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Oceanside's Prince Of Peace Abbey Spiritual Leader To Step Down

Father Charles Wright, Abbot of the Prince of Peace Abbey, Oceanside. May 5 2015
Richard Klein
Father Charles Wright, Abbot of the Prince of Peace Abbey, Oceanside. May 5 2015
Oceanside's Prince Of Peace Abbey Spiritual Leader To Step Down
Oceanside's Prince Of Peace Abbey Spiritual Leader To Step Down
The Rev. Charles Wright, head of the Prince of Peace Abbey for the past two decades, will resign this summer on his 80th birthday.

The Rev. Charles Wright, head of the Prince of Peace Abbey for the past two decades, smiles as he rings the bell hanging outside the door of a small, cluttered workshop. It's tucked away in the back of the Benedictine monastery that sits in the hills above Oceanside.

“The rock shop,” he says as he enters.

Wright has not had much time in the past few decades to pursue his hobby, but his enthusiasm is still plain to see.

“This is petrified wood," he said, holding up a piece of amber agate to catch the sunlight. "Can you see the grain in that?"

He used to love making things with stones, agates and fossils, and several of his petrified wood tabletops can be found around the abbey. Wright hopes to find more time to be creative again with his hands after he resigns as abbot this summer — on his 80th birthday.

Taking the vows

The man known as "Father Charles" at the Prince of Peace Abbey took his vows there 51 years ago. He was elected abbot in 1994.

“I never asked for this job,” Wright said. “In fact, when I came to the monastery in 1961, I never expected to go on to the priesthood."

But as it turned out, the priesthood became his life.

“Because I tried so many things out. I worked in Los Angeles in the commercial field. I was in the Army for two years, and I was at San Diego State for four," he said. "I tried a lot of things out. So I said, 'I don’t think I’d be any happier any place else.' This is it."

Wright will stay in the monastery after he resigns. He'll take three months off, one of which will be spent in Rome.

"We get three months off every 50 years," he says, laughing.

What will it be like to live in the Prince of Peace Abbey with somebody else as the abbot?

“I don’t know,” Wright said, smiling mischievously. “You see, we’ve gone over 50 years with only one change of leadership, and that’s very uncommon.”

The first — and only — other abbot at Prince of Peace, the Rev. Claude Ehringer, was elected in 1983, though building the abbey began in the late 1950s.

Wright says the future is uncertain. It’s harder now to find men willing to commit themselves for life.

Benedictine monks take vows: Not of poverty, chastity and obedience, but of stability, fidelity and obedience.

“Right now, when you become a member of the community, you must come in for life after six months as a postulant, one year as a novice and three years in simple vows,” Wright said.

“Maybe if we relax that and say you can take vows for a limited period of time, three years or five years, then you can leave or you can stay if you want," he said. "That won’t be as threatening for people, because as you know, it's very difficult for people to make commitments now. Commitment in marriage, commitment in career, we’re just not committing ourselves any more. The future of most monasteries is dubious at present. The expansion took place in the '30, '40s '50 and '60s. They were expanding all over the place, especially in the United States, and now they are contracting.”

Retreat center thriving

The Retreat Center at Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside. May 5, 2015
Richard Klein
The Retreat Center at Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside. May 5, 2015

Commitment for life may be a challenge, but there are plenty of people who still sign up for a few days of peace. The Monastery is a sanctuary of quiet: all but the monks’ cloisters is open to the public.

The abbey’s 33 retreat rooms are booked for weekend retreats years in advance, and Wright said about 40 percent of those who choose to spend time on retreat here are not Catholics.

Serving those on retreat is one of his great pleasures.

“I guess we could say that our greatest need — that everyone has — is the need to give,” he said. “When people come up and we are able to give to them, they are offering us — they are giving us the opportunity of satisfying our greatest need.”

The liturgy

The big bell in the tower over the church rings for services, and the sound can be heard up and down the San Luis Rey Valley.

Even on a weekday morning, the pews are occupied with people who've taken time to come up the hill and hear the liturgy.

Stained glass window in the Prince of Peace Abbey, Oceanside, May 5, 2015
Richard Klein
Stained glass window in the Prince of Peace Abbey, Oceanside, May 5, 2015

Light filters through a stained glass window as the monks file in. Everyone joins in the singing of the ancient Gregorian chants.

The beauty and other-worldliness of the Gregorian chants was one of the things that first attracted Wright to the monastic life. He admits that he, like many people, had a romantic image of what it would be like.

“The things that attracted me to the monastery are not the things that are holding me to the monastery,” he said.

He was attracted by the simple life: the monastery still has an orchard, vineyard and beehives. Life is more complex these days, he said.

The future

Wright is thinking about the future, and the sustainability of the monastery.

On the hillside above the abbey, workmen are pouring concrete to erect solar panels that will power the whole monastery. One of the monks is designing a new drought tolerant garden for the central courtyard.

So what keeps Wright committed to the monastic life now?

“Struggling to keep the balance of work and prayer,” he said. And of course, his vows.

“I think Benedictine monasticism has a future,” he said. “But the future will be different. Because there will always be people who are drawn to the contemplative, no matter how active life is, no matter how active they are, they are always seeking some type of depth.”

Wright will resign as abbot on July 8.

According to Benedictine monastery procedures, the monks will hold an election for a new abbot in August.