Dom Francis Michael Receives Abbatial Blessing
Published: July 15, 2004
CONYERS—Dom Francis Michael Stiteler, OCSO, received the abbatial blessing as the seventh abbot of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery on the feast of St. Benedict July 11 with 600 to 700 people witnessing the celebration.
The Mass of blessing came 30 years after the abbot, a native of Philadelphia, entered the Conyers monastery on July 1, 1974. He is one of the new generation of Cistercian abbots and abbesses, who are in their 40s and 50s. He has been chosen from within the monastery where he has been a brother for decades.
Dom Francis Michael, 53, professed his solemn vows as a monk of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance on Feb. 2, 1980. He was ordained a priest on April 9, 1983 and holds a master’s degree in pastoral counseling from Loyola University in Baltimore. He has served over the years as the monastery’s novice master, prior, subprior, junior master and director for monastic studies.
In May 2003 he was assigned to be superior of the monastery ad nutum for one year, in preparation for an abbatial election. On May 20, 2004, he was elected abbot by the community’s solemnly professed monks.
In a 1977 interview given when he was 26, then Brother Francis Michael credited Mother Teresa of Calcutta with influencing the direction of his vocation. As a young man on his way to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, he had two opportunities to speak with her, once at a novitiate in London and once in Rome. When he told her both times that he wanted to go to Calcutta to work with the poor, she reportedly responded, “It’s not important what you want to do. You’ve got to find out what God wants you to do.” He was reportedly baffled by how to carry this out.
The interview continues the story, saying, “back in the United States, he wrote to various monasteries about his interest in Religious life. A warm letter from guestmaster Father Francis Xavier led him to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, where he became more and more certain that this was where he was supposed to be . . . Brother Francis Michael wrote to Mother Teresa about his new life, and she wrote back, expressing how happy she was for him.”
His election comes in the 60th anniversary year of the monastery, which was founded in 1944.
Archbishop John F. Donoghue presided at the abbatial blessing held in the abbey church. Also taking part were two previous Conyers abbots Dom Basil Pennington, OCSO, and Dom Bernard Johnson, OCSO, and Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, along with visiting abbots and abbesses and a number of concelebrating archdiocesan priests. Many women Religious serving in the archdiocese attended as special guests. The abbot’s father, sisters, cousins, godmother, and other members of his extended family came.
Lay people filled the choir stalls, the pews and the balcony, while large fans and ice-filled buckets of bottled water in strategic positions helped people cope with the rising heat of the day, headed toward the 90s.
Among those attending were friends who have come to know the abbot from his work in the bonsai greenhouse or through bird watching or butterfly observation tours he has led on the grounds over the years for the Audubon Society.
Archbishop Donoghue encouraged the congregation to pray for the monk called to be the abbot, who, in imitation of Christ at the Last Supper, must be the slave of all, and must lead his brothers according to the spirit and Rule of St. Benedict. Overall, the archbishop concluded with the words of the Gospel, he must strive to live the great commandment to love.
May the abbot, as St. Benedict advised, lead in such a way that “the strong may still have something to strive for and the weak may not draw back in alarm,” the archbishop said.
“The most important thing to pray for today,” he continued, “is to pray for the one who has been called by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the election of his brothers … as he rises to greet the slavery Christ has given him and the yoke you have placed on his shoulders.”
Flanked by Dom Basil and Dom Bernard, Dom Francis Michael stood before the archbishop, and, in response to his questions, promised to persevere in his new role as teacher, spiritual father, and encourager of the monks, and as the temporal administrator of the goods of the monastery, and to be faithful to the church and the pope. Then as he lay prostrate before the altar, the community sang the Litany of the Saints, asking the saints to intercede for him as the abbot.
Rising, Dom Francis Michael knelt before the archbishop, who offered a prayer of blessing, saying, “May his manner of life show clearly that he is what he is called, a father, so that his teaching will, as a leaven of goodness, grow in the hearts of his spiritual family . . . Give him the gifts of your Spirit. Set him on fire with love for your glory and for the service of your Church, and may he in turn inflame with zeal the hearts of his brothers.”
Dom Francis Michael was then given the Rule of St. Benedict, a ring, miter and shepherd’s staff.
The blessing rite concluded, the abbot went to the archbishop and then to each monk of the community and embraced them in a sign of peace. Even the senior monks who now live in the infirmary were seated at the front for the Mass in wheelchairs.
Following the celebration of the Eucharist, Dom Francis Michael spoke to the congregation.
Recalling Christ’s promise that those who leave father, mother and family to serve him and the Gospel will receive a family back from Christ 100-fold, the abbot said he apparently received “600-fold” as he looked out at the full church.
He called the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit “this house of prayer, this school of love.”
“I first learned to love in a different school—the school of my family,” he said with emotion. “It was a great school of love I grew up in,” a family that although imperfect, “set me on the right path.”
He spoke of his late mother, Rosemary, who cried when a family friend let her know he had visited her son in the monastery. When the friend tried to console her over the sacrifice of not seeing her son, she said, “That’s not why I’m crying. I’m crying because of all the times I didn’t correct him when he was a little kid.”
“I still have a little of the brat in me,” he confessed.
To the monks he said, “I am here by your choice. I said yes. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve you.”
To the congregation he said, “I am grateful for all your prayers and ask that you continue to pray for me and for all of us here that we may continue to be a house of prayer, a school of love.”
The Mass was followed by a buffet lunch prepared by the Lay Cistercians of the monastery and served in the cloister portico to the hundreds of guests.
Father Anthony DeLisi, OCSO, who is celebrating his golden jubilee this year, said the event “is a milestone.”
“I worked closely with him through the years. He has a lot to offer,” Father Anthony said. “His main thrust is (the monastery) is the school of love. That is his theme.”
“He was raised as a monk among us. He is one of us, and we are really glad about that,” he added. Also because of his young age, “he will be able to carry out any initiatives he starts. That is very encouraging to the monks, and we have somebody who is quite capable of doing it.”
The abbot is elected for a six-year term and can be re-elected in the future to additional terms until he reaches the age of 75.
Brother Mark Dohle, OCSO, a monk of the community, said, “I’m really happy. He’s got a really good, organized mind. He is very pastoral. He’s a great guy, and we’re very lucky to have him.”
As did others he commented on the fact that as a relatively young abbot Dom Francis Michael can have the time to guide the community and bring about new works.
Dom Basil observed, “Our generation is passing on the crozier (to the next generation) and we are confidently doing it.”
Asked what the greatest challenge facing an abbot is, he said, “You’re really challenged to live a deep faith, (to believe) that God will work through you despite your limitations, your sins. You have to believe. And you have to stay open to whatever the Lord asks next.”
Jacki Rychlicki, a founder of the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery, said that in re-reading St. Benedict’s description of an abbot while praying for the new spiritual head of the monastery, she concluded Dom Francis Michael “has all the qualities of an abbot.”
“I know he doesn’t think he does, but I do,” she said. “I think he has Benedict’s spirit.”
Francisco (Paco) Ambrosetti, a member of the leadership council of the Lay Cistercians and an advisor to the monastery, noted that the abbot faces an ongoing financial challenge to develop new industries to support the community, which has many aging monks.
“I think he has a hard job in front of him,” he said. Providentially, donations continue to arrive when it seems there won’t be enough to cover the expenses. However, with the help of business advisors, the abbot is working to find ways for the community to become self-sustaining again.
The Lay Cistercians “are like the buttresses of a cathedral,” Ambrosetti said. “We are part of the building, but we are outside the building. We don’t come into the cloister except when we are required for any reason. We are very respectful. We respect the life of the monks in their spiritual recollection. We help with our prayers.”
The new abbot’s father, 85-year-old John Paul Stiteler, still remembers his surprise and emotional response when his only son, who had sojourned through two years of college, a number of jobs and traveled across the United States and Europe, found his vocation.
A practicing Lutheran, Stiteler supported his wife in raising their children as Catholics and sending them to Catholic schools. His children also had “two devoted Catholic grandparents,” he said.
As he grew up, his son always seemed like “a knight of old searching for the Holy Grail.” The machinist and toolmaker used to remind him, as fathers do, “there isn’t any such thing.” Then his son adopted the hair and dress code of the 1960s generation. What came next was the surprise.
“Over in Europe he met Mother Teresa, he went to Lourdes. She told him the Lord will tell you what he wants you to do,” Stiteler recalled.
When his son came home from Europe, “all of a sudden, he was going up to St. Bernard’s to Mass, reading the Bible. Then he started visiting a couple of monasteries.”
When he was invited to visit the monastery in Conyers, he went for an extended exploratory visit and then made a phone call to his parents.
“He said, ‘I’m home, I’m home,’” Stiteler said. “It still makes me fill up with tears.”