- Associated Press - Saturday, April 14, 2018

SAINT MEINRAD, Ind. (AP) - Father Bonaventure Knaebel’s favorite chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict is Chapter 72.

The former archabbot and 99-year-old, spectacled monk scoots his wheelchair to a bookshelf in his room in the Saint Meinrad Archabbey infirmary, grabs the small, brown hardback book and opens its weathered pages. Handwritten notes, in Latin, fall to the floor.

The Rule is a basic guide to living life in the Benedictine community and was written by St. Benedict, who lived from A.D. 480 to 550. Fr. Bonaventure’s edition was published in 1937, and he’s had the book ever since. It’s something he treasures.

“It’s about understanding one another,” he says of Chapter 72, which encourages those in the vocation to honor and be obedient to one another, all in the name of Christ.

“Don’t become alienated with one another, be willing to overlook some of the natural tendencies,” Fr. Bonaventure says of his interpretation of the chapter he’s clung to through the years.



This year is a big one for him, as he will celebrate his 75th jubilee (anniversary) as a priest, 80th as a monk and will turn 100 years old on Sept. 6.

“It’s kind of special,” he says of the jubilees. “All priests like to reach 50 (50th jubilee) especially.”

How does he feel about his 75th?

“It happens if you live that long,” he replies matter-of-factly.

Fr. Bonaventure is the oldest living monk in age, profession and ordination in the Swiss-American Benedictine Congregation, a network of autonomous monastic houses - including Saint Meinrad Archabbey - in the United States, Canada and Central America.

He believes good genes got him to 99. A first cousin - Fr. Bonaventure calls him a “double first cousin” since they were first cousins on both sides of the family - died at 99 after complications following hip surgery.

“That’s the closest I have to longevity,” Fr. Bonaventure says.

He admits prayer has led him far in life, and without it, he says he probably wouldn’t be alive.

“I would have drank too much or something,” he says. “It’s (prayer) the only thing I have that’s worthwhile.”

Fr. Bonaventure was born Sept. 6, 1918, and given the name Merton James. He grew up the oldest of three brothers in New Albany. He first took interest in the church in sixth grade when he told his parents he wanted to be a server at Mass. Since that required him to attend morning Mass daily, his mother bought him an alarm clock and he was responsible to get there on his own, a mile-and-a-half walk.

Then, in seventh grade, a newly ordained priest spoke to his class. The priest asked for a show of hands of who would like to be president of the United States. Two hands shot up. Then, the priest asked, “Who thinks they might like to be a priest?”

Fr. Bonaventure raised his hand. It was the first time he remembers ever considering the vocation.

After he finished eighth grade, the assistant pastor of his parish drove him and another boy to St. Meinrad to enroll in classes. Fr. Bonaventure was 13 when he entered minor seminary school in 1931. He graduated in 1935. In 1940 he received a bachelor’s degree from St. Meinrad and in 1944, a theology degree from the school. In 1946, he earned a master’s degree from the Catholic University of America and then studied mathematics for several summers at the University of Pittsburgh.

Fr. Bonaventure joined the monastery as a novice in July 1937 and made his first profession as a monk in August 1938. He was ordained a priest in June 1943.

In 1955, he was elected archabbot of the Saint Meinrad Archabbey community at age 36; he’s still one of the youngest archabbots - a leader of an archabbey of monks who is elected by his peers - to have led at St. Meinrad. (He’s tied with St. Meinrad’s first abbot, Martin Marty, who also took the position when he was 36.)

Fr. Bonaventure says that as archabbot, he was “in charge of the physical plans and the liturgical life of the community.” He did things like appoint pastors at various parishes and assign monks - there were 197 at the time; 80 now - and priests to various duties at the archabbey, duties such as teaching, baking and cooking, and tending to the abbey’s farm.

“My favorite thing was seeing the community grow and thrive, the studies of individuals and their accomplishments,” Fr. Bonaventure says about his 11 years as archabbot. “They worked hard.”

He admits that being archabbot was in no way an easy job.

“It was difficult, I have to say that,” he says. “I had enough joys, but plenty of difficulties, also. I never knew what would happen next.”

During his tenure as archabbot, the monastery got its first guest house and better water and sewage treatment systems. He also helped establish a new foundation in Huaraz, Peru, as well as Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, California, in 1958.

When asked what kind of leader he was, Fr. Bonaventure humbly says, “I’m sure I wasn’t considered charismatic. I was just plodding along.”

He resigned as archabbot in 1966.

Throughout his years as a monk, Fr. Bonaventure has had a variety of duties in addition to being archabbot. He was a teacher, a missionary in Peru and helped lead monasteries in the interim in Mexico and the U.S. He also had stints leading several parishes before returning to St. Meinrad where he has helped with projects in the archabbey’s development office.

Throughout all of his assignments, Fr. Bonaventure has always held true to the vows of a Benedictine monk - vows of obedience, stability and fidelity to the monastic way of life.

He does quite a bit of Scripture study on the kingdom of God, although not nearly as much as he’d like because of vision problems. He says he spends most of his day praying the Divine Office, which he listens to on tape.

He attends coffee break with other monks at 10 o’clock every morning and attends Mass in the infirmary at 11:15 a.m., followed by lunch in the infirmary dining room. His afternoon includes a nap and some free time. Sometimes he prays or listens to audiobooks.

He also has an iPad and catches up with friends and family on Facebook. On March 27, he said he had just sent his niece a message on Facebook the day before wishing her a happy birthday.

After 5 o’clock, he likes to watch the local news, especially the weather forecast. He used to watch Carol Burnett shows, but says he now watches a lot of CNN. He once enjoyed long walks, but is now confined to a wheelchair.

Just like his interests, Fr. Bonaventure has noticed several changes in the Catholic faith over the course of his eight decades as a monk, including the lack of “a greater interest and attention to the life of Sunday Mass.” It didn’t used to be that way, he says.

“My grandma had 10 children and her husband died from typhoid fever when she was pregnant with the youngest,” he says. “She got the kids in the wagon and got the kids to Mass a couple miles on Sunday. I don’t remember a Sunday my father didn’t take me and my brothers to Sunday Mass.”

He longs for more people to follow St. Benedict’s teaching’s.

St. Benedict starts out with things to observe,” he says. “First, love God with all your heart and strength. Love your neighbors as you are. It has to get simpler more than complicated in life.”

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Source: Dubois County Herald

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Information from: The Herald, http://www.dcherald.com

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