Interview with Abbot Edmund Power, OSB, on St Paul's Abbey

Author: Kate Marcelin-Rice

Interview with Abbot Edmund Power, OSB, on St Paul's Abbey

Kate Marcelin-Rice

St Paul's entire life steeped in overwhelming love for Christ

St Paul's burial place was consecrated by Pope Sylvester in 324. The monastery was founded by Pope Gregory II near the tomb of St Paul. How do you think devotion to St Paul has affected the life of the monks?

The tradition is that Pope Sylvester dedicated the Basilica of St Paul. It was built by Constantine at the beginning of the toleration of Christianity as he also built the Basilica over the tomb of St Peter at the Vatican.

There were monks and at one point nuns on this site well before the Benedictines, and the Benedictines arrived, at least we claim they arrived, in about the year 730 under Pope Gregory II. The community was founded with the explicit desire of the Pope that they should be here to welcome pilgrims to the shrine of Paul and to preserve the memory of Paul. So of course the community has always been intimately associated with St Paul and his memory. In fact, even today every evening we sing in Paul's honour before the tomb and we keep the light burning at his tomb; that was one of the tasks mentioned specifically by Pope Gregory II.

What do you think are St Paul's most inspiring features?

That is a long and complicated question because Paul has such a powerful personality and is so influential in the Christian tradition. I would like to mention two rather different features. One is a theological one, let us say, or a matter of faith. The first thing is his overwhelming love for Christ Crucified and Risen. It runs through his writings where the name of Christ is constantly present. Everything he does is inspired by that love affair with Christ. And that is a huge inspiration for anybody who seeks to love Christ or to obey Christ or to know Christ.

The other is a very human quality. Some people would say he is the great missionary, the great writer, the inspiring thinker, but I would say that what inspires me is the ambiguity of his personality, his vulnerability, which comes out when you read between the lines of his Letters. I think that is very interesting because even a man of such huge faith has to deal with his own human fragility. That is something that can be an inspiration to us, because there can't be many people who don't have a sense of their human fragility, so that seeing the way that someone apparently as strong as Paul attempts to deal with his insecurity can be a great inspiration for us.

Do you think that the ecumenical role of the Abbey also reflects the multiculturality of St Paul's background?

Certainly. And that is something else that is very noticeable: the fact that the other Apostles were apparently all from the same area of Galilee and had the same basic upbringing, formation, with a few differences maybe, while Paul — or Saul as he was — was born in Tarsus, into a family that had moved from Palestine, in a Roman city in a Greek speaking area. These three different cultures were not necessarily always in total harmony one with the other yet this is the formative influence on Paul and this "tri-culturality", if you like, informs his way of thinking, his way of writing and his awareness of the world around him.

I think that certainly must have given him a sense of strength in a way. This explains the limitlessness of his vision but at the same time maybe a certain questioning about: "who am I really?". He did not of course find his real identity in human cultural categories but in his relationship with Christ.

And what ecumenical activities is the Abbey involved in?

For a long while now St Paul's has been associated with ecumenical activities and prayer in particular. For many years the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has had its formal conclusion in Rome here in the Basilica, led by the Holy Father. But the monks have continued to respond to the ecumenical challenge, day in day out.

We welcome many groups that come here — often they are official groups who come to visit the Holy See but frequently they are groups of pilgrims who come informally and ask us if they can pray in our Basilica. And we have prayer with different Christian communities of Rome, we have got to know many of them: Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican and so on, and this local activity of friendship, of common prayer and sometimes common work, is something that we greatly value. I think it is an expression of Christ's desire that all should be one.

You were elected Abbot of St Paul's in 2005. How many monks were there in the Abbey then? How many are there today?

When I first arrived here the original community consisted of about 15 monks, I think, I can't remember. But now we are up to about 23 or 24. There are a number of other monks who have come from other monasteries for a longer or shorter period to help us in the transitional stage but we also have six younger monks in formation, two novices and four junior monks in simple profession who are for St Paul's itself, so I hope, with trust in the Lord, that we can go on growing steadily in the future.

In 2005, with Benedict XVI's Motu Proprio, the Abbey ceased to be a Territorial Abbey and the Basilica became a Papal Basilica like the other three Papal Basilicas. How has this affected the life of the monks in the past five years?

The other three Basilicas were never Territorial Abbeys, that is a completely different thing. The difference is that St Paul's has always had the unusual status of having a Benedictine community serving it. The others do not. They have secular Chapters, Chapters of canons. But the territorial status is a rather quaint thing really. What it meant was that the Abbot was the head of a small diocese but in fact with very little territory. That was the meaning of "territorial abbey"; but that status was cancelled in 2005 because it was a bit anachronistic; very little remained of that particular status so in fact it became a normal abbey, which meant the Abbot continued to be the Ordinary, that is the Major Superior, with full authority within the Abbey but not in the territory outside it.

And the parish?

St Paul's was a church with a parish from about 1720 until about the year 2000. In about 2000, when the community had become relatively small, the monks decided that they probably could not man this parish too well and so it was given to the Diocese of Rome and divided between the local parishes, so there is no longer a parish here. But in fact there are many parishes in Rome so the people did not suffer. They did not have to walk any further to get to church because all the churches are relatively close to each other!

Did you notice an increase in the number of pilgrims in the Pauline Year?

There was a very considerable increase of groups coming: large pilgrimages, small pilgrimages and individuals. They ran through a large part of the Pauline Year particularly in the busier months. Some of the months are quieter, like February, for example, but the autumn is very busy, Lent and Easter are busy, and the spring and the early summer. We had a lot people.

Did more pilgrims come after the announcement of the micro-monitoring of the presumed sarcophagus of St Paul?

I don't think so. In fact there have been a number of activities, excavations and so on, over the past two or three years which revealed the sarcophagus and the foundations of the Constantinian Basilica. So people were aware that things were beginning to show, things that we had always known were there but which we can now see. However then that particular investigation of the sarcophagus took place, a very specialized activity, and the Pope announced a brief summary of the results at the end of the Pauline Year: simply that they had in fact found inside the sarcophagus some fragments of bone that have been dated, and dated to the correct period, so while we can't say for certain that it contains Paul's remains, the findings certainly support the constant tradition that it is Paul.

Since the Pope says in his Motu Proprio of 31 May 2005 that he is "particularly keen that the ministry of Penance in the Basilica be assured for all the faithful", does this mean that the monks spend a great deal of time hearing the pilgrims' confessions?

From the year 730 onwards, the monks were here to welcome pilgrims. So I think that from the invention of the Sacrament of Penance in its present form the monks were involved in it here in the Basilica. It is a part of the spiritual and pastoral service to pilgrims.

The monks have always offered this service. In fact in the 1930s the Holy See founded a College of Penitentiaries for St Paul's. That College was comprised of a number of monks. And now we have the formal obligation, in the name of the Holy Father, to provide confessors in this Papal Basilica so we hear confessions morning, noon and night. That's an exaggeration of course, but we have a strict timetable for confessions every day of the year and there are always monks in the Basilica, except in the afternoon break, who are available to hear the confessions of the faithful.

The Beda College for English seminarians is close by. Are the seminarians in contact with the Abbey?

Our connection with the Beda was a legal or canonical connection in that when the seminary was founded, it was built on land belonging to the extraterritorial area of St Paul Outside-theWalls. It was provided, I think, by Pope Pius XII. But because it was St Paul's territory, the Beda College, very close to St Paul's Basilica, actually came under the jurisdiction of the Abbot of St Paul's. It had no Bishop. Its Bishop was the Abbot of St Paul's so it had to apply to him for any normal permission that you would apply for to your local Bishop. That legal connection no longer exists since the abolition of the Territorial Abbey in the year 2005. But we have good relations with the Beda College. I know the rector very well and the seminarians come over from time to time and indeed hold a number of their major celebrations, such as ordinations, in our Basilica, so we are very happy with these friendly relations.

Lastly, could you describe a day in the life of a monk at St Paul's?

The first bell rings at 5 o'clock in the morning. Some get up well before that to pray. We have First Office at 5:20 which is the Office of Readings and lasts anything from 40 minutes to an hour. Then there is a break and then we have Lauds, the morning prayer of praise and the Conventual Mass, the Mass of the community at 6:35. Then breakfast. The morning is spent in work and work can cover a whole range of things; library, archiving, gardening and novices' classes and the Rule of St Benedict, and several monks are studying at universities in Rome. The priest monks will probably have some pastoral service. We have several Masses a day in the Basilica that we celebrate and the confessions. Then we draw to a close with Midday Office at 12:35 and lunch. This is followed by a period of rest, of silence. In the afternoon we have Vespers at 6 o'clock. And confessions begin again by 4 o'clock and then we have supper at 8:00. So the day is rather structured and within that is the prayer, the work, the Lectio Divina — the prayerful reading of Scripture — and the Divine Office. So that is basically the round of the monastic day.

Thank you very much.

You are very welcome.

To St Paul

The antiphon the monks of St Paul's Abbey sing on Saturdays:

"Saint Paul, apostle,
preacher of the truth and
teacher of the nations,
pray for us to God, who chose you!".

[Roman Office, Magnificat
antiphon for the Feast of the
Conversion of St Paul,
25 January]

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 June 2010, page 9

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