Editor’s note: the following is an interview with Father Justin Ramos, O. Praem., of the Advancement Office at Saint Michael’s Abbey.
Q: In 2018, Saint Michael’s Abbey secured the required funds to begin construction on the new abbey. What initially drove the Norbertine community to undertake this historic project? Can you share some of the major obstacles the abbey encountered during the building process? When do you expect the first Mass to be celebrated in the new abbey?
The main reason why the order started this ambitious project was because of a growing number of vocations, which still continues to grow. We were looking for further development on the grounds of the current abbey, but due to the instability of the land, this was no longer an option. This drove us to the current site which was purchased in 2006 but did not receive until 2012.
I was responsible for the fundraising aspect of the project along with my team at the advancement office. This was a real challenge because, throughout the years, there were a lot of false starts along the way. Before this particular fundraising campaign, we never had one near this magnitude undertaken at the abbey. In the past, to raise funds, we hosted small galas for our friends and benefactors, which raised a substantial amount of money. To put it into perspective, the current abbey has an annual operating cost of a million and a half, and we were able to raise over one hundred and twenty million dollars for the construction of the new abbey. The question is how did this happen? I call it the miracle of Saint Michael’s because it truly was miraculous.
We were extremely blessed by the fact that God was so generous in providing so many generous, selfless Catholics who made huge sacrificial gifts to our relocation effort. Part of that individual generosity was due to our telling the story of who we were and helping them understand how important their participation in this project would be for the Church through the spirit and culture of generosity.
We conveyed the message that their donations would be used to glorify God and help all mankind (through our offering up our prayers for the world), and that they would act as a central pillar in this mission. This resonated with so many people, and we received numerous sacrificial gifts, which allowed us to raise the amount of money required to build this place. By fostering this culture of generosity, people opened their hearts and finances in the form of sacrificial gifts.
Due to the pandemic, many parishes across the nation are struggling financially because of the loss of income due to recent Mass cancellations. What my team and I are trying to do now is help those parishes get through these turbulent times, and teach them ways to inspire their parishioners to be more generous.
No man will ever be able to build a church which will serve as a house of God where people can receive the sacraments if people are not giving. If you don’t have funds for maintenance or sustainment purposes, you will need to obtain it from somewhere. If you desire to receive donations from your parishioners that are essential for the upkeep of your church, you need to teach them generosity—how God was generous with them—and how they can return this generosity by way of building something as magnificent as this great edifice.
In the end, they can not only come to praise God for their own salvation and those for whom they pray, but also receive the sacraments and assist not just the Catholic Church but this monastery, the vocations of the Norbertine Order, etc. This will go a long way—decades if not centuries—in promoting the faith because it is not only the church they are building, which is important, but also the monastery which houses the seminary. All these young men are being trained to be priests so they can go out and preach the truth of the Faith in all its splendor to many souls for generations to come. This is the eternal project which the donors are participating in and what motivated them to support our endeavors.
The other challenge we faced came from consultants we hired for the fundraising aspect of this building project. For most of these professionals, fundraising is seen as a transactional gift, a bare transaction between the giver and the religious order; this is not how we should approach this subject as Catholics. Instead, what the frame of mind should be is to focus on the Gospel and teach people the Christian form of generosity.
For secular institutions, including universities and endowed facilities, man is taught that the act of giving is purely a transaction: you give this amount and, in return, your name is inscribed on this plaque to enshrine your legacy. This false, material mindset lacks the totality of the spirit of giving. Financial generosity is about you giving, sacrificially to God, for something that is beyond what you could have done for yourself, something way beyond us, which is the glory of God and salvation of mankind. This countercultural approach is what rooted people to us.
Moreover, the fact that they saw the future of the Church in religious communities like ours—which are getting young people who are passionate in their desire to serve God, to lay down their lives for Him, and to then serve their people by offering the sacraments—is ultimately what opened their hearts. We found a way to teach people generosity so they could be generous in something they believed in that will last for the ages.
The construction of the abbey should be done by October of this year. Given this outlook, if all remains well, we will be able to celebrate the first Mass by January 2021, though this is not set in stone yet.
Q: What influenced the architectural design of the new abbey? Were there any specific examples you looked at during the planning process?
To give your readers an understanding of the church dimensions, from the narthex to the tabernacle, the length is 230 feet, and it is almost 70 feet high. This provides the human imagination a glimpse of the grand scale of this new abbey. The blueprint model came from an old abbey in southern France in Occitanie, the abbey of Conques. This historic abbey was built around the same time Saint Norbert was founding our order in the twelfth century—1121, to be exact. Next year, it will be 900 years since the founding of our order!
The abbey of Conques, built in the Romanesque style, is quite simple but stunning beautiful in its aesthetic dimensions and proportions. It’s very much in keeping with the monasticism of its particular era. The abbey of Conques is a Benedictine abbey, and there is another abbey not too far from there called the abbey of Le Barroux, also in Provence, which was basically modeled on the abbey of Conques. We knew the abbot of Le Barroux, reached out to him, and surveyed the grounds. Upon sight, the universal consensus became clear that this design was the one we desired to for our abbey.
We asked them if, by any chance, they still had the blueprint documents or knew how to contact the architect who built the abbey. To our immediate surprise, the abbot responded that the architect, who is featured in our City of Saints web series, lived not too far from there and assisted us in contacting him. Thanks be to God, the architect is vibrantly alive while in his 80s. So we quickly flew to his residence and had a very nice conversation. To our disappointment, he said that it would be improbable for him, given his advanced years, to design something similar to the abbey of Le Barroux. Yet, the following day, he brought a sketch, which he had made the previous night, of how the abbey should look. We were left speechless, utterly impressed and humbled by God’s grace intervening through this man. As it was, the choice had not yet been made, so he became the designer architect, and, with the hiring of local architects, broke ground and began construction. To put it simply, the inspiration for our design came from the abbey of Conques by way of Le Barroux.
We took this Romanesque inspiration because, first of all, it was built in the time when we were being founded, and it had a profound simplicity. Also, this design lends itself much better to the surrounding landscape than others. Observers will comment that our abbey is oriented towards the mission style but it really is a hybrid. We had the option of making it out of stone, but the prevalent earthquakes in California made this unsuitable. We were not aware that we would complete the abbey’s construction at the 900th anniversary of the order’s founding; this is obviously the work of divine providence.
Along with the exterior architecture that is Romanesque, we also wanted the interior to follow the same pattern. The triumphal arch in the sanctuary will be a true triumphal arch because it will be a huge mosaic of Our Lady of the Assumption, the name of the church. She will be depicted at almost 18 feet tall, and, as someone put it, she is the most beautiful 18-foot tall woman you’ve ever seen. Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel, with seraphim and the dragons slayed by Saint Michael, neighbor Our Lady. Revelation 12—a great sign appeared in the sky: a woman clothed in the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head—is also depicted with Revelation 6 just below. You also have the angels blowing trumpets and the resurrection of the dead, illustrating souls either going to heaven or hell on the day of the last judgement.
These mosaics are all being made in a place close to Venice, Italy. Upon its elemental completion, it will ship to America and be installed in the abbey. The hopeful aim is to have the installation finished by January. We have six lateral shrines in the nave, dedicated to various saints and the different ministries of Our Lord’s life, which all lead up to the high altar. There is a vaulted ceiling from the west to the east. The stained glass windows, geometrical in design, are not figurative because that came a bit later, and so there are no depictions of saints.
As always with modern architecture, you have provisions such as fire hazards and ramps included as well. We intended to stick to tradition as much as possible. We have iconographers from the northern and middle regions of Italy who have been trained by Russian monks. They are going to dress all the chapels, the lateral shrines. The altars are being made in Spain as well as some of the furniture. Some other items are coming from Mexico. It is clear that the project of our new abbey is a universal effort as we employed artisans from the old world and the new.
Q: What is the role of the new abbey in promoting the Catholic faith in the Diocese of Orange? Does the location of the abbey, situated deep inside the Silverado Canyon (away from normal life), define the essence of its mission?
Our order, as Canon Regulars, is centered around the life of contemplation but also paired with action—bringing the sacraments and the gospel to any soul in need of them. We are involved in so many different ministries: parishes, schools, prisons, and hospitals. Saint Paul says to prepare for all good works and this is basically what we do wherever we are asked to go. Because that means there is necessity there. In some places, it is the education of young kids in schools; in other places, parishes need assistance since that is where most of the faithful go. We have chaplaincies at colleges as well. We are basically in any place where bishops will invite us to go and where we can live in community and continue the apostolic work.
The idea of the religious priesthood is most authentic and true to our Christian roots because we live in community like the early Christian communities—we pray the Divine Office together, and bring the fruits of our contemplation to the world. In the age of modernity, the world needs clarity and truth, and it has to be encased with something that is alluring, which is the beauty of the Faith. We seek to bring people closer to Christ by teaching the truth in charity, by making it really clear what Our Lord Jesus Christ taught, and instilling the purity of the Faith in the young and the old.
This beauty is best manifested in the sacred liturgy which contains beauty, reverence, art, and music—all the key ingredients that attract the individual because they attract the senses through the things they see and hear, as well as the smell of the incense. Once you invite people into the church, you can expound the truth of the Faith, which, when coupled with beauty, makes the truth all the more attractive. What I just described is what is lacking in so many parishes. They descend into the extremes of modernity, the truth is toned down or it’s not done in charity, or they have a house of worship that is completely void of beauty. So truth and beauty, in a sense, are what we bring to parishes, schools, and anyone whom we meet.
Moving to this new location is really providential for us because it does remove us a little bit more from the growth of the city we are located in. We don’t want to be removed completely from the secular world, but at the same time we need to be able to retreat. Retreating is not necessarily surrendering but entails returning to one’s source of strength so as to return to the fight in the future. In the same way, when we retreat into the monastery, our souls are strengthened and nourished with the word of God and community prayer. Afterward, we will go back out to the world and preach the good news.
What the move also does is it allows other people, the people we serve, to get away from the world and make a daily retreat or spend the weekend here. We will have bigger facilities and different rooms, designed for conferences, to host small retreats for parishes and Catholic groups. People can come and spend time with us and experience a taste of our canonical life and then return to their workplace. This will bring the fullness of being a Norbertine, a canon, to people’s experiences. They will not see so-and-so Father at a certain parish or school but see the community together, how we contemplate and how we pray, which will be very formative for them.