Long quest culminates in monk's solemn vows


ST. MEINRAD, Ind. — Craig Wagner was driving along the winding country roads that lead to St. Meinrad monastery here in the summer of 2005 when he heard a quiet voice deep within him say, "Welcome home."

"I had no idea what that meant," he said. "It was my first visit, and I hadn't even stepped inside, but I knew I was home."

On Tuesday, more than five years later, he is no longer Craig Wagner but Brother Francis de Sales Wagner, a full and permanent member of the Benedictine community at St. Meinrad's Archabbey.

In a ritual that has been practiced for centuries, Brother Francis had his head tonsured, or shaved, for the occasion in the shape of a corona, a thin strip representing the biblical crown of victory.

He was questioned by Archabbot Justin DuVall before singing his vows in "the formula of profession" before the community of 100 monks.

Brother Francis then approached the altar and signed his hand-penned "vow chart," pledging lifelong obedience, stability to the monastery, and conversatio — a broad term in Latin that includes chastity and poverty.

About midway through the Mass in the stately neo-Romanesque church, Brother Francis underwent a "mystical burial" in which he was covered with a white and red pall used in monastic funerals while lying on the floor, church bells tolling, symbolizing the death of his former self.

When he rose to a kneeling position, Archabbot DuVall draped him in a cuculla, a long-sleeved, pleated, hooded black robe worn only by monks who have made their solemn vows.

The ancient ceremony, parts of which date to St. Benedict's sixth-century book The Rule, marked the final step in Brother Francis' nearly 10-year journey.

The former newspaper reporter and editor left behind his life as an independent bachelor and journalist, pledging to live without any possessions in the monastic community set amid the rolling hills and farmland of southern Indiana.

At the same time, his profession of solemn vows marked the beginning of a new chapter in the 45-year-old monk's life. "I feel very rich, not because of the things I have but because of the community I'm in and the type of life that I'm living," Brother Francis said. "I've never been happier."

Brother Francis, prostrate on the church floor, is covered with a white-and-red pall used in monastic funerals to symbolize the death of his former self as Craig Wagner.
Brother Francis, prostrate on the church floor, is covered with a white-and-red pall used in monastic funerals to symbolize the death of his former self as Craig Wagner.

A transformation

Ten years earlier, Brother Francis, his family, and his closest friends never would have guessed that the soft-spoken, deep-thinking newsman would begin a path toward monasticism. But a series of personal trials raised questions that his education, career, and material possessions could not answer.

In the fall of 2001, his father, Dick Wagner, a postal worker, was hospitalized after a severe alcoholic binge. A close friend and newspaper colleague was stricken with cancer and died a short time later. Terrorists leveled the World Trade Center.

Brother Francis had been raised Catholic, attended Catholic grade school in his hometown of Findlay, and as a young child dressed in a sheet tied with a rope, preached to his younger siblings.

But in high school and college, he drifted away from church and his career became his main focus. He graduated with honors from Bowling Green State University with a journalism degree in 1988.

"All he ever wanted to be was a journalist. He was always writing little stories, even as a kid," said Chris Wittenmeyer, 45, of Findlay, a friend since kindergarten. "He knew as a freshman [at Liberty-Benton High School] that he wanted to go into journalism."

Brother Francis worked at newspapers in Springfield, Bowling Green, and Galion, Ohio, where he was the managing editor, before taking a job at The Blade as a copy editor in the spring of 1999.

He bought a pickup truck and a house in Maumee and enjoyed hanging out with his faithful companion, a mixed-breed dog named Dixie.

"We thought he had it made," said Mark Williams, 45, of Findlay, another lifelong friend.

After Brother Francis' father died in 2003, however, he wondered where his father had gone in the afterlife. His job and his possessions suddenly seemed hollow.

"I was a miserable person," he said flatly.

He felt like he was on a treadmill to nowhere: Get up, go to work, come home, watch a ballgame on TV or go to a bar, drink a few beers, go to bed, wake up, do it all over again. What was the purpose? Where was he going in life?

A spiritual path

He began attending Mass, first once a week, eventually every day. He had a strong desire to read the Bible. He sought spiritual guidance from priests. He visited several seminaries, considering the priesthood before taking a counselor's advice to visit St. Meinrad's monastery in August, 2005.

It took him a year after that first visit to make arrangements to return to St. Meinrad as a candidate for the monastery in 2006.

In January, 2007, he took the next step and became a novice. For a year, he lived with the monks, wearing a robe and doing mostly menial tasks such as scrubbing floors and taking out the trash, while also participating in the community's daily prayers — vigils and lauds at 5:30 a.m., Mass at 7:30, prayer at noon, vespers at 5 p.m., and compline at 7.

He set aside his financial investments and made one of his most difficult decisions, finding a new owner for his beloved dog, who was 13 at the time.

Soon after arriving at the monastery, wondering if he had made a terrible mistake, he saw a seminary professor walking her dog on the monastery grounds. He told her how much he missed his pet, and she offered to let him walk hers or come visit any time. Brother Francis and the dog, Cinnamon, soon became good friends.

A year later, after a vote by the monks to accept him, he professed his temporary vows and adopted the name of the patron saint of journalists and writers.

Newly professed monk Brother Francis de Sales Wagner is embraced by Archabbot Justin DuVall.
Newly professed monk Brother Francis de Sales Wagner is embraced by Archabbot Justin DuVall.

A struggle at times

Over the last three years, while living and working as a monk, Brother Francis said, he has continuously sought to know whether God was calling him to become a full and permanent member of the Benedictine community.

There are 7,508 Benedictine monks in the world, of whom 4,115 are also priests, according to Matthew Bunson, editor of The Catholic Almanac. The number of "men religious" in the U.S. Catholic Church, which includes priests and brothers in orders such as Jesuits, Franciscans, and Salesians, as well as Benedictines, has dropped from about 21,000 in 2000 to 18,000 today.

At St. Meinrad, Brother Francis has been able to use his 18 years in journalism at the monks' publishing house, Abbey Press, where he is a writer and editor. He also is studying for a master's degree at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.

"There is discernment every step of the way," Brother Francis said. "There are times when you need to step back and consider who you are and how you've grown and how you've changed. I think that is part of the process for any Christian, no matter what state of life you're in.

"In the last three years, there is so much going on here day to day you just sort of get a feel for, overall, whether this is something you can imagine doing the rest of your life — what it feels like, what the struggles have been, what you've learned, how you've grown, how your prayer life has changed, what you think of your life, and whether you can live the vows the rest of your life."

He said professing his solemn vows "doesn't mean that they become easy, even with God's grace. Chastity is one of those things. I think it's something that has to be constantly nurtured by prayer and the common life that we live and the values that we live by. But we're all human beings. It can be a struggle sometimes. For any person, no matter who they are, even if they are married, there is always loneliness involved in the human condition. There is that unfulfilled longing that you have for someone to share your life intimately with. Basically, we're vowing to live with that longing and for the final consummation that will be in the hereafter."

‘An ongoing process'

He compared the monks' solemn vows to a couple's wedding vows. "It's an ongoing process. When you stand up at the altar with a spouse, you don't know where you're going or what is going to happen at that point, but you're saying that you're committing your life to that person."

There have been times when he questioned whether he should stay on the path.

"I think that's a natural part of the process. I would even say that if you have absolutely no doubts, then your faith may not be as strong as it should be. As paradoxical as that sounds, you do have to question things to become stronger in your faith. … There's the saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. I think it is good for every monk, every day, and at least at regular intervals to basically ask the same question: ‘Why am I here?'?"

Archabbot DuVall, a Toledo native, said he believes Brother Francis has been a good fit for St. Meinrad for a number of reasons.

"He's been able to put to work his journalism skills at Abbey Press and also some creative things," he said. "He also has been a man of prayer. It's very important to him. Our daily prayer in church as well as our practice of lectio divina — that time during the day we spend reading the Scriptures — are important parts of his formation and growth, making him a solid citizen for the monastery. Our motto of ‘prayer and work' seems to have been well taken by Brother Francis."

Brother Francis' mother, Judy Wagner, left, his brother Kevin Wagner, his cousin Tim Hahn (to the right of Kevin Wagner and in the row behind), his brother-in law Ty Snodgrass, and his sister Shannon Snodgrass witness the ceremony at St. Meinrad's.
Brother Francis' mother, Judy Wagner, left, his brother Kevin Wagner, his cousin Tim Hahn (to the right of Kevin Wagner and in the row behind), his brother-in law Ty Snodgrass, and his sister Shannon Snodgrass witness the ceremony at St. Meinrad's.

Family and friends

When Brother Francis broke the news to family and friends that he was thinking of becoming a monk, they had a lot of questions.

"I'm a convert Catholic and there are some things I didn't understand very well," said his mother, Judy Wagner of Findlay. "I thought being a monk was very cloistered. I was afraid he'd go into the monastery and we'd never see him again."

Mr. Wittenmeyer and Mr. Williams said that when their pal said he might join a monastery, they were stunned.

"We had him repeat it a couple of times," Mr. Wittenmeyer said. "We talked to him quite a bit, trying to understand," Mr. Williams said.

"Over time, we not only listened to him but we began to support him," Mr. Wittenmeyer said.

When Brother Francis' mother, his brother Kevin Wagner, 41, of Cincinnati, and his sister Shannon Snodgrass, 37, of Williamstown, W.Va., first visited St. Meinrad, some of the monks met with them and patiently answered all their questions. Many of their fears were dispelled, they said.

They learned the monks of St. Meinrad are not as isolated from the world as some religious orders. Family members and friends were free to visit Brother Francis, and he could visit them from time to time. Some, depending on their jobs, have cell phones, but Brother Francis does not have one at the moment. Family and friends can call him at Abbey Press, exchange e-mails, and read his blog, yokeofchrist.blogspot.com.

Kevin Wagner said he has witnessed a dramatic transformation in his brother since he moved to St. Meinrad.

"When I used to read the stuff he wrote, he always seemed to be angry and cynical in his writing. Now you can tell through his writing that he's much happier," he said.

Said his mother, Judy, "He seems really at peace."

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.