Chasing the devil from Tasmania

notre dame tasmania The monks of Notre Dame Priory, Tasmania. Courtesy photo

The wind blows in great gusts over snow-capped mountains on the other side of the world, across the island of Tasmania. Whipped up by the Southern Ocean's infamous Roaring Forties, wave upon wave of wind buffets the Australian state on the very peripheries of the world.
"Separated from the Australian mainland by 140 miles of the treacherous pitch and toss of Bass Strait, Tasmania is a byword for is like outer space on earth and invoked by those at the 'centre' to stand for all that is far-flung, strange and unverifiable," Nicholas Shakespeare aptly writes in his book "In Tasmania."
If you seek out the peripheries, in other words, whether from Rome, London or Washington, it is hard to get any further away than Tasmania. And yet there, on the other side of the world, on a heart-shaped island the size of West Virginia, a new Jerusalem is emerging.
The Monks

Tasmania's first Benedictine monastery is gradually taking shape on over 3,000 acres of green pastureland, felicitously named Jerusalem Estate and abutting an eponymous creek in the island's idyllic Midlands. On a visit in late August 2018 - in the middle of Australia's winter, drawing in an Antarctic chill - the monks were still living in trailers and sheds fashioned from corrugated iron on a rented paddock at Rhyndaston, several miles down the road from their future home.
Once a day they travel to the neighboring town of Colebrook, to pray and celebrate Mass in the local church. They have decorated the altar and put out fresh flowers for Our Lady. Though they live like beggars, their liturgical prayer is dignified, and their Gregorian chant nothing short of divine.
Soon, thanks to the archdiocese, an old church will be brought in by truck from the north of the island, the monks tell CNA. Then the young Benedictines - their average age is less than 30, and most of them, with the exception of one monk and the American prior, hail from mainland Australia - will at last have a first church of their own in which to sing, pray and celebrate.

Notre Dame Priory is led by Father Pius Mary Noonan, a monk from Kentucky who lived previously as a monk in a French monastery in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain.

One day an Australian couple knocked on the door, asking the abbot to help organize a retreat in their country. That was almost 10 years ago, and Father Pius - one of the few fluent English speakers at the French abbey - became a regular pilgrim to Australia.

The retreats - which are still going strong, and are now run from Notre Dame Priory - were so successful that a permanent presence was increasingly the only feasible proposition.

The Archbishop

So how did Prior Pius and his young band of monks end up in Tasmania? The answer is the Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous.

The monastery is under the direct supervision of the 69-year-old prelate who, like a skilled gardener, has devoted himself to helping Catholic life flourish in the fertile - though, many say, spiritually barren - soil of the island that is his diocese. The Benedictines are but one of several seeds Porteous is sowing and planting. Each plant serves a different purpose, and each, is designed to serve strengthen and enrich the garden.

The archbishop and his team face a challenge of Biblical proportions. Even compared to rest of Australia - where the percentage of Catholics attending Mass is in the single digits - - Tasmania trails behind. Today, only about 16 percent of Tasmania's population is Catholic - about 80,000 of roughly 530,000 Tasmanians - the lowest proportion of any Australian state or territory. And, like everywhere in the West, the number of Australians professing to be agnostics or atheists is on the rise.

(What is more, Tasmania did not experience the influx of Catholic migrants from continental Europe that since the 1950s has contributed - in many ways - to a more diverse Australia. Catholics have constituted the largest Christian denomination in the country since 1986, when their population overtook the number of Australian Anglicans).

To tackle this situation, Porteous says, over a cup of coffee in his unpretentious office, "we have to find a way of strengthening Catholic life, Catholic identity, Catholic spirituality. And at the same time, we mustn't withdraw from society."

Paradoxical though it might seem, that is why the Benedictine monks play an important role, the archbishop tells CNA.

"I think it's very important at this moment when there are strong secularizing tendencies in society that do permeate through the Church, that we have, if you like, some pockets of strong Catholic Life that firstly can be a source of encouragement to many in the Church but secondly, can become a witness to the society."

Striking a balance

Referring to Rod Dreher's influential 2017 book "The Benedict Option," the archbishop tells CNA: "One of the possible implications behind the Benedict Option would be a certain withdrawal in to a safer environment, a more consistently Catholic kind of life that the people were kind of close in."

But just like Benedictines did in Europe over centuries, Porteous says that his work is about striking a balance - and cultivating the beauty and richness of Catholicism by using the different charisms to strengthen, rather than compete with, parish life.
For that reason, the archbishop invited the South American movement Palavra Viva - the Living Word - to establish a community of consecrated lay members in the town of Launceston.

And when visiting Sunday Mass in the picturesque Huon Valley, where forestry workers, organic farmers and artists live, one can see young religious sisters in a striking blue habit usher a youth group of missionary school attendees into their seats. These are the Sisters of the Immaculata, who were formed in Sydney in the December of 2008 and moved to Tasmania in 2014.

More in Asia - Pacific

The sisters came, as foundress Mother Mary Therese explains "with the desire for spiritual renewal in parishes, through Adoration and faith formation."

Porteous is "very happy" with the Sisters: "They've got a dozen young people doing four to five month mission school at the moment. In this summer, they'll probably have 150 young people come through the nine day program they run here in Tasmania. So they will be representative of what I believe is a new flowering of Catholic life in the Church."

Equally, there is no lack of interest in the young Benedictines from Notre Dame Priory. "I get a fair bit of email", Prior Pius tells CNA, huddled into an ancient armchair next to a woodfire heater struggling to warm up the rickety farmhouse they use to receive guests.

"There is a lot of interest in what we are doing."

And what about the Tasmanians they meet in everyday life? How do they react to the troop of young men with white habits and distinct hairstyles? The prior laughs.

"People are curious. We get asked a lot of questions. They want to know: Who are you? They're usually very happy to hear that we're monks", he says and adds with a laugh, "although some have been disappointed that we're not Buddhists."

The Catholics of this new Jerusalem have their work cut out for them.

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