Editor’s note: the following is the second of a two-part story which was recently published in The Catholic Missourian.
by Jay Nies, editor
To be a bridge
Benedictine Father Pachomius Meade recently completed the thesis for his doctorate in art history from the University of Missouri.
The college needs a certain number of faculty members who have doctorates in order to maintain its accreditation.
Typically, a monk would be sent to pursue an advanced degree in philosophy and theology — and Fr. Pachomius already has a master’s in systematic theology.
“But at the college level especially, we have many things we’re doing in a liberal-arts education,” he said. “So to have someone with a degree in humanities or history is a good thing, too.”
And although most of the monks at Conception pursue advanced degrees at Catholic universities, Abbot Benedict Neenan at Conception wanted Fr. Pachomius to “experience what the current state of the secular academy is.”
That proved to be a great opportunity for growth and discovery for him.
He spent four years ministering at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish while pursuing a full course load at the University of Missouri.
All of his classmates were women. Some had grown up Catholic and attended 12 years of Catholic school but had stopped practicing.
Some had no faith background at all.
“But I did meet a few who were actually practicing Catholics, and it was nice to have camaraderie with them,” he said.
He originally decided that in order to be less intimidating on campus, he would wear plain clothes to class and change into his monastic habit for work at the parish.
“I was kind of trying to live like 50-percent M.U. grad student and 50-percent priest,” he said.
One day, an instructor began berating the Catholic faith, the Mass and the Priesthood.
Several students laughed along.
Mindful that such a hostile learning environment would not be tolerated by any other minority on campus — “and you’d be hard-pressed to find more of a minority than a Roman Catholic monk at a state university” — he respectfully wrote to the instructor and the dean.
The problem was quickly resolved, and Fr. Pachomius decided to wear his monastic garb — which he says makes him look like “Pope Darth Vader II” — whenever he set foot on campus.
“No more 50-50,” he said. “I realized that I need to be 100-percent monk and priest, and to have that integrity and be mindful of that.”
He’s convinced that helping seminarians work gracefully through similar situations — which they will encounter as Catholic adults and certainly if they become priests — is part of good seminary formation.
“Much of what I will be doing in my job is helping young men think through things like that and how they can be a bridge rather than a barrier to people, to be all things to all people, with God’s help,” he said.
Fr. Pachomius’s university experience reinforced his conviction that strong Catholic minds need to create art and literature that appeals to the masses.
“We need to be standing up and engaging the culture and saying, ‘No, you do not get to redefine foundational concepts or cast them in a pejorative light,’” he said.
“Sometimes, we need to do a better job of working on the culture,” he stated. “We need to be writing books and movies and TV shows that are filled with fresh ideas and can compete in the marketplace.”
“We need to be joining in these discussions and reframing the big questions like, ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘What are the eternal truths that are going to save us?’” he said.
He was amazed at how applying his knowledge of art history to the images depicted in stained glass animated his parishioners at St. Peter Parish in Stanberry, where he recently served as pastor.
“Each Sunday, I highlighted one of the windows in the bulletin,” he said. “It was probably the most popular thing I ever did.”
He believes that good teachers and good preachers are always on the lookout for better ways to explain the mysteries of the faith to their people.
“We should be able to put it in a simple enough context without devaluating the mystery,” he said.
Taste and see
He asserted that people are hard-wired to access God in ways beyond speaking, hearing and understanding.
He cited Jesus’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor as an example.
“What do the apostles experience?” he asked. “Is it Jesus speaking words to them? Certainly. But it’s also a voice from a cloud and a great light that knocks them down, and those heavenly visions of Moses and Elijah!
“It starts with a journey up a mountain,” he said. “It was hard but when they get there, it’s so awesome that they want to stay there forever!”
He pondered such things while working on his doctoral thesis, which addressed artistic depictions of smell, taste and feeling in 15th-century Netherlandish depictions of the Epiphany.
Six centuries ago, the Biblical telling of the three Wise Men’s arrival from the East to worship the infant Jesus inspired artwork for the altars of many churches in the Netherlands.
“In the Medieval mind, touch and taste are intertwined, especially something you touch and taste with your tongue,” he said. “When you talk about a sense like that, you’re talking about the Eucharist.
“Our ancestors in the faith really took seriously that prayer was multivalent and multi-sensorial,” he stated. “with gestures and touching and smelling also with a strong visual aspect.”
The difference could be that modern Western societies are now overly saturated with images and noise.
“Maybe sometimes, we want to go to church to have a wash from that, maybe more silence and less inundation of the senses, than those who came before us,” he said.
“Nevertheless,” he stated, “just as truth and goodness are attractive on their own terms, Catholics — especially pastors — must remember that beauty also attracts us to God. Providing the beauty and silence that people lack daily may be more important than any words we preach.”