The monastic community at Pluscarden Abbey belongs to the Roman Catholic Church. This is not merely an accident of history, an incidental detail, a convenient framework: it is an essential aspect of our life.
The objection might be made that denominational differences between Christians are an irrelevance in an ecumenical age, and should simply be dropped. Would it not be better to forget past doctrinal and confessional disputes, and simply to call ourselves Christian?
Nowadays, any discussion of the nature of the Church, as founded by Jesus Christ and his Apostles, has to make reference to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. This was a great assembly of Catholic Bishops which met from 1962 to 1965. Vatican II produced a rich and beautiful doctrine about the Church. This can be found above all in the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium (1964). A convenient summary of this lengthy document is provided in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.
A central idea in modern Catholic teaching is that the Church is much more than a merely human organisation. Yes, the Church has a clear visible structure, and this is important. But more deeply, she is Christ’s Body, and his Bride. Catholics believe that the Church has the nature of a Mystery, or a Sacrament. She is a visible sign of an invisible reality; an efficacious sign, that brings into effect what it signifies. So the visible Catholic Church signifies and brings into effect union with God, and union among people; through, with and in Jesus Christ our Lord. It is unfortunately easy enough to point to the sins and failings of members of the Church. But in herself, in her divine constitution, the Church is our Mother, and she is holy, and so she is the object of love and devotion for those who belong to her.
To understand what Catholics believe about the Church, and why, a good place to start is the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, or Mass. Here an ordained Priest, standing in the place of Jesus Christ, leads an ordered setting of worship, holy reading and prayer. At the appropriate moment he takes bread, and says over it the words spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper: “This is my Body”. Catholics believe that these words carry divine power: so much so that the bread truly becomes Christ’s Body. In distributing Holy Communion, the Priest announces this to each person. “The Body of Christ”, he says. And the one receiving answers: “Amen”.
This “Amen” signifies assent to all the Eucharist is, and to all that it does; to all the Church is, and does. Those who participate in the Eucharist do so as members of Christ’s Body. Receiving that Body in Holy Communion, they nourish and build up their communion in love with Jesus, with his Church, and with one another. But however many faithful there are, and however many Masses, celebrated all over the world, the Body of Christ remains always One. Therefore, whoever truly participates in the Holy Eucharist is thereby drawn into Unity in Christ.
The Unity of Christ’s Body, which is the Unity of the Catholic Church, is visibly expressed in three important ways.
First, there is the profession of faith. The Church does not invent her faith: she has received it from the Apostles. Essentially the faith of the Church can be found in Holy Scripture. But over the course of two millennia, many disputes have arisen, with Christians sometimes interpreting Scripture in contradictory ways. In case of such disputes, and of other challenges to her faith, the Catholic Church claims the authority to give definitive judgement on what is true doctrine, and what is error, or heresy. Catholics accept that authority, and hold in its entirety that faith which the Catholic Church has held, and holds today.
The second bond of Unity in the Church is the common celebration of Divine Worship, and especially of the Sacraments. Sharing one faith, Catholics also offer one worship within the communion of the Church. This worship is essentially a participation in the Priestly worship offered by Jesus to his Father. Also it is the love song of his Bride, the Church, to her heavenly husband and Lord. Catholic unity in worship is signified by mention in every Mass of the name of both the Pope and the local Bishop. Another important sign of unity in worship is the exclusive use of those liturgical books which are officially approved by Church authority.
The third visible bond of Unity in the Church is the exercise of pastoral government, by the recognised and legitimate successors of the Apostles. The Pope, or Bishop of Rome, holds the place in the Church of the Apostle Peter. He is thus the visible centre of unity, head of the College of Bishops, and he holds supreme authority over the whole Church. But each Bishop also is a successor of the Apostles. So the Bishop is the centre of unity for his own diocese, and he exercises the supreme teaching and ruling authority within it.
Elements of the Catholic faith, of valid sacramental worship, and even of ecclesial governance in the line of Apostolic succession are to be found in other, non-Catholic Churches and Ecclesial communities. But only in the Catholic Church, united to the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, are all these elements to be found in their fullness. Believing all this, Catholics recognise already a certain true but imperfect communion with Christians of other denominations. At Pluscarden Abbey, many Christians who are not Roman Catholics share in the worship of the community. Many also stay, sometimes regularly, in our guest accommodation. Often they give outstanding witness to a life of faith, charity and patient endurance of suffering. Their inability to share fully in the community’s Eucharist through Holy Communion is a painful sign that different Christian denominations still lack that unity which is Christ’s will for his Church.
As Catholics, Pluscarden monks inherit the vast riches of theology, devotion and holiness which have flourished in the Church throughout her long history. In union with the whole of this tradition, they give special honour to the Virgin Mother of God, Mary most holy. Mary stands as figure of the whole Church, and she is given as Mother to all who belong to Jesus. Catholics enjoy conscious communion with Mary, and with all the Saints and Angels in heaven, as well as with the whole Church now spread throughout the world. A monastic life lived apart from this communion would to us be inconceivable.
Those who wish to become novices at Pluscarden must be Roman Catholics who have received the Sacrament of Confirmation. They must have spent at least some time practising their Catholic Faith, free from grave sin. They must have developed habits of participating regularly in Catholic worship, and contributing, in whatever way seems appropriate, to her many charitable activities. They will understand the monastic vocation as a way of living at the heart of the Church. They will be filled with desire to build her up through their prayer, through fruitful communion in her Sacraments, and through the witness of a life spent joyfully in her service.