Rev. Lawrence DeMong, OSB, enjoys using posters and other visual aids with his homilies. He was the guest homilist for the Mount Carmel Sunday Mass in July. (Photo boy Paul Paproski, OSB)
What inspires people to join religious life? And how do religious persevere in their vocation? Rev. Lawrence DeMong, OSB, a Benedictine monk of St. Peter’s Abbey for 60 years, has insight into this question.
“I would have to begin with my parents who worked hard to be faithful, and faith-filled,” DeMong commented when asked who inspired him to become a Benedictine of St. Peter’s Abbey. “Pastors, too, like Father George Brodner, OSB, and Father Alphonse Ludwig, OSB, were models for me. I would have to say that all people who have come to the abbey, even those who left after a period of monasticism, have inspired me. I have tried to see the positive side of people and perhaps that sounds naive, but isn’t it really true, that even the most ‘off the wall’ people in our lives have something to give us, even those who choose to despise us, persecute us, provided we learn to see with the eyes of the Lord Jesus.”
Shortly after joining St. Peter’s Abbey, DeMong was sent to St. John’s Abbey, Minnesota, to enrol in the formation (novitiate) program where he received instruction in monastic life. He was the only novice at St. Peter’s Abbey. He returned to the abbey to make his first (simple) vows on July 11, 1957. Three years later he celebrated his final (solemn) vows on July 11, 1960.
The meaning of the ceremony’s prayers of dying to the world was deepened when he learned that a cousin who suffered from spinal meningitis had died. DeMong wrote on a slip of paper, “To God, David and Lawrence,” and placed the paper in a pocket of his monastic habit. The prayer was later sent to the bereaved parents, his Uncle Matt and Aunt Viola DeMong. DeMong read his vows and then acted on them in a dramatic way by lying on the sanctuary floor. A black funeral pall was draped over him and it was framed by six wooden candlesticks. Candles glowed as the Litany of the Saints was recited.
The vocation to monastic life was challenged during the turbulent years of the 1960s when religious communities went through changes inspired by Vatican II. Many religious left and some who exited St. Peter’s Abbey were close friends of DeMong. The biggest challenges were embracing issues that “went against the grain,” DeMong said. He often faced disappointments, but the frustrations taught him more about obedience than lectures, books or even the witness of other monks.
In 1963 DeMong was ordained to the priesthood. The following year he attended Laval University in Quebec City for a master’s degree in French. Hard work meant finishing his studies early. The next stage of the program was teaching French at St. Peter’s College. However, due to a miscommunication, someone else was assigned. Abbot Jerome Weber, OSB, told him to return to Laval and continue in the master’s program.
“I got on to the train to Quebec City, a very unhappy and angry monk. All the while I did have one tiny light of hope. I had remembered a sign on campus with an arrow and the word Catechèse. So the first thing I did after arriving with no student residence reservation was to register both with catechetics and the two-year program in French,” he commented. DeMong studied both French and catechetics after being informed by Rev. Vincent Morrison, college principal, that catechetics would count for education class credits.
“Amazingly, that year so changed my life and so transformed my thinking that I had to admit that every subsequent year began to be the best year of my life. And all because I reluctantly obeyed my superiors and ended up allowing someone else, like with poor St. Peter, to put a belt around me and lead me where I would rather not have gone,” he said.
In 1982 DeMong felt the call to help at the National Office of Religious Education “in spite of all the negative feelings and a repeated dream of walking into the mouth of a lion.” In 1998 he was asked to leave St. Augustine’s Parish in Humboldt and replace Rev. Emile April in Uniao dos Palmares, Brazil, for a sabbatical year.
“Initially I accepted with no problem, but as it drew nearer I began feeling really negative and when the final week came the Gospel contained the precise reading about St. Peter. Because I confessed to the congregation what I was going through, the parish actually gave me a belt with that text reference printed inside,” he said. The year in Brazil had some high drama. DeMong was almost hit by a two-and-one-half metre coconut branch, which fell where he had been standing a split second before. He feared for his safety after raising the ire of the landowners by defending the “landless.” He wrote up a “last will and testament” should he be killed.
Reflecting on the past 60 years, DeMong said the use of the vernacular, rather than Latin, in the divine office (monastic prayers) has been very positive for monastic life. He was happy when “lay brothers” were permitted to pray divine office with the priests, make solemn vows and join the monastic chapter (solemnly professed monks) for decision-making.
After Vatican II, the monks learned about the ancient formula, ecclesia semper reformanda (The church must always be in a process of reform and change). The monk is on a path of conversatio morum (constant conversion) as he learns obedience and discipline. The words discipline and disciple are interlinked, he remarked. A disciple is open to be transformed into the image of Jesus, as he lives for others.
“Monastic communities could really be attractive places if we all lived these vows to the full,” he commented.