Monk Achieves Life Goal, Professes


Photo by Mike Scanlan

Br. Robert of Molesme Islas, O.S.B., professes his simple vows in St. Mary’s Church at the Benedictine Abbey of Newark.

His family calls him “Little Monk” because it’s all he has dreamed of being since he was a child.

On Saturday morning, in St. Mary’s Church at the Benedictine Abbey of Newark, Br. Robert of Molesme Islas, O.S.B., realized that ambition.

Participating in the ancient Rite of Temporary Monastic Profession, Br. Robert professed his “simple vows,” promising that, for the next three years, his life will be rooted at Newark Abbey.

Newark Abbey Abbot Melvin Valvano, O.S.B., described Br. Robert’s profession as “a truly blessed and sacred moment.” (Photo by Mike Scanlan)

“Now that I’m a monk,” Br. Robert said after the ceremony, “I see all my past and I can say that God has been so good to me, giving me a very special place in the world, with great people around me.” 

For the next step, Br. Robert must live up to his promise to stay and discern his vocation. Then, if permitted by Abbot Melvin Valvano, O.S.B, he will take his “solemn vows” in October 2023, committing for life to the monastery and the Benedictine precepts of stability, “conversion of life,” and obedience.

As he witnessed and accepted Br. Robert’s vows during a special Mass, Abbot Melvin noted his own happiness at the 20-year-old monk’s decision and described the event as “a truly blessed and sacred moment.” Br. Robert is the youngest member of Newark Abbey.

To senior monks like Fr. Albert Holtz, O.S.B., who last year celebrated the 50th year of his priesthood, Br. Robert’s call to the religious life, specifically as a Benedictine monk, is inspiring. “In our egocentric culture today, it is refreshing always to see people who are willing to give themselves to something bigger and representing more than they themselves encompass,” said Fr. Al, the monastery’s Formation Director. “Such actions say that words like ‘tradition’ and ‘legacy’ mean something.” 

Br. Robert’s profession marks a period of extraordinary activity for the monastery. 

The entry of Br. Bruno Mello, nO.S.B. to the novitiate Friday night, the eve before Br. Robert’s profession, created an historic first. It was the first time, since Newark Abbey became independent in 1968, that three novices lived in the monastery at once. The group included Br. Bruno, Br. Robert, and also Br. Rafael Gonzalez, nO.S.B., who will profess his simple vows in April 2021.

A number of young men recently have joined Newark Abbey, bringing the present total to 19. (Photo by Mike Scanlan)

In a rare double ceremony in March, Br. Simon Peter Clayton, O.S.B., and Br. Asiel Maria Rodriguez, O.S.B., who took their simple vows together in March 2017, professed their solemn vows at the same time.  

Next month, Br. Francis Woodruff, O.S.B., will profess his solemn vows.  And Br. Asiel, already ordained a deacon in July, will be ordained a priest on Nov. 27, fulfilling a lifelong goal.

Br. Mark Martin Dilone, O.S.B., who professed his simple vows in December 2018, will make his solemn vows in December 2021.

There are presently 19 monks at Newark Abbey, including the novices, the highest number in many years. For the young monks who are signing on, the high level of activity is validating.

“Today’s profession is a reminder for me of the joy of each of the professions I’ve witnessed since I came to the monastery and of my own day of profession,” said Br. Mark. “It’s a great opportunity to see growth and life in the monastery and the hope of a vibrant future.”

Saturday’s special Mass dedicated to Br. Robert’s profession started with a procession in which he entered the church in double-file formation with the monks of Newark Abbey. Br. Robert wore a black face mask and a plain black tunic, a thick leather belt circling his hips, while the monks who are priests dressed in vestments and senior monks donned their 73-pleated black cucullas. All wore masks, as well.

Honoring Br. Robert’s Mexican heritage, Science Department Chair Dennis Lansang opened the service with the hymn, “Rey de los Martires” (King of Martyrs), playing the organ and leading the singing. Due to the pandemic, only a select few family members, friends, St. Benedict’s Prep faculty and staff, and members of religious communities were permitted to attend the service in person, wearing masks and sitting six feet apart. The event was live streamed on YouTube for the larger St. Benedict’s community audience.

Br. Robert’s family nicknamed him “Little Monk” from the time he was little. His family watches as Br. Robert takes his vows. (From left) Neftali Islas, Elena Garcia, and Omar Islas, observe the ancient Benedictine ceremony. (Photo by Mike Scanlan)

As his parents, his father, Neftali Islas, his mother, Elena Garcia, and the youngest of his four siblings, his little brother, Omar, looked on, Br. Robert made his vows before God and the community and chanted the Latin hymn “Suscipe,” a newly professed monk’s traditional prayer for God’s help. 

The service included many allusions to the notion of  “a calling” by God to the faithful, including an Old Testament reading about the moment when the great Israelite prophet Samuel realized God’s call and a chapter from “The Rule of St. Benedict” that talks about the voice of the Lord calling His people.

Br. Robert, who was born in Mexico and lived there with his family until they moved to California, has said he believes he first heard God’s call when he was five. “My aunt, who is a nun in Italy, came to visit us,” Br. Robert said. “After meeting her and learning from her over a few days, I said, ‘I want to be a monjo.’ It’s not the correct word in Spanish but my aunt corrected me saying, ‘It’s ‘monje.’ And then my family started calling me ‘monjito,’ which means “little monk.” And that became my nickname.” 

He grew up thinking he wanted to be a monk but at some point realized it would be best to reach a decision after he had matured. Then, while attending a seminary in California as a teenager, he believes another call came from God. “I was in my second year,” he said. “I knew about monastic life and I started to research it.” He came across the Facebook page of Newark Abbey filled with posts written by Br. Asiel about life at the monastery. What had just been an idea, Br. Robert said, became a fervent wish. He came to Newark Abbey last year, first on a visit, then to stay. He has felt at home since.

Br. Robert came upon Newark Abbey when reading Facebook posts. (Photo by Mike Scanlan)

The significance of Br. Robert’s profession goes beyond its importance to the St. Benedict’s community, noted Br. Mark: “Seeing young monks enter the monastery is also a sign to the world that the life we’ve been called to as monks is really a witness to Christ the Lord, whose call we are choosing to respond to.”