KANSAS CITY – Four Benedictine monasteries are located within a hundred-mile radius of the Chicago suburb where Abbot Gregory Polan grew up. He joined one that was 450 miles away. He attended Niles College, Loyola University and the American Conservatory of Music. During his second year in college, he visited a high school classmate who had moved to Oklahoma and was attending Conception College Seminary.
“After just a few days at Conception, I knew this was where I wanted to be. I wanted to be where the experience of community life is strong and the liturgy is the center of the community. I also wanted to be able to use my musicianship. I knew I was home,” Abbot Polan recalled.
He entered the novitiate at Conception Abbey on Aug. 22, 1970, at the age of 20, and professed his first vows on Aug. 28, 1971. He completed his theological studies at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and was ordained to the priesthood on May 26, 1977. Benedictine monks (and sisters) live governed by the 15-centuries-old Rule of St. Benedict, which holds the principles of moderation, flexibility and adaptability. The monks take slightly different vows from other orders and diocesan priests. They take vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life.
“We vow obedience, as Christ was obedient. Our vow of stability means we join the community for life. I will always be a Benedictine of Conception Abbey. We vow that our lives will be constantly in the process of conversion.
“Living under the Rule of St. Benedict, we recognize the importance of humility. We seek to be humble as Christ was humble. Basically, we strive to imitate Christ within the context of community.”
Monastic life at Conception is strongly rooted in community, with a time for everything: prayer, food, sleep, work and recreation, Abbot Gregory said.
There are also opportunities for ministries and services outside the monastery. After he completed his doctoral studies in Biblical theology, Abbot Gregory taught in Israel through a St. John’s University six- week graduate studies summer program. He taught three different sessions in Ein Karem, the birthplace of John the Baptist.
He led a group of pilgrims from Kansas City to the Holy Land in January 2000, for the Jubilee Year. “This was before all the trouble erupted,” he said.
Back home at Conception, before his elevation to abbot in 1996, he taught at Conception Seminary College, and was appointed president/rector of the college in 1987.
Abbot Gregory plays the organ. One of the things that attracted him to life at Conception was the opportunity to use his musical skills at the abbey. He still plays occasionally, and has composed music for the liturgy at the abbey.
He writes a column reflecting on the Gospel for The Catholic Key, and is a member of the editorial board of The Bible Today, a bimonthly Catholic journal.
He is also the spiritual father of his monastic community of priests and brothers. “Being abbot means holding before the community my vision of what the spiritual father of the community should be. I strive to help the community live the vision of St. Benedict in the 21st century.”
June 10, 2002, dawned bright and sunny. Within hours, a pall of terror, death and sadness had descended on the peaceful community. A lone gunman had entered the abbey, shot and killed two monks and wounded two others before killing himself in the basilica. Abbot Polan remained calm and took charge of the situation, ordering a lockdown and dealing with law enforcement and emergency personnel, the onslaught of reporters and microphones and the fear and sorrow of his brother monks.
“June 10 was a journey through the Paschal Mystery, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We lived that experience in a very profound way.
“There were streams of light shining through that very dark cloud. We came to see our faith lived in a dramatic way, surprising us at the level of faith that existed within us.
“We were greatly supported by the prayers of so many people. We came to the realization that we were living a strength that wasn’t our own. We learned the profound meaning of grace in our lives.
“We’re different now. Violence can harden or soften. It has softened us and made us stronger men of faith.
“In a tangible way, we came to sense our need for peace and reconciliation, our need to be instruments of forgiveness and hope. We strive to live our faith and realize how precious every human life is.”
Now in 2003, Abbot Gregory and the monks of Conception Abbey “move forward with a lot of hope.” Three young men – from Jefferson City, California and Green Bay, Wis. – have entered the novitiate this year, and several young men have applied to enter in 2004.
“If you are called to monastic life, you are called to fidelity and the expectation of living your life faithfully. You come to community because you don’t want to do it alone.”
Abbot Polan and the Conception community look forward to ministering together and sharing in a life of prayer together.
The abbey reaches out to people in northwest Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, and as far away as Oklahoma. The Conception college seminary has taught young men since 1886. Several of the Benedictine monks work in parishes, and chaplaincies. The Printery House at Conception provides a unique service with its cards, stationary and other printed materials.
People reach in to Conception Abbey, also. Abbot Polan said busy people occasionally feel the need to get away from daily stress and seek a stable community of praise, a place of quiet reflection. Over 40,000 guests have visited Conception for retreats, and prayer services, to attend Mass or to see friends and relatives who live in the abbey community.
In October, Abbot Polan and the monks celebrated the beginning of a $6.5 million capital campaign. The funds will be used to build a new Welcome Center and make necessary renovations to the 100-year old seminary building.
Abbot Polan has two brothers still living in the Chicago area. His six nieces and nephews are married and he has six grandnieces and nephews.
The “Polan baseball team,” as the abbot called them with a chuckle, live in Chicago and Detroit.
“I was guided by God to my vocation. I can say unreservedly, I would not want to be anything or anywhere else. I am eternally grateful to be a monk of Conception Abbey.”
Abbot is grateful to be a Conception Abbey Benedictine
January 10, 2003