thanked Archbishop Gregory for his support of the monastic community.
“We’re both from Chicago. We share that as well as our common faith,” said Dom Augustine.
However, he admitted there’s a “serious tension” between him and the archbishop.
“It’s a strain that I don’t think can ever be reconciled,” said the abbot, alluding to his own love of the Chicago Cubs over the White Sox backed by the archbishop.
In seriousness, as he looked out at the full church, Dom Augustine said, “With all of these people praying for me, how can I go wrong?”
“God doesn’t need our prayers because he takes care of everything. Instead he wants our prayers,” he said.
“One reason he wants our prayers is because it draws us closer together in unity and love—united together in Christ Jesus.”