In him is the spirit of leadership
Each morning finds Abbot Gary Neville, O.Praem., ’73 in the St. Joseph Shrine at St. Norbert Abbey. He awakes at 5:30 a.m. for prayer.
“It’s very quiet,” he says. “Occasionally, I hear the little mouse running around down there.”
Abbot Neville also concludes his day with personal prayer. He spends at least a half hour of each evening in the oratory that overlooks the church.
“I review the day – ‘that was good; that wasn’t good, what’s up for tomorrow?’ – I just try to put the mind to rest. Tomorrow is another day. We are going to do the best we can. To make decisions, to take up challenges which are difficult, you need to not only feel the support of your own community, but others. You need to lay that out in front of God. I go forward with a lot of faith.”
The community moves forward with Abbot Neville as its leader for another nine years. On May 4, he became the first abbot in the history of St. Norbert Abbey to be elected to a second term.
Easing into his new term was not an option. The annual chapter of the abbey started the following week, and Abbot Neville and the St. Norbert Abbey community hosted the General Chapter of the order, for Norbertines worldwide, just two months later at St. Norbert College. A major celebration with vows and anniversaries was also held in August. A sudden health problem further taxed the abbot’s summer schedule. On July 4, his left leg swelled from a 16-inch blood clot that required surgery.
On the mend, Abbot Neville is seeking some retreat time to do some reading. A getaway in winter, his favorite season of the year, is a good possibility.
“We have several facilities up north in Wisconsin,” he says. “I could probably choose any one of them and take my Kindle, some books and some popcorn and read for a couple weeks. I like to read in the areas of religious life and spirituality and look for ideas to bring back and present before the community.”
For an abbot, planning is determined by personnel, Neville explains. The last several years the community has had to pull back its outreach as priests have retired, but remains committed in such areas as education, parish work and spirituality.
“Religious communities have lived so long with the notion of diminishment that in some ways we frequently dwell on the wonderful past,” he says. “We all know that the past wasn’t always wonderful, but we wish we still had 200 people. Fortunately, we have five guys in formation, so we are beginning to rebuild.
“What I hope we can do is move from that model of saying, remember when we were able to do that? and say, OK, but there are all kinds of other opportunities that present themselves,” he added. “Which ones do we find attractive as we grow in our number?”
The completion of his first nine-year term was cause for reflection. Abbot Neville’s thoughts turned to the 23 Norbertines who died during that time period.
“While they are gone, what they did lives on,” he says. “The men laid such a foundation; it gives us a lot to build upon. The order’s motto is sort of ‘ever ancient, ever new’ [words of St. Augustine]. We hold on to parts of the past that are important to us, our charisms and spirituality, but then we look at, if Norbert was among us today – what would he do; where would he go; what would he see as the challenges in the world? He was known as a peacekeeper, a reconciler, and the world is giving us many opportunities to go that direction. It’s not easy work.”
Abbot Neville points to the growth in programming at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality as a positive. The initiative four years ago to start the Norbertine Volunteer Community on the east side of Green Bay is also celebrated.
“Those young people have done so much good and in some ways have brought some stability to the neighborhood by living there and being present there,” he says. “We may not always be able to do everything ourselves due to numbers, but to find projects to support, to lend our name and resources, can be just as powerful.”
Nov. 4, 2012