by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — For a while, archdiocesan seminarian Cruz Gallegos wondered if he was in trouble.
One day, he got an email out of the blue from Abbot Gregory Polan, head of the Benedictine monastery and teacher at Conception Seminary College in Conception, Missouri.
“When you get an email from the abbot here, that’s a pretty big deal. It’s either for something really good or something really bad, because it never happens,” said Gallegos, who entered Conception Seminary in 2013. “I was almost afraid to open it.”
What did the abbot want? A haircut.
The monastery and seminary is somewhat “out there” in the country. So it was very convenient for all when Gallegos was allowed to utilize one of his many skills — barbering. Accordingly, he set up a little barbershop in a disused room.
“The abbot had to go overseas for a meeting, and he needed a haircut,” said Gallegos. “I asked, ‘What do you want me to do?’
“You just cut it the way you think it would look best,” said Abbot Gregory.
“He doesn’t have a ton of hair, so it wasn’t the hardest haircut,” said Gallegos.
The abbot talked “like a regular guy,” and they chatted about all sorts of things, including his travel plans, said the seminarian. Gallegos even learned something new about Abbot Gregory.
“He actually doesn’t like traveling,” said Gallegos. “It’s not his favorite thing to do, but it’s part of the job, which is funny, because lately he’s had to travel a lot. He told me his community is where he wanted to be — at home. It was cool to hear that.”
Abbot Gregory is going to have to get used to a lot more traveling, because, on Sept. 10, he was elected abbot primate of the worldwide Benedictine Confederation at Sant’Anselmo Monastery in Rome.
The abbot primate is not the superior general of the Benedictine order, because monasteries are independent. Rather, the abbot primate represents the male Benedictine monks at international gatherings, promotes unity in the order and serves as a liaison to the Vatican.
Abbot Gregory has resigned as Conception’s abbot, where he entered in 1970 and served as its leader for 20 years, and will head to Rome.
There, he will become the abbot of Sant’Anselmo and chancellor of the Benedictine’s Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm and its Pontifical Liturgical Institute.
He will, however, remain a member of the 58-monk Conception Monastery, fulfilling his Benedictine vow of stability to that community.
Naturally, many of the seminarians and priests who were taught by Abbot Gregory are excited by his election as abbot primate.
Justin Hamilton, now at the University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein Seminary, was a student at Conception from 2007 to 2011. Abbot Gregory’s sense of warmth and concern for the seminarians was very important to him at the start of his seminary studies.
“I had several eye surgeries because of a detached retina at the beginning of my time at Conception,” said Hamilton. “Despite the fact that he was incredibly busy with all his responsibilities . . . he’d always stop me and express a very genuine concern about how I was doing. He has a very hearty, very strong handshake — he’d shake your arm off.”
The abbot, because he had to travel, had recorded his lectures so students could watch them in his absence. The students called them “Video Divina.”
Father Jaime Zarse, now associate pastor at Christ the King Parish in Topeka, attended Conception from 2007 to 2010.
“There’s just a goodness about Father Abbot that comes out of his heart,” said Father Zarse. “It can be seen in his eyes and heard in his voice. You’re keenly aware when you’re in his presence that this is a very good man, an honest man, a man of integrity.”
Abbot Gregory is one of the foremost scholars in the world on the Book of Isaiah. He knows Hebrew and Greek, which is why the U.S. bishops tapped him to help with the latest translation of the psalms.
“Pronunciation with the Scriptures is really important to him, as a scholar,” said Father Zarse. “I remember one time mispronouncing something while I was reading in class, and he stopped very quickly and said, ‘Wait a minute. Go back. You mispronounced it.’ It pained him to hear how badly I butchered it.”
Father Matthew Schiffelbein, now pastor of Christ the King Parish in Topeka, was at Conception from 2003 to 2005. He remembers Abbot Gregory for his humanity, teaching skill and intellectual brilliance.
“He was a very good teacher and very well-organized,” said Father Schiffelbein. “His concern was that students really understood the material.”
Despite the heady material, classes were never boring, because Abbot Gregory was so passionate and excited about the topics, he said.
He also appreciated Abbot Gregory’s humanity.
“He was always interested in what was going on in my life,” said Father Schiffelbein. “He is a very kind and sincere person. I remember having a sense that when he talked with you, he was really paying attention to you and what was happening in your life. He was genuinely interested.”
But now that Abbot Gregory is famous — or at least internationally important — will he return Father Schiffelbein’s phone calls?
“I believe that he would,” said Father Schiffelbein with a laugh.
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