Apostle of Beauty: Abbot Barnabas Senecal Laid to Rest
On October 16, 1937, Tom Senecal (the future Abbot Barnabas) and his twin brother Tim became the newest members of the Senecal family. Growing up in Atwood, Kansas, all of the Senecal children would ultimately attend Catholic boarding school in Atchison, Kansas. There Tom would take his first steps on the journey toward the priesthood as a student at Maur Hill Prep School. After graduation, he became a “hilltopper” — the residence program for men interested in the priesthood and religious life — at Benedictine College (then called St. Benedict’s).
What follows are excerpts from the homily of Abbot James Albers, who lay to rest the previous abbot of St. Benedict’s Abbey on Dec. 14.
For ninety-seven years there has been a Senecal as a member of our community; Fr. Lucien Senecal, Abbot Barnabas’ uncle entered the Novitiate on 14 August 1924. And from Atwood, Kansas, the Senecal family was dedicated to giving their children a Catholic, Benedictine education in Atchison Kansas. Highway 36 across northern Kansas having been well traveled by the Senecal family, is kind of like what the nieces and nephews of our late Abbot Brendan experienced as their parents offered them, “You can attend any Catholic college you’d like, in Atchison, Kansas.”
The Senecal name is imbedded in the Abbey Community, indeed; imbedded as well in the Atchison community and beyond. We have the Fr. Gerard Senecal Gymnasium at St. Benedict Catholic School, and the Abbot Barnabas Senecal Auditorium at Maur Hill Mount Academy.
The Senecal family helped shape the Catholic, Benedictine horizon of Atchison. I look out at the faces this morning, and it is a mosaic of faces who knew Abbot Barnabas.
There is a cover of a past issue of our Abbey magazine, Kansas Monks, that is a photo of Abbot Barnabas Senecal, made up of many of the photos that he took over the years. We have all seen those types of photos, a mosaic of photos that comprise an overall larger photo. Abbot Barnabas once told me that if he could go back in his monastic vocation, if he had had the choice, rather than studying history, he would have asked to study music, specifically developing his voice. He was an artist through his voice, through the camera lens, and through the beauty and mystery of the many friendships he fostered.
Hans Urs von Balthasar noted the importance of the aesthetic as a starting point in our faith. He said, “The Beautiful seizes you, it changes you, and then it calls you and sends you.” You see a beautiful piece of art, it affects you and changes you. You hear a beautiful piece of music or experience a beautiful liturgy and you want to be a part of it; you want to tell people about it. You become an evangelist of the beautiful within your faith, and you become an evangelist of him to whom that beauty is pointing.
There is a religious instinct in each of us, and the question becomes whether this instinct has been exacted. There is also in each of us a sense of wonderment and awe, a desire to experience and to know what is good and true. A beautiful thing speaks to us of the truth and mystery of God. What we love in any creature or thing is only what is a reflection of God. It is the beautiful that can awaken in us wonder; beauty takes us from simply being in the rational world to an experience of mystery. Beauty has the potential to evangelize our hearts and the hearts in others.
We look upon the life of Abbot Barnabas and recognize the truth and mystery of God, revealed to us in the beauty he offered in himself and in his life. In monastic and early church history, specifically through our liturgy and art, there was a thought that developed of sharing our faith and the mystery of God, that is, we must begin with the beautiful. Begin with the beautiful, which leads us to the good and what is true, which allows us to contemplate the mystery of God.
Abbot Barnabas probably would not have put it in those words, rather he would have taken a photo of it, written a poem about it, or sung a song dedicated to it, called up a friend or just popped in on them, cherished an interaction with a student; He would have documented the experience in one fashion or another. It is about the experience — the encounter that draws us into the mystery of the mercy of God’s face. When we begin with what is beautiful, we invite into our lives and our faith others who recognize that beauty. To do so is an act of evangelization; it is difficult to resist the power of the beautiful, to be drawn into it and allow it to change us. Overtaken by beauty, it begins to work on us as we long to conform our lives to that beauty we have seen, heard, or experienced. This beautiful thing or event or person has the potential to move us from what is its beauty to what is good and true in it; what we have experienced, this encounter with God in what is beautiful, we desire to enter into it, to be draw further into that beauty.
As Abbot Barnabas fostered a love for Christ in his ministry, his monastic vocation, and his priesthood, in the very person he was – it is there that the beauty of the Body of Christ shown forth. From the beauty of the Body of Christ – all of us gathered here today – we share the good of our faith, pointing us to the mystery, the mercy of God.
This begs us to ask very important questions.
How do we allow beauty into our lives, or how do we shut it out or distract ourselves from it?
How do we present this interior beauty God has placed in us, created in his image and likeness, how do we share it with the outside, sharing our faith, our lives, and God’s mercy?
Where is beauty lacking in your life, and how can you bring beauty into that circumstance?
At this Mass, Abbot Barnabas, your funeral Mass, we pray for you that you dine at the eternal banquet, the eternal and everlasting Eucharist. We pray that you have been called into that eternal relationship with the Father who loves you, and that you offer intercession for us that we might one day know the beauty of God’s face.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.