by Joe Bollig
ATCHISON — Among Benedictines, Abbot Primate Notker Wolf, OSB, is sort of a rock star.
Not only is he the worldwide leader of the Benedictine Confederation, but he also plays electric rhythm guitar and flute for the German rock band Feedback.
Don’t believe it? Look him up on YouTube.
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Benedictine monk in full habit covering Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.”
“They came to me, a band of former students and said, ‘Come on, Father, you’ve always been with us, and you play the flute so well. Why don’t you try to cover Jethro Tull’s ‘Locomotive Breath’?” said the abbot primate. “And so I did. There is a lovely flute solo in it, and I put in a second solo, too.”
“Of course, with flute you cannot do much, so they gave me an electric guitar,” he continued. “At first, I thought it was a gag, but it was so nice; we grew together.”
Being one of “the boys in the band,” however, is only an occasional gig.
As abbot primate, he’s either in the Benedictine Confederation’s Rome headquarters at Sant’Anselmo in Rome, or jetting around the world visiting Benedictine houses or attending meetings.
It was a joint meeting of Benedictine abbots and prioresses at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama, that gave the abbot primate an opportunity to swing by Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison on Feb. 10, the feast of St. Scholastica.
Abbot Primate Notker was the main celebrant and homilist at the Mass in St. Scholastica Chapel. Not only were the Benedictine Sisters there, but also some monks from nearby St. Benedict’s Abbey, and students from St. Benedict School and Maur Hill-Mount Academy.
Why did he visit Atchsion? The abbot primate referenced an ancient story about the founders of the Benedictine order, the twins St. Scholastica and St. Benedict of Nursia.
According to the legend, the two siblings would hold an annual mini-family reunion. Near the end of the day, St. Scholastica asked him to stay longer so they could visit more, but St. Benedict wanted to return to his abbey on Monte Cassino.
St. Scholastica wept and prayed that God extend the visit. Soon, the sky produced a gullywasher of a storm, and St. Benedict was forced to stay until the next morning.
“[Prioress] Anne Shepard and her Sisters have invited me to come for their feast of St. Scholastica,” said the abbot primate. “The brother is coming to visit his sister.”
Later that evening, he gave a lecture entitled “The Rule of St. Benedict Globalizing” at Benedictine College. And he played the flute.
“I shall talk about the Benedictine monasteries all over the world, how they are spreading out and how that affects the cultures and the Benedictine life,” he said.
Clearly, it was a delighted brother coming to visit his delighted “sisters.”
“Just having him here to be with us was an unexpected treat,” said the prioress, an old friend of the abbot primate. “And what a treat it was for him to be the presider at Mass. He was so much at home with the students and the Sisters. It was just like he came home. He just feels comfortable in any Benedictine setting.”
Abbot Primate Notker had lunch with the Sisters, then visited the Dooley Center, where the retired Sisters live, and went from table to table greeting them.
The abbot primate comes from St. Ottilien Archabbey near Munich. He was elected head of all Benedictines in 2000 and reelected in 2012. Supposedly, when a very important member of the Roman Curia heard he’d been reelected, he is reputed to have said, “Can’t they find anyone else?”
The abbot primate has a true “joie de vivre,” loves meeting people and enjoys being a bit of a gadfly.
About a decade ago, he was at loggerheads with the German minister of the interior about stashing Kurdish refugees in his monastery. Eventually, the monks had to move their guests to Poland.
“He was fighting against me and I against him,” said Abbot Primate Notker. “One day, he rang me up. ‘Is it true you are having a protest march in front of my ministry?’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s the first time I heard of it, Herr Minister, but you give me a good idea!’”
He grew to be very close to the Kurdish families and ensured that the Kurdish children received a good education.
“I love them,” he said. “They call me Daddy.”
Most religious orders — the Benedictines included — have been struggling in Europe and the United States, but growing in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
And where is the greatest Benedictine growth?
“Perhaps Vietnam,” said the abbot primate. “The Cistercians have 1,000 monks in Vietnam, so that it becomes nearly a Vietnamese order, but the problem becomes formation.”
This growth is changing the Benedictine culture, but not all Benedictines are comfortable with this.
“[Father] Albert Devoget told me once, ‘The Americans have never understood the Benedictine way of life,’” and I said, ‘Father Albert, you have never understood the American way of life,’” said Abbot Primate Notker. “Already in Europe, the French think they are the only real monks.”
Despite this global growth, it is possible to maintain a coherent Benedictine identity.
“What binds us together is the Rule of St. Benedict,” he said. “The way of living it out has developed in so many directions throughout the many centuries. And because it is so flexible, it fits into all kinds of situations.”
The abbot primate’s visit adds to Mount St. Scholastica’s participation in the whole church’s celebration of 2015 as the Year of Consecrated Life, said Sister Anne.
The Benedictine Sisters are doing several things to celebrate the year, including special times of fasting and prayer, telling their vocations stories in parishes, and dedicating issues of their magazine to stories about their vocations and the ministries in which the Sisters are engaged.