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Norbertine Abbot General Is This Year’s Commencement Speaker

St. Norbert College is honored to announce that the Most Rev. Josef Wouters, abbot general of the Norbertine order, is the 2021 Commencement speaker. Wouters’ Commencement visit falls during the yearlong jubilee to celebrate the order’s 900th anniversary. Melanie Radzicki McManus ’83 spoke with Wouters – a priest of Averbode Abbey in Belgium – about SNC, COVID, cheese curds and more during a recent interview from his home base in Rome.

Tell us about your role as abbot general. What are some of your duties?
In our order, every house is independent and autonomous. So the abbot general is more like a Scandinavian monarch – my function is more symbolical. So I make regular short, inspiring messages that are sent out to all the houses. And I’m here to offer counsel and advice to any superior who asks for it. Sometimes I have to mediate in conflicts between confrères and their superiors, or help [confrères] to live the Norbertine order.

You’ve been to De Pere three times in the last decade. What are you most looking forward to during this upcoming trip?
This will be the first time I will really meet with the community of the college. So I’m curious. And I would rather come to listen than to say something. I would like to know about these young people and their teachers – what are they thinking, what are they struggling with, how do they see the challenge of being Catholic and educating and living their professional lives?

At St. Norbert, there’s a lot of talk about communio. What does that mean to you?
Communio is the word that came up when the order, after the Second Vatican Council, had to formulate its charism. It means being Church. Not in the way of being part of a hierarchical system, but Church as a community. It’s developing and rendering yourself – your being, your personality, your talents – to be part of that community.

The abbot general is based in Rome. We know how hard Italy was hit early in the current pandemic. What was it like to live through that?
We have a house in the historic center of Rome. It’s the house of the abbot general, procurator general, bursar, guest master and director of the college. [The Norbertine college is another name for this residence, also known as the Norbertine generalate.] There is also a group of 20 students. We all had to stay in the house, so I found myself more a house superior than the general of a worldwide religious order. And I had to do my part to make the house a good environment for them, because we couldn’t go out. So I started gardening. We have a small flower and vegetable garden. It was not a big success, though, because I started a bit too late.

Do you have any advice for our SNC family when it comes to dealing with COVID-19?
I’ll use a metaphor: cultivate your own garden. In the sense of reading more, deepening your interests, studying more. But also spiritually. Go into that place in your heart where you find peace and rest. Try to find God’s presence in your life, in what you are doing, and in the very fact that you are living. And try to live from there. We could call it an inner peaceful prayer. We could call it meditation. Try to find a love for silence so you can discover the force of being.

Do you plan to do anything fun during your visit here, like go out for some of Wisconsin’s famous cheese curds?! Do you know what those are?
I know what cheese is, and I know Wisconsin is America’s dairy country. But I don’t know what cheese curds are. Actually, I would be thrilled to be taken on a visit to a farm. Because that’s something that interests me very much. I like cows.

Anything else you’d like to share?
One of the books I’m reading gives a definition of faith as someone who listens. That’s something I think is very important. Listening. Then you discover many things.

Watch for an announcement on or before April 1 about what Commencement 2021 will look like, and how you can participate!

March 19, 2021