“Norbe – who?” I remember asking my friend. We had just entered the then Bishop Neumann High School as young freshmen and were told by Fr. C. Albert Koob, the Principal, that he was a Norbertine and that the Norbertine priests and brothers ran and helped staff the high school. I had never heard of them but that was all to change very quickly.
I was born and raised in South Philadelphia to a family with strong Italian roots. All four of my grandparents were immigrants from Southern Italy and, in fact, my maternal grandmother, Lucia, lived with us all through my childhood and high school years. I had gone to Catholic grade school and made lots of friends. Most of them joined me in transferring to Bishop Neumann High School after eighth grade.
My high school years were busy and happy ones. I tried to get involved in many school organizations and spent a lot of time after school in clubs and other activities. In so doing, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with many of the priests and brothers who taught at Neumann. One priest in particular, Fr. George Feider, took me under his wing and made me feel very special. And, then, when I shared with him that the idea of becoming a priest was floating around in my mind, he was like the proverbial ‘hound from heaven’ constantly ‘suggesting’ that I join the Norbertine Order and become a teacher at Neumann.
In looking back at those four years in high school, I have to conclude that my vocational choice was both rooted and made there. I saw the Norbertines as very different from the other priests I had known up to this time. I had only known priests in my parish and didn’t have any opportunity to associate with them outside of serving at church functions. In high school, I noted how the Norbertines seemed to really enjoy being with one another. I’ll never forget how one priest, Fr. Fred Becker, my junior-year English teacher, would joke around with his conferes very openly. And, I remember being surprised by that. It sounds strange now …. being surprised at priests joking around with one another …. but back then it made a very positive impression on me. “Boy, it must be great being like that,” I remember thinking.
There were other Norbertines who seemed genuinely interested in helping us young men both inside and outside the classroom. I remember Fr. Louis Freiberg, my sophomore religion teacher, asking to talk to me after school one day. He simply inquired how things were going and invited me to consider getting more involved in school activities. “You’ll get a lot more out of school, Richard,” I remember him telling me. And, guess what? I did get more involved and I did get a lot more out of school. Fr. Lou is with the Lord now but I owe him a lot!
As I began to take my spiritual life more seriously, I found both direction and modeling on the part of the Norbertines during my high school years. During my senior year, when I was seriously considering joining the Order, Fr. Ed Kimpel, the vocation director, invited a group of us to visit the former Daylesford Priory for a weekend. This was the site of the novitiate, the time when Norbertine seminarians in their first year devoted almost all of their efforts to work, prayer and study. I recall how effective it was to talk with the young men whom I had known the year before as seniors at Neumann. These were the same guys with whom I had participated in many school activities, only I was a year younger then they. And, during this important weekend, they described their own vocational journey which led to a decision to join the Norbertines. It proved to be a very powerful weekend for me in my own vocational discernment.
All through my seminary years, I envisioned myself as a math teacher. I studied math both in college and in graduate school. However, after ordination, my own plans didn’t seem to meet the community’s needs at that time. I spent the first five years after ordination at our abbey working in various capacities. These were arduous years because, at the time, the abbey building was new and we were trying to build up the larger community of friends and laity here at Daylesford.
I spent most of my priesthood years in the educational ministry. As a high school math and computer teacher, I had some of my happiest days in the classroom. I had experiences where students would share with me their hopes for careers and other expectations in life. It was a real time of privilege for me and continues to be up until this very day when my former students still keep in contact inviting me to social occasions in their families and, even more impressive, asking me to perform their weddings or baptisms of their children. These young men continue to bless me with the assurance that my own years of trying to teach them in high school reflected what I saw during my own high school years: Norbertine priests reaching out to not only educate but also to help in whatever way they could.
In April of 2009, I was elected to become the 4th Abbot of Daylesford Abbey. In this capacity, I try to invite everyone in the larger abbey community to help us ‘share the mission and vision of our abbey’ and solicit support to help us perform our mission. Again, I am privileged to be blessed by so many people who openly, selflessly and generously offer themselves and what they have to further the good works in which we engage.
But, if I’m asked what is the best part of being a Norbertine priest, I have to be honest and answer in the following way. Yes, I do spend a lot of time doing my work: in the Development Office, organizing and scheduling fund raisers; sacramentally, when I’m both invited and assigned to be a minister of Christ to His people; one-on-one, when abbey friends come for spiritual direction, confession or just a talk. However, the real satisfaction for me in being a Norbertine is in community life. We Norbertines value, celebrate and work really hard at building what, in Latin, is called communio … that inner togetherness that is expressed in outward form. It’s our family life, in a sense, and it’s the true basis of what makes me feel best about being a Norbertine. It’s all at once a gift, a blessing and a responsibility.
My vocation is a choice, yes, but it also is a gift. I thank God …. every day … for such a gift and I pray that I will be able to both nurture and fortify that gift.