On July 11 the Catholic Church commemorates the great life and legacy of St. Benedict. He was born around the year 480 in Umbria, Italy. He is a called father of Western Monasticism and co-patron of Europe (along with Saints Cyril and Methodius). Benedict was chosen as a Patron due to his extraordinary influence on establishing Christianity in Europe and thus securing the Christian foundations of European civilization.
As a young man, Benedict fled a decadent and declining Rome for further studies and deep prayer and reflection. He gave his life entirely to God as a son of the Catholic Church. He traveled to Subiaco; the cave which became his dwelling, the place where he communed deeply with God is now a shrine called “Sacro Speco” (The Holy Cave).
Subiaco is still a sanctuary for pilgrims, including Pope Benedict XVI. Right before his election to the Chair of Peter, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) traveled to the holy cave for a period of protracted prayer. I do not believe the visit was accidental. In fact, I have come to believe it was – and is – prophetic.
St. Benedict lived a life of prayer and solitude for three years and studied under a monk named Romanus. His holiness drew other men and women and soon, twelve small monasteries were founded. He later traveled to Monte Cassino, where he completed his “Rule for Monks.” From those Benedictine monasteries, an entire movement was birthed which led to the evangelization of Europe and the emergence of an authentically Christian culture.
This movement led to the birth and flourishing of the academy, the arts and the emergence of what later became known as Christendom. From its earliest appearance, the monastic movement was a lay movement. From the midst of the community men were chosen for ordination. In that sense, they bear similarities to the new “ecclesial movements” which this Pope supports and fosters. Perhaps they will be one of the resources the Holy Spirit uses for this new missionary age?
One of the greatest hopes of Pope Benedict XVI is for Europe to rediscover her Christian roots as it did at the time of St Benedict. It is suggested that this Pope carefully chose this name – to send a signal of how he perceives his mission as the successor of the Apostle Peter at the beginning of this Third Millennium of Christianity.
In 1981 moral philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre wrote the book “After Virtue” in which he opined on the decline of the West: “It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the Epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages.
“Nonetheless, certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman Imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the Imperium.
“What they set themselves to achieve instead- often not recognizing fully what they were doing- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If this account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point.
“What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.
“This time however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another-doubtless very different- St. Benedict.”
So, once again , we make make the parallel and pose the question: Is another Benedict is here to lead the recovery and reform of the Church and summon her into a new missionary age?
Blessed John Paul II gave an address in 1980, during the fifteenth centennial commemoration of the birth of St. Benedict, in which he affirmed the extraordinary contributions of the great father of western monasticism. He recalled St. Benedict’s age as a time when “the Church, civil society and Christian culture itself were in great danger.”
He noted of the saint that ” Through his sanctity and singular accomplishments, St. Benedict gave testimony of the perennial youth of the Church.. He and his followers drew the barbarians from paganism toward a civilized and truly enhanced way of life. The Benedictines guided them in building a peaceful, virtuous and productive society.”
The contemporary west has thrown off almost every remnant of Christian influence and embraced what amounts to a new paganism. What Pope Benedict XVI calls the “Dictatorship of Relativism” is the bad fruit of a rejection of the very existence of any objective truth. Given the current state of moral decline, we need to view the West as mission territory, ripe for the New Evangelization.
The Church is Christ’s plan for the entire world. The early Fathers called her the “world reconciled”, a term embraced by the Catechism of the Catholic Church which, citing St Augustine, declares “To reunite all his children, scattered and led astray by sin, the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son’s Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation.
“The Church is “the world reconciled.” She is that bark which “in the full sail of the Lord’s cross, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, navigates safely in this world.” According to another image dear to the Church Fathers, she is prefigured by Noah’s ark, which alone saves from the flood.” (CCC #845)
Pope Benedict XVI calls us to – to use a phrase from his homily given in February upon the ordination of five Archbishops – to be “fishers of men in the ocean of our time”. On April 11, 2008 he dedicated his General Audience to St. Benedict. He told 20,000 pilgrims who gathered in St Peters that Benedict’s work cause “a true spiritual ferment which over the course of the centuries – well beyond the confines of his homeland and his time – changed the face of Europe and created, with the collapse of political unity, a new spiritual and cultural unity, that of the Christian faith shared by the people of the continent.”
Clearly, Pope Benedict has as a part of his mission the Re-Christianizing of Europe and the West. He often notes what is obvious to any honest observer, many cultures formerly infused with a Christian culture are now “post-Christian” and need to be “re- evangelized.” In June of 2010 Pope Benedict XVI officially announced the establishment of a new Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization tasked with evangelizing countries where the Gospel was announced centuries ago, but where its presence in peoples’ daily life seems to be all but lost.
Benedict of Nursia and Pope Benedict of Rome Call the West to Reestablish its Christian Roots
Yes Gertrude, you are quite right to point out that the Holy Father’s choice of the name ‘Benedict’ was after deep meditation and for a vital reason: to tread in the great saint’s footsteps to restore Europe to its Christian roots. In spite of pockets of true Christianity and courageous ‘soldiers of Christ’ fighting for the Faith here in Europe, we are none the less living in a godless age of materialism, relativism and securalism.
St. Benedict, Pray for us.
History does repeat itself, look at the newest wave (either Catholic or non- Catholic approach) in The Benedict Option among families, beginning in Oklahoma. It is an interesting phenomenon, started under the guise of St. Benedict, living in a spiritual or moral community with like-minded families! Truly wonderful!