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Abbot Owen Purcell, OSB (1931-2013)
I attended a funeral today. The man was an only child. He died surrounded by an enormous family.
Abbot Owen Purcell, OSB was the seventh abbot of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, KS. As a high school student at Immaculata in Leavenworth, he had seen monks from the Abbey and immediately sensed a fraternal bond that was new to him, since he had no blood brothers or sisters.
He went on to become a monk, a priest, a high school Latin teacher, chaplain of Mount Saint Scholastica Monastery, the leader of his own monastic community, a friend to many and a culinary innovator, for he swore by his tangy and crunchy peanut butter and sliced onion sandwiches.
But, as the ninth abbot, Abbot James Albers, OSB led the prayers at his graveside, I know Abbot Owen was thankful for one day of his life more than any other. In the last days of his life, he told Abbot James to tell all those present, in his funeral homily, that he was at peace. How can one be at peace, staring death in the face?
It wasn’t his Master’s Degree in Latin, it wasn’t his profession of vows, or even his priestly ordination. What rested upon his coffin was a crucifix, the Cross of Christ, with whose sign he had been baptized. It is baptism in Christ’s death that joins us in hope to the Resurrection.
As Abbot Owen’s body was awaiting his funeral, and as hundreds passed by to pay their final respects to a priest who had been a close friend to so many, Pope Francis was reminding us all of the importance of baptism in his Wednesday General Audience.
Standing by a graveside makes these questions of the Holy Father even more acute:
“We can ask ourselves: Is baptism, for me a fact of the past, cut off on some remote date, which you’ll look up today, or a living reality, which has to do with my present, at every moment? Do you feel strong, with the strength that Christ gives you with his death and resurrection? Or do you feel beaten down, without strength? Baptism gives strength and light. Do you feel enlightened, with that light that comes from Christ? Are you a man, a woman of light? Or are you a dark person, without the light of Christ? One must take the grace of baptism, which is a gift, and become light for all!”
Fr. Owen Purcell, when he was elected abbot in 1989, chose three words from the very first line of the Rule of St. Benedict as his motto: Inclina Aurem Cordis. (Incline the ear of your heart.)
When we incline the ear of our heart, we pay more attention to God’s strength than our own. We trust more in God’s light than in our own darkness. Some of the attendees at the funeral were men and women whose path out of addiction was accompanied by a priest who could show the way out because he himself had traveled the path. When confronted with his own weakness, with the darkness of his own heart, he inclined the ear of his heart and followed the light of the Lord.
He had also told Abbot James that he wanted to return from the hospital to the monastery, to his monastery, for his final days, “because I want to see the reason I joined.”
The reason he joined was the light, the light of Christ shining and reflected in the light of the brotherhood of a vibrant monastic community. Those same men kept round the clock vigil with Abbot Owen until he passed away. And those same men, after seeing their brother to his final resting place, alongside the other abbots and monks of the past 150 years, turned to all of us and invited us to lunch.
Thankfully, the fare was more than peanut butter and sliced onion sandwiches. As we ate and heard stories of Abbot Owen, the man himself no doubt inclined the ear of his heart once more, and was at peace because of the witness of a life lived delving ever deeper into the mystery of baptism, reflecting the light of the Lord.
Having died with Christ, we may all hope to rise with Him.