At 5 a.m. each day, Norbertine Father Claude Williams slides out of his bed in the rectory of St. John the Baptist Parish in Costa Mesa, California. He quickly dresses in his white habit, including a tunic, scapular and shoulder cape, which, according to pious belief, was given to the order’s founder, St. Norbert (1080-1134), by the Blessed Mother herself as a sign of her protection and favor. The 34-year-old priest crosses the parish parking lot with five other members of his community and takes his place in the choir stalls in the sanctuary of the church.
St. John’s was founded as a diocesan parish in 1960, and in 2002, the Norbertines took over its administration. It serves a mix of Anglo, Vietnamese and Hispanic Catholics in a middle- and low-income community. The Norbertines did extensive renovations to the church; the centerpiece is a large depiction of the baptism of Jesus behind the altar. The pastor, Father Augustine Puchner, serves as the local superior at the parish; at St. Michael’s Abbey — the home or “headquarters” of the community in El Toro, about a 40-minute drive away — serve Abbot Eugene J. Hayes and Prior Hugh C. Barbour.
Father Claude and the other Norbertines sit three on the right and three on the left of the altar and begin chanting morning prayer at 5:30 a.m. A smattering of laypeople join them in the main body of the church. The Norbertines sing their prayers, Father Claude explained, as an expression of their love for God, and to help it increase.
Mass begins at 6:30 a.m., and with thanksgiving after Mass, prayers conclude at 7:30 a.m. Morning prayer and Mass are one of three times the Norbertines gather for prayer on a typical day. At 4 p.m., they gather for a Holy Hour followed by vespers at 5 p.m. After their 6:15 p.m. dinner, taken in common, they gather for night prayer in a small rectory chapel. Bedtime is 10 p.m.
The routine may be rigorous, but Father Claude doesn’t mind. “There are many demands on parish priests,” he said. “It can be difficult to make time for the Divine Office and personal prayer. I’m happy to have the schedule I do and the community to support me.”
|After visiting the Norbertine Order in California while in college, Father Claude said, “I told my friend that I could not imagine spending my life anywhere else but the abbey.” Photo by Jim Graves
Father Claude grew up with his parents and two younger brothers in New Orleans. His father was a carpenter, his mother a homemaker. The Catholic Faith was important to the family, including praying the Rosary. Young Arthaniel Williams — the future Father Claude — attended Catholic schools taught by such religious as the Sisters of the Holy Family and the Ursuline Sisters.
Although his family lives far away, Father Claude remains close to them, speaking to them regularly on the phone and visiting during the summer when priests are allowed family visitation.
Father Claude attended college at Franciscan University of Steubenville and shared classes with Carmelite nuns from Alhambra, California. They suggested he acquaint himself with the Norbertine community in California. When he visited with a friend, he was impressed: “I liked the liturgical life of the abbey, including their singing of prayers and use of Latin. It was also nice that many of the confreres were in my age range.”
| Photo by Jim Graves
“I told my friend that I could not imagine spending my life anywhere else but the abbey.”
Father Claude entered the community at age 20, spending much time in class and church, as well as performing manual labor around the abbey.
“We maintained silence and didn’t go out very often, except for groceries,” Father Claude said. “I found I liked the regular monastic routine.”
In 2002 he took temporary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and an additional Norbertine vow of Conversion of Ways, which is “about changing your worldly habits to correspond with the habits of Christ, putting on the mind of Christ and loving that which he loves.”
He was given the religious name Claude, a practice, he said, “which is an expression of our poverty.”
He took solemn vows in 2007. While vows may be intimidating to some, Father Claude has found them to be a blessing.
“The limits placed on us by the holy vows are formative,” he said. “They help you to be what you’re supposed to be.”
He added the insight of a fellow religious, who said, “Today, you will make your vows. One day, your vows will make you.”
After studying in Rome for three years, Father Claude was ordained a priest in 2009. His duties have since included teaching at the community’s all-boy preparatory school. Two years ago, he was assigned to live at St. John the Baptist Parish, where he serves as a parish priest celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and preparing couples for marriage. He is fluent in Spanish, so he celebrates the Spanish Mass and takes the lead in serving the needs of the parish’s Hispanic community. The parish’s celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, in fact, is his favorite parish celebration.
|Father Claude Williams, a Norbertine priest who lives with members of his order at St. John the Baptist Parish in Costa Mesa, California, said taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience “help you to be what you’re supposed to be."Photo by Jim Graves
He also celebrates the extraordinary form of the Mass on Sunday afternoon and returns to the abbey on Wednesdays to serve as head sacristan and master of ceremonies for Abbot Eugene.
To address differences that arise between confreres, the priests of St. John’s have a weekly chapter of faults, a practice with roots in the earliest history of the order. Using a form adapted from the abbey, confreres have the opportunity to publicly air their differences, either apologizing for faults or noting difficulties with the behavior of others. Typical problems in the community, Father Claude said, might be a confrere who is “bossy” despite not being in a position of authority, gets too aggressive at sports, dominates conversations or wakes up other confreres late at night by, say, slamming a door. Father Claude noted that at St. John the Baptist, the priests have “complementary” personalities, and problems between them are rare.
A cook prepares six dinners per week for the six St. John’s priests. Other meals the confreres must prepare on their own. During dinner they have table reading — the reading of a spiritual book while eating — and begin with the reading of the Rule of St. Augustine, which they follow.
They are also free to exercise on their own; one of the priests, for example, is an avid bike rider. The confreres also do some physical labor around the parish, such as gardening, washing dishes or cleaning up the parish hall after one of their events.
The Norbertines have opportunities to interact with priests of the Diocese of Orange, in which the parish and abbey are located, such as at in-service events sponsored by the diocese, or deanery meetings. Bishop Kevin Vann has been a good friend to the community, regularly visiting for prayer and recreation.
One of the biggest differences between the Norbertines and many diocesan priests is that the Norbertines live in community and share a common schedule. It was the goal of both St. Norbert and St. Augustine, Father Claude said, to live the life of the Apostles.
He explained that “First, the Apostles were summoned to keep company with Christ as his friends. Then, they were sent two by two, held everything in common and prayed together several times each day. All of our labors flow out of our community life in God.”
A man interested in joining the community, he said, must be one “who prays, is a team player, is emotionally balanced and has a zeal for souls.” Good physical health is important, too, he noted, because “we pray a lot, work a lot and need a lot of stamina.”
Founded in 1121, the charism of the Norbertine Order is a priestly life whose primary external object is the solemn celebration of the liturgy, along with the care of souls, in the traditional daily discipline of the monastic life; and all of this in the context of an abbey community. The order’s motto is “Prepared for Every Good Work,” the first of which is the fervent and devout celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
The abbey’s primary external apostolate is the education and moral formation of youth, preparing them to be good Catholics as well as productive, stable members of society. They are also sought-after retreat masters for religious communities and diocesan priests, both locally and overseas.
Norbertine priests and brothers live in autonomous abbeys, and their abbots are answerable to the abbot general who lives in Rome. Although they live the monastic life, they are not monks but canons regular, meaning they are engaged in priestly apostolic work of various types with a view toward the salvation of souls.
Father Claude is grateful to be a part of the community and has no regrets about entering. He said, “I’d do again,” he said. “In fact, I’d gladly do it again a thousand times.”
Jim Graves writes from California.