“THERE are Benedictines, and then there are Benedictines.”
Fr Hugh Somerville-Knapman believes he is the latter.
“The English Benedictines are probably not known as being the most austere Benedictines and that, indeed, other monks have a nasty joke that EBC (English Benedictine Congregation) means Every Bodily Comfort,” Fr Hugh said.
It’s only mostly true, since Fr Hugh is talking to The Catholic Leader through Skype on his Macbook while on holidays with his older brother in Sydney.
Fr Hugh admits that St Benedict’s precepts on poverty – or more specifically, private ownership – was something of a challenge for him.
“That’s a challenge because modern monks, we do have our own things, you know I’ve got this computer I’m talking to you on, and indeed I couldn’t do half the work I do without a computer,” he said.
“So I do find that a challenge because I do find that as a monk I am, historically speaking, fairly pampered.”
But a scrupulous reading of the rule has also proved too ridiculous.
“Even today when monks talk about something, we’ll make a little joke – ‘This is not my pen, this is our pen’,” Fr Hugh said.
“I used to make it more ridiculous and say, ‘Is this our underwear or my underwear I’m wearing’.
“Then they surrendered the point.”
The Benedictine priest of 10 years found his priestly vocation in high school, after his Jesuit headmaster at St Aloysius’ College, Sydney, Fr Anthony Smith asked him when he was joining the order.
It “opened the floodgates” to a short discernment with the Jesuits, but was soon foiled by well-known archivist Errol Lea-Scarlett, who expressed that he “had no idea why” Fr Hugh was a Jesuit when clearly he would suit the English Benedictines better.
The seed was planted and, in 2000, Fr Hugh joined the Douai Abbey in England.
“So I’m a millennium monk,” he said.
He fell into the new evangelisation by accident, after being labelled the go-to monk for computer issues in the abbey.
“I pretty much got into computers in the three years before I joined the monastery when I worked for the police in Sydney in the communications branch,” Fr Hugh said.
“So everything was on computers, and one of my good friends, younger than I was, he could do anything on a computer, so I just learnt off him, pretty much.”
During his Masters in Theology at Oxford, a lay student invited Fr Hugh to join Facebook.
In 2010 he started his blog Dominus mihi adjutor (Latin for “The Lord is my help”) for personal therapy.
“I find the whole art of writing and preparing something very useful for clarifying thoughts and making things coherent,” Fr Hugh said.
Topics he has sought to clarify include the “crisis” over Amoris Laetitia, his “muted” optimism of the state of diplomacy in leadership, Brexit, and the Orlando nightclub massacre, among others.
Fr Hugh believes the digital culture has forced the Church to clarify its teachings and moral positions on global and national events publicly.
“Especially in a pontificate under Pope Francis, issues are far more live and flammable than they used to be because errors and misinformation spreads so much more, and people have the ability to fact check, or people don’t fact check at all,” he said.
“We have a far more informed laity than we have ever had before, and I think that’s what makes so many things more highly charged than they used to be.
“You have to make an argument that stands the test of scrutiny.”
Fr Hugh said he never made a conscious decision to wave the Catholic flag on the Internet but “fell into it” after working for the NSW Police’s Sydney branch.
“It was just a great job,” he said.
“This was a way of seeing the other side of the city, the dark underbelly which was a bit of a shock at times, so it was probably good for my education as much as anything else.”
It was also good education for Fr Hugh’s eventual entrance into the Douai Abbey in 2000.
“It certainly helps me to understand what is to be prayed for,” he said.
In April 2007, Fr Hugh was ordained a priest for the English Benedictine Congregation.
While he misses the “calm and quiet” of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, who was pope when Fr Hugh was ordained, hearing about Pope Francis’ election was “a shock”.
“I think it’s a Roman tradition that the first Jesuit pope would be the last pope … I remembered hearing that when I was a baby Jesuit,” Fr Hugh said.
“That was a bit of a shock to know it was a Jesuit pope – do I need to prepare for ‘the end?’”
Even now Fr Hugh calls himself “a conflicted man” when it comes to the Pope.
But Pope Francis’ comments on the beheading of 20 Coptics and a Muslim man caught Fr Hugh’s attention, and will be the topic of a new book.
“I was struck (that) there were 20 Copts and one non-Christian, a Muslim, who was murdered with them … but I found the most striking thing was that they all hailed the name of Jesus before they were murdered,” Fr Hugh said.
“So this was as good an act of faith as you are going to get.”
In the eyes of the Church, the Muslim man can formally be called a martyr through the doctrine of the Baptism of Blood, however, that teaching does not apply to the Coptic Christians, who were baptised into an Orthodox faith.
It sparked a conversation that led to a thesis and soon-to-be published book.
“If there can be baptism of blood, why can’t there be reconciliation of blood?” Fr Hugh said.
“In other words, why cannot the act of martyrdom reconcile someone who is not a member of the Catholic Church with the Catholic Church if they’re being killed in hatred of Christ, for their faith in Christ.
“I did up a blog but obviously that was nowhere near enough so I ended up signing up to Bristol University and doing a Masters thesis on it and discovering to my delight in the process that I didn’t have to perform gymnastics to try and make this work, that actually, the tradition finished, reached this high point under John Paul II where he said in (his encyclical) Ut Unum Sint (That they may be one) that those who are killed in hatred of Christ achieve perfect communion with the Church.
“I’m not considered to be a great ecumenist, I’m considered to be quite conservative, but I thought this was quite a punch-out for me.
“The Copts made me realise that martyrdom if we take it by itself, here is a point where the Church actually at least in individuals, can become one.
“And if the Church is able – I’ve got a degree for it and it’s going to be a book but it really is up to the Church to judge and to determine whether in fact it is in accord with the doctrines of the Church, then it might be one little contribution to make to the unity of Christianity.
“There’s arguments about Communion and divorced, these are first-world problems when in the Middle East and other parts – Africa, Asia – where there are Christians, for whom these questions don’t rate – it’s life or death.
“I think it’s good for us in the rather pampered (world) to be thinking about their witness, what the bottom line of being a Christian is, what a Catholic is, and whether we’re ready for it ourselves and we’re ready to embrace all those who are prepared to do it.”
While Fr Hugh waits to see his contribution printed in the thousands, he will be back on his knees in the abbey to pray for the Church.
“There’s a maxim that there will always be monks, nuns (cloistered nuns) in the Church because the Church can’t really exist without them,” he said.
“They’re the praying heart of the Church and, for me, when St Paul commands that we should pray without ceasing, it is not really a command for an individual, it’s a command to the Church.”