On any typical weekend, the white cassock-clad priests of the Norbertine order from St. Michael’s Abbey in southern California preach in about 35 parishes, sharing the fruits of their contemplative and communal life with the Church.
As canons regular, they are religious priests who live in community and share a charism and common life of prayer. During the week, they are teachers and preachers in area schools, colleges, and catechetical programs.
But the order felt called to bring their preaching and formation beyond the bounds of their abbey and apostolates in the Orange County and Los Angeles areas, and so on All Saints' Day they launched a digital library called “The Abbot's Circle” which will provide video, audio, and written resources on the Catholic faith.
“Many people, after they’ve gone through Catechism or Catholic school, they lack further formation in their faith,” Father Justin Ramos, O.Praem., a priest of the order and a Latin teacher, told CNA.
“The Abbot’s Circle is really a great means for people to be able to hear homilies during the week, not just on Sunday, or read reflections and learn about their faith in the various ways in which we offer it.”
The Abbot’s Circle website includes video, podcasts and written reflections, as well as chant recordings and audio lectures and a documentary on the fathers called “City of Saints.”
The digital library, which is free for the first two weeks of its launch, will be a subscription service that donors will be able to access for a monthly donation of $10 a month or more.
Shane Giblin, chief advancement officer for the Norbertine Fathers at St. Michael’s, said the platform was a way to thank and spiritually feed the order’s benefactors, while contributing to the day-to-day costs of running the abbey.
“The guy in the pew on Sunday who’s just trying to make his life work, we want to reach that person and help him make sense of his life and help him grow spiritually,” Giblin told CNA.
“The beauty of the Norbertines is watching them meet people where they’re at...whether they’re highly engaged Catholics, or just very eager to learn more about the faith, or whether they’re just new to their faith and wanting to learn more, they’re able to reach them in a very unique way,” he said.
New content will be added to the platform will be added every week, Giblin said, and will answer such questions about the Catholic faith as: How do we attain salvation? Why do we pray to the saints? What role does Mary play in the life of a priest?
Giblin said the website allows users to submit their questions and prayer intentions, and the frequency of new content allows the priests to respond to the needs of the people using the platform.
The Norbertines also believe The Abbot’s Circle is one way their order is called to respond to the current crisis of abuse scandals in the Church.
“St. Norbert, a Catholic reformer, founded the Norbertines to lift up a demoralized clergy, preach to the lay faithful, and so renew the Church in difficult times,” Fr. Chrysostom Baer, prior of St. Michael’s Abbey, said in a statement about The Abbot’s Circle.
“We are fulfilling this very same mission today, in a time when both laity and clergy are demoralized by scandal, by using new media to connect with the faithful and offer support and guidance. While atypical for religious priests to use digital media in this way, we believe in the power of new media to reach out to the faithful and support them in their faith lives.”
Ramos said he thinks the digital library will offer Catholics hope at a dark time in the Church, particularly in knowing that there are orders of priests striving to live holy lives and to teach the faith in line with tradition and the magisterium of the Church.
“The message that we want to convey to people is that there is hope, and part of that hope is to know your faith well and to be able to live it out well, and it empowers the layperson to understand more about their faith and defend it,” he said.
“Our faith is always tried when things like this happen, and to strengthen it, it’s just one way to help,” he added.
Fr. Ambrose Criste, O.Praem., who serves as novice master and director of vocations and formation for the order, told CNA he thinks The Abbot’s Circle responds to Catholics who are “hungry” for good formation.
“They’re hungry for clear doctrine - what does the Church teach and what does the Church believe? I think there’s so much confusion that comes from the world and the mainstream media, and from to be honest from much of the Catholic media,” Criste told CNA.
“And so clarity of doctrine is something that the faithful really want. They also want priests and consecrated religious who are striving for holiness and who aren’t afraid to talk about it, because otherwise I think what the faithful hear is the spirit of the world, and how that has infected even people in the Church.”
Ramos said The Abbot's Circle is an “ingenious” way to live out the charism of the Norbertine order and to share the fruits of their contemplation, prayer, and community.
“What takes us away from prayer is our apostolic work, when we have to go into the parishes and we can’t be with the community. But now that we have this means to communicate and to proclaim the truth of our faith...and I think it reinforces our way of life because we don’t have to do as much exiting from the monastery as we would otherwise have to do in order to reach a greater audience.”
The launch of The Abbot’s Circle follows the end of a successful $120 million capital campaign by St. Michael’s Abbey to support the building of a new abbey, as the order is running out of space for its new members. It also follows a documentary series on the order called “City of Saints”, which was released last year.
“Holiness is attractive, young men don’t want to live their lives by halves,” Giblin said. “They want what the Norbertines at St. Michael’s have, and because of that we ran out of room.”
The abbey currently supports 38 seminarians, with three aspirants on a waitlist. Giblin said the community has become the “unsung heroes” of the Church in southern California, where they are renowned for their holiness, service and preaching, and that the new platform is another way to share their gifts with the world.
“Holiness is attractive, and people are looking for that in the modern world, and they invest money in it because they crave it, they want more of it,” Giblin said. “And we hope The Abbot Circle website is a larger platform to showcase the holiness of the men here, and I think the world is very much hungry for that.”