Back in their prepodcasting days, Father Peter Funk and his Benedictine brothers at Monastery of the Holy Cross knew exactly to whom they were chanting. Between two and five devotees turn up each day for mass and the seven prayer services they offer at their Bridgeport cloister; the Sunday mass draws up to 30. At a recent Thursday night Compline service, I was the only nonmonk in attendance. But they've found a wider audience since taking their service online last December. Father Funk hasn't checked listener statistics in a while, but he enthuses about the numbers anyway: "The last number I know was from the first week and that was seven. It's probably a lot more. We have listeners in England and Ontario--those are the people that have written. And in both cases, actually, those are Anglican priests."
Funk, who joined the monastery a decade ago, previously worked as a choir director at University of Chicago and played guitar and keyboards and sang in a local band called Om Shanti Collective. Now he's the prior and chant master of the tiny contemplative community of 12. Last year he decided to offer audio of their chanting at the monastery's Web site, chicagomonk.org, and at the suggestion of their volunteer IT guy eventually settled on downloadable files. "At one point we had done streaming audio with the prayer and we ran into problems. It was too expensive, and also with the emergence of laptops and iPods, people don't want to be stuck to their computers, they want to take things with them and listen to music," he says. "Actually, I'm not sure where people listen to podcasts; I don't have an iPod myself."
The chanting downloads soon gave way to a weekly program of homilies and prayer recorded during regular services. "People seem to find the monastic style of preaching quite different from what they hear in their parishes. What we hear is that the homilies are based more on the scripture of the day rather than anecdotes from television; they're more scholarly," Funk says. "We have a fairly self-selecting group here. Since we don't run a parish, people who come on Sunday are looking for this type of liturgy."
Though the order is devoted to prayer, it also works to support itself. After moving to the city from rural Minnesota at the invitation of Joseph Cardinal Bernadin in 1991, the monks of the Holy Cross first earned money serving hospitals and religious communities, and then by digitizing card catalogs and textbooks. Today they operate a bed and breakfast and sell and distribute caskets built by the Saint Meinrad Archabbey, a Benedictine brotherhood in southern Indiana.
While a gulf divides the brothers from the rest of the world, they consider the podcast to be in line with their monastic tradition. "Monks have tended to be at the forefront of technology--but that kind of ceased being the case in the 16th or 17th century," Funk says. "In the middle ages, monasteries were places where learning took place, copying manuscripts--Christian and classical books. In terms of architecture and agriculture, monks have been highly experimental and forward-looking. So even though we dress in a funny way and sing chant that's 1,200 years old, we're not deliberately antimodern. That is just the discipline of living in a tradition.
"I don't know other monks that podcast," he admits, "but I do know other monks that blog."