In 1947, seeing that Western Civilization was weighed down by a long and exhausting world war, Pope Pius XII penned a wonderful encyclical on St. Benedict.
Contained within this letter to the Church are shafts of light that have the potential, if we just lay hold of it, to illuminate the moral and spiritual darkness which envelopes our public institutions. Using St. Benedict as an example, he recounts what it means to forsake all for Christ only to "receive a hundred times more now in this present age." (Mark 10:30)
What was accomplished in the fifth century can be revived and brought to bear upon the trying circumstances which challenge America's future. "St. Benedict," as Pius XII reminds us, "reclaimed the uncultured tribes from their wild life to civic and Christian culture; directing them to the practice of virtue, industry and the peaceful arts and literature, he united them in the bonds of fraternal affection and charity." And the Church herself, always needing an infusion of Christ's eternal youth, can also benefit from St. Benedict's sanctity and teachings.
Pope Pius XII con: "[W]hen the fateful barque of Peter is tossed about more violently and when everything seems to be tottering with no hope of human support, it is then that Christ is present, bondsman, comforter, source of supernatural power, and raises up fresh champions to protect Catholicism, to restore it to its former vigor, and give it even greater increase under the inspiration and help of heavenly grace.
What was, still is! What was effective for individual holiness in the fifth century, what was effective in making the Church strong, and what was effective in creating a Christian civilization, is still a viable option for Christians today in restoring all that is good in America.
From the depths of St. Benedict's solitude, meditation, and prayer, came forth as the answer to the problem of wide spread immorality among the people and the decline of the once great Roman Empire. The answer was not to be found in Rome's public institutions, nor in any policy or political program. Rather, it was to be found in the quiet of God's presence. As Pope Pius XII said, “Hidden with Christ in God, he there strove for three years with great fruit to acquire the perfection and holiness of the Gospels to which he seemed to be called by divine instinct.” The pope went on to say that during these three years St. Benedict shunned all earthy things so as to seek heavenly things; talking to the Lord day and night and learning to hear his voice.
With his eyes fixed on Christ as his model, he practiced penitential acts of self-denial. “In this way of life,” Pius added, “he found such sweetness of soul that all the former delights he had experienced from his wealth and ease now appeared distasteful to him and in a way forgotten.” Indeed, the answers to life’s greatest problems are to be found in prayer and good works. From prayer, the virtue of hope is born. From the practice of mediation, the source of strength is to be found. From manual labor and acts of charity, the spirit of sacrifice is fostered. What is more, from the Rule of St. Benedict in particular and the monastic life in general the dead-end roads of worldly pleasures and vice are seen for what they are.
Although the dark clouds had gathered in the fifth century with the Roman Empire having just fallen, the early Christians were full of hope. It was from this Christian virtue of hope that the old Roman society of the pagans gave way to the new civilization of the Christian era. Indeed, the dust that was kicked up from the collapse of the Empire had just begun to settle when St. Benedict forged this new life for the people in Italy. His followers developed new agricultural methods, a new cash economy, and a way of governing which was modeled on the father's authority in the family (later to be copied by civil authorities). The twelve monasteries that he founded also inspired principles of democracy whereby the monks were consulted before a rule or decree was enjoined. Also, we cannot forget the institutions that served the needy and unlearned such as hospitals, orphanages and schools. All of these Christian enterprises had emerged from monasteries amid the ruins of Rome.
Pius XII reminds us, “The Empire like all earthly institutions had crumbled. Weakened and corrupt from within, it lay in mighty ruins in the West, shattered by the invasions of the northern tribes.” Then, as if by a prophetic utterance, Pope Pius XII asked a question many Americans are asking today: “In such a mighty storm and universal upheaval, from where did hope shine? Where did help and protection arise in order to save humanity and what was left of its treasures from shipwreck?”
The answer: “It came from the Catholic Church.” The only institution or “nation,” as St. Peter would have it, gifted with immortality is the Catholic Church. Without sounding too triumphal, Pius XII goes on to remind the world that nations or institutions that are man-made are destined to perish. As such, we cannot put too much hope in them. But for those nations and institutions that cling to Christ “in” his Church, they can at least hope for a lengthy existence.
The pope went on to say this:
“All earthly institutions begun and built solely on human wisdom and human power, in the course of time succeed one another, flourish and then quite naturally fail, weaken and crumble away; but the organization which Our Redeemer established has received from its divine Founder unfailing life and abiding strength from on high.” “Amid their ruins and failures,” he continues, the Church “is capable of molding a new and happier age and with Christian doctrine and spirit she can build and erect a new society of citizens, peoples and nations.”
St. Benedict did just that. He helped mold a new and happier age from what seemed to be the end of civilization. And he did so with the same spiritual means that are available today. “Like a star in the darkness of night, Benedict of Nursia brilliantly shines, a glory not only to Italy but of the whole Church.” No doubt, within the fullness of Christ's life, that same glory is the answer …the answer for America's challenges.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.