Editors’ Note: We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.
“To tell you the truth, the parish was nearly moribund when we first arrived,” admitted Abbot Joel Garner, OPraem, head of the Norbertine community of Santa Maria de la Vid in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We had left the abbey grounds to visit Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, a working-class parish in the city’s predominately Hispanic West Mesa neighborhood. The drive wasn’t exactly scenic. Cruising north along busy Coors Boulevard, we passed a seemingly endless strip of trailer parks, tire shops, and big-box stores.
We crossed historic Route 66, then pulled into the church parking lot. Abbot Joel’s energy belies his eighty-some years. Back in 1985, he was one of five Norbertines sent from St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere, Wisconsin, near Green Bay, to begin a new foundation in New Mexico. The goal was to serve the growing number of Hispanic Catholics in the United States and, eventually, to attract New Mexican vocations. Albuquerque, a mid-sized city with a large Catholic population and natural beauty, seemed like an ideal fit for their vita mixta of active ministry and contemplative retreat.
“Things were pretty rough at first,” Abbot Joel recalled. “We lost two guys to illness early on. Then two others left.” We were walking across a small plaza in front of the church, centered around a stone fountain hewn from a fossilized tree. “But the people embraced us, that’s what kept us going.” As we entered the church, with its bright adobe baptismal font, soaring wooden ceiling, and tiers of semicircular pews surrounded by hand-carved statues, each the work of a local santero, I found it hard to believe the place had ever struggled. I asked how such renewal had come about. Abbot Joel said that Small Church Communities, a program inspired by the Latin American comunidades de base formed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, had been crucial. Members meet weekly to pray over the readings for the following Sunday; their small size fosters a level of intimacy and accompaniment that simply isn’t possible in the context of the wider Sunday assembly. “But most important,” Abbot Joel insisted, “were the changes we made to the liturgy: music at all seven Masses, with the full and active participation of lectors, Eucharistic ministers, altar servers, and ushers, all from the community.”
As we made our way back to Santa Maria de la Vid, Abbot Joel explained how Holy Rosary’s transformation also included the growth of the RCIA and adult-education programs: “People got used to seeing and being around each other; they also began experiencing their faith differently, learning about it and taking ownership of it. They trusted us, and each other; it gave them the confidence to take the lead.”
It also gave the Norbertines the assurance that they could step back. Last summer, they made the decision to cease serving as pastors at Holy Rosary; the abbey’s numbers are too small to sustain such a demanding ministry. Abbot Joel is unperturbed, though: “The parish is a healthy community. They’ll be fine without us!”
Back at the abbey grounds—seventy acres of natural high desert, with dramatic views of downtown Albuquerque and the jagged peaks of the Sandia Mountains beyond—we pulled up next to Santa Maria de la Vid’s next project. Right now, it’s just a deep hole in the sand, filled with plastic pipes and electrical wiring. But come 2022, it will be home to a new spirituality center, complete with private hermitages, additional retreat rooms, and conference space. It will also be, after several recent closures, the only retreat center in the entire Archdiocese of Santa Fe. The Norbertines view it as a sign of hope, and a vote of confidence in their future.