Daily Herald
Youngest monk at abbey chosen as abbott
By William Carroll | Columnist
Published: 9/2/2010 12:05 AM

Just as white smoke rises over the Vatican to announce a new pope has been elected, the St. Procopius Abbey bells echoed throughout Lisle early this summer to announce the election of the community's 10th abbot.

The news was important to many in Lisle, which the monks have called home since the early 1900s. But it was particularly important to Benedictine University, where the abbot is chancellor by right of office.

When St. Benedict wrote his Rule for Monks in the sixth century, he wrote at length on what constitutes the abbatial office.

"Anyone who receives the name of abbot," he wrote, "is to lead his disciples by a twofold teaching: he must point out to them all that is good and holy more by example than by words - and demonstrate God's instructions by a living example. The abbot must always remember what he is and what he is called to do."

So who are these monks? Monks in the modern world are sometimes considered an anachronism, dismissed as out of touch with reality and out-of-step in a fast-moving age.

However, we know them differently at Benedictine University. Here, they are our founders, our teachers, our friends and our supporters.

The monks remind us that the university remains true to its Catholic tradition and Benedictine values. They are men who have made countercultural decisions. Reminiscent of monks of centuries ago, they balance work and prayer in their daily lives.

Yet while they wear long black robes, they are technologically sophisticated and at ease with cell phones, BlackBerrys and the Internet.

So while preparing for the election of a new abbot, they spent a year meeting in small groups to discuss and discern "the kind of man the abbot ought to be."

On June 24, Fr. Austin G. Murphy, O.S.B., approached the chapter room as father and left the room as abbot.

Abbot Austin is 36, the youngest monk at St. Procopius Abbey, and has been a monk for 14 years.

He graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1996. In September that year during a retreat week at St. Procopius Abbey, he asked to enter the Benedictine community.

Abbot Austin earned a master's degree in theology, a Master of Divinity degree and a bachelor's degree in sacred theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He was ordained a priest at St. Procopius Abbey in July 2004.

He speaks fondly of his time studying for the priesthood with the Dominicans at their House of Studies.

"It was a very good experience," he said. "I not only studied with them, but lived with the student brothers who were all very good to me. I still have many friends among them."

Abbot Austin returned to the abbey and taught at Benet Academy for several years before leaving to continue his studies at the University of Notre Dame, where he found "a nice community of fellow graduate students and professors. I'll miss the people I met there."

A Dominican with whom he studied in Washington was instrumental in leading Abbot Austin to Notre Dame. Meanwhile, professors such as John Cavadini and Jesuit Father Brien E. Daley attracted him to the doctoral program in theology and the study of the Church Fathers.

Abbot Austin completed his Ph.D. courses and two chapters of his dissertation at Notre Dame when he was elevated to the office of abbot. Receiving the approval and support of his two Notre Dame advisers, he intends to complete the dissertation and receive his doctoral degree.

What started him on his road to the Benedictines?

While attending a high school in New York, Gregory Murphy was fascinated by an advanced placement history course. For the first time in his life, he was introduced to discussion and interpretation of subjects rather than memorization of facts.

He later attended the University of Chicago, where he continued to take courses that made him think seriously about how he might spend his life.

Although he became interested in exploring a religious or priestly life, initially he was not acquainted with the Benedictines in Lisle. He learned about St. Procopius Abbey through another student, and e-mailed the abbey to ask if he could make a weeklong retreat there.

Gregory Murphy walked through the doors of St. Procopius Abbey for the first time on a Monday. He said that when he first entered the monastery, there was a certain excitement and hope. He was confident this was the right step for him to take, and hopeful that God would provide a way to serve Him. Three days later, he requested entrance into Benedictine life.

"The abbey is where I have committed my life," Abbot Austin said. "It is my home, and in a way, my life. So it is not possible to easily describe my feelings and relationships here. Becoming abbot changes my relationship to the community. The abbot is the spiritual leader of the monastery, and that is a big and humbling responsibility."

Abbot Austin is still a monk along with the other monks, and together they look to God for His blessings on them, on their community and in their work. He mentioned that living together in community is a central part of their lives as Benedictines.

"You get along better with some than others, but we are all called to love and encourage each other," he said.

Abbot Austin expected to teach at Benedictine University after earning a Ph.D. He remains open to teaching in the future, but the demands of the abbot's position would make it difficult.

"In any case, the first thing I need to do is finish my dissertation," he said.

Abbot Austin Gregory Murphy, O.S.B., will be blessed officially as the 10th Abbot of St. Procopius Abbey by The Most Rev. Peter J. Sartain, Bishop of Joliet, on Sept. 18 at the abbey. The ceremony will be followed by a reception and lunch in the Krasa Student Center on the university campus.

"Habemus Papam - we have a pope" is the announcement given in Latin by the senior Cardinal upon the election of a new pope.

Let me end by simply saying, "Habemus Abbatem - we have an abbot!

• William Carroll is president of Benedictine University in Lisle. His column appears monthly during the school year.