When Austin Gregory Murphy assumed his position as abbot of St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, he became the youngest monk ever elected to lead the monastic order.
Although he is not the newest member in the order, he is its youngest. The 36-year-old priest was elected abbot June 26 and is in a position to serve in that capacity until he turns 75.
Murphy is the 10th abbot to head the community of Catholic men in its 125-year history. He replaces the retiring Abbot Dismas Kalcic.
Murphy also will serve as chancellor of Benedictine University and Benet Academy, the two Lisle schools founded by the Benedictines.
The duties of an abbot include serving as spiritual father, teacher and administrator to the religious community. A distinguishing characteristic of the Benedictine order is the vow of stability each priest and brother takes to the Lisle abbey. Unlike other religious orders or diocesan priests, a Benedictine is not sent to serve at other abbeys.
"Prayer is our prime apostolate," Murphy said. "We offer our life to prayer and work for the good of the church and the world, and there is no need to move."
Murphy was born Gregory Murphy and grew up in New York the middle child, with an older brother and a younger sister. His parents, Thomas and Marie, now reside in Texas.
Although he admits to being a pensive child, he never thought of a religious vocation until his first few years at college.
"When I was young and with friends, it was easy to put off thoughts of religious life," he said.
Away from family and friends for the first time, the young man realized living his Catholic faith was now his personal responsibility. He appreciated his parents' early guidance and good examples.
"My parents planted the seeds in the belief of God and the wisdom of the Catholic Church," the abbot said. "God was at work in my life and gave me reasons to be introspective."
The question he kept returning to was, "What does God want of me?"
"I encourage everyone to open their heart and answer the question," he said.
As a college student, Gregory Murphy embraced the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. By the time he earned his bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Chicago in 1995, he felt a call to religious life.
At the suggestion of a female friend who knew of St. Procopius Abbey, Murphy came to Lisle for a religious retreat at the abbey. By the end of the week, he says he knew, without doubt, what God wanted for him.
Entering a religious order, a candidate may offer three possible names he would like to receive. Since the abbey already had a Brother Gregory and a Brother Augustine, Murphy was given a contraction of St. Augustine - Austin.
During the 14 years since he entered the monastery, he earned master degrees in theology, divinity and sacred theology from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. He professed vows in 1997 and was ordained a priest in 2004.
At Benet, he taught mathematics, religion and directed campus ministry. He was working on his dissertation for a doctorate in theology at the University of Notre Dame before being elected abbot.
In selecting an abbot, every monk in the religious community is given two votes in the nomination process. Everyone has the option to ask not to be considered for the position.
The next day, the election is held and a candidate needs two-thirds of the vote in the first three votes to move on. In the last three votes, a person needs a simple majority.
"I am honored and humbled by the choice of the community," Murphy said. "People have been very supportive, offering their prayers and those have helped me greatly."
Murphy has a good foundation in monastic thought and life that he can share with his community.
"I learned through experience that a life of prayer is a service to the lives of others," he said. "We are united to others in our struggle; we seek the truth and prayer that is actually very important to the world. It is a beautiful call, and, in return, we want to serve our God in different vocations. I thank God for this one he allowed me to find."
The life of a monk is one of elective prayer, self-giving and consecration to the Lord, he explained. The unity of prayer and work is the core of the Benedictine order that follows the teachings of Christ rooted in the Rule of Saint Benedict, which was written more than 1,400 years ago as a guide to Christian service. It is why the 30 men at St. Procopius are called Benedictines.
Four times a day the monks gather to pray together and for daily Mass. Each monk also finds private time for prayer and Bible reading. Some members of the abbey also do apostolate work at neighboring Catholic parishes celebrating weekend Masses.
During the week, some monks serve as faculty, staff or in campus ministry at Benedictine University and Benet Academy.
An Abbatial Blessing is scheduled for Sept. 18 at which Murphy will receive symbols of the office. He will receive a crosier, or pastoral staff, for his role as a shepherd and a mitre, a tall folding cap, for his religious position. The Bishop of the Diocese of Joliet, J. Peter Sartain will preside.
On that solemn occasion, liturgical music and prayer will fill St. Procopius Abbey Church as a man of the 21st century leads his flock through prayer and work guided by his motto, "Pariter ad vitam aeternam," which is Latin for "All together to eternal life."