POPE BENEDICT THE XVI ON SAINT BENEDICT (July 11), Patron of Europe.
Saint Benedict, Abbot,
Patron of Europe
Saint Benedict, Abbot,
Patron of Europe
[This is] the feast of Saint Benedict, Patron of Europe, a saint and abbot particularly dear to me as you can guess from my choice of his name. Born in Norcia around 480, Benedict completed his first studies in Rome but, disappointed with city life, withdrew to Subiaco, where for about three years he lived in a grotto—the famous “Sacro Speco”—and dedicated himself entirely to God. Making use of the ruins of a cyclopean villa of the Emperor Nero at Subiaco, he built several monasteries together with his first followers. Thus, he brought into being a fraternal community founded on the primacy of love for Christ, in which prayer and work alternated harmoniously in praise of God. Some years later, he perfected the form of this project at Monte Cassino and wrote it down in the Rule, his only work that has come down to us. Seeking first of all the Kingdom of God, Benedict, perhaps unknowingly, scattered on the ashes of the Roman Empire the seed of a new civilization that would develop through an integration of Christian values with the classical heritage, on the one hand and, on the other, the Germanic and Slav cultures.
Today, I would like to emphasize one typical aspect of his spirituality. Benedict, unlike other great monastic missionaries of his time, did not found a monastic institution whose principal aim was the evangelization of the barbarian peoples; he pointed out to his followers the search for God as the fundamental and, indeed, one and only aim of life: “Quaerere Deum” [to seek God]. He knew, however, that when the believer enters into a profound relationship with God, he cannot be content with a mediocre life under the banner of a minimalistic ethic and a superficial religiosity. In this light one can understand better the expression that Benedict borrowed from Saint Cyprian and that in his Rule (IV, 21) sums up the monks’ program of life: “Nihil amori Christi praeponere”, “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” Holiness consists of this, a sound proposal for every Christian that has become a real and urgent pastoral need in our time, when we feel the need to anchor life and history to sound spiritual references.
Mary Most Holy is a sublime and perfect model of holiness who lived in constant and profound communion with Christ. Let us invoke her intercession, together with Saint Benedict’s, so that in our time too the Lord will multiply men and women who, through witnessing to an enlightened faith in their lives, may be the salt of the earth and the light of the world in this new millennium.
(10 July 2005)
Benedict, the Founder of Western Monasticism and also the Patron of my Pontificate. I begin with words that Saint Gregory the Great wrote about Saint Benedict: “The man of God who shone on this earth among so many miracles was just as brilliant in the eloquent exposition of his teaching” (cf. II Dialogues 36). The great Pope wrote these words in 592 A.D. The holy monk, who had died barely fifty years earlier, lived on in people’s memories and especially in the flourishing religious Order he had founded. Saint Benedict of Norcia, with his life and his work, had a fundamental influence on the development of European civilization and culture. The most important source on Benedict’s life is the second book of Saint Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. It is not a biography in the classical sense. In accordance with the ideas of his time, by giving the example of a real man—Saint Benedict, in this case—Gregory wished to illustrate the ascent to the peak of contemplation which can be achieved by those who abandon themselves to God. He therefore gives us a model for human life in the climb toward the summit of perfection. Saint Gregory the Great also tells in this book of the Dialogues of many miracles worked by the Saint, and here too he does not wish merely to recount something curious but rather to show how God, by admonishing, helping, and even punishing, intervenes in the practical situations of man’s life. Gregory’s aim was to demonstrate that God is not a distant hypothesis placed at the origin of the world but is present in the life of man, of every man.
This perspective of the “biographer” is also explained in light of the general context of his time: straddling the fifth and sixth centuries, “the world was overturned by a tremendous crisis of values and institutions caused by the collapse of the Roman Empire, the invasion of new peoples, and the decay of morals.” But in this terrible situation, here, in this very city of Rome, Gregory presented Saint Benedict as a “luminous star” in order to point the way out of the “black night of history” (cf. John Paul II, 18 May 1979). In fact, the Saint’s work and particularly his Rule were to prove heralds of an authentic spiritual leaven which, in the course of the centuries, far beyond the boundaries of his country and time, changed the face of Europe following the fall of the political unity created by the Roman Empire, inspiring a new spiritual and cultural unity, that of the Christian faith shared by the peoples of the Continent. This is how the reality we call “Europe” came into being.
Saint Benedict was born around the year 480. As Saint Gregory said, he came “ex provincia Nursiae”—from the province of Norcia. His well-to-do parents sent him to study in Rome. However, he did not stay long in the Eternal City. As a fully plausible explanation, Gregory mentions that the young Benedict was put off by the dissolute life-style of many of his fellow students and did not wish to make the same mistakes. He wanted only to please God: “soli Deo placere desiderans” (II Dialogues, Prol. 1). Thus, even before he finished his studies, Benedict left Rome and withdrew to the solitude of the mountains east of Rome. After a short stay in the village of Enfide (today, Affile), where for a time he lived with a “religious community” of monks, he became a hermit in the neighboring locality of Subiaco. He lived there completely alone for three years in a cave which has been the heart of a Benedictine Monastery called the “Sacro Speco” (Holy Grotto) since the early Middle Ages. The period in Subiaco, a time of solitude with God, was a time of maturation for Benedict. It was here that he bore and overcame the three fundamental temptations of every human being: the temptation of self-affirmation and the desire to put oneself at the center, the temptation of sensuality, and, lastly, the temptation of anger and revenge. In fact, Benedict was convinced that only after overcoming these temptations would he be able to say a useful word to others about their own situations of neediness. Thus, having tranquilized his soul, he could be in full control of the drive of his ego and thus create peace around him. Only then did he decide to found his first monasteries in the Valley of the Anio, near Subiaco.
In the year 529, Benedict left Subiaco and settled in Monte Cassino. Some have explained this move as an escape from the intrigues of an envious local cleric. However, this attempt at an explanation hardly proved convincing since the latter’s sudden death did not induce Benedict to return (II Dialogues 8). In fact, this decision was called for because he had entered a new phase of inner maturity and monastic experience. According to Gregory the Great, Benedict’s exodus from the remote Valley of the Anio to Monte Cassino—a plateau dominating the vast surrounding plain which can be seen from afar—has a symbolic character: a hidden monastic life has its own raison d’être, but a monastery also has its public purpose in the life of the Church and of society, and it must give visibility to the faith as a force of life. Indeed, when Benedict’s earthly life ended on 21 March 547, he bequeathed with his Rule and the Benedictine family he founded a heritage that bore fruit in the passing centuries and is still bearing fruit throughout the world.
Throughout the second book of his Dialogues, Gregory shows us how Saint Benedict’s life was steeped in an atmosphere of prayer, the foundation of his existence. Without prayer there is no experience of God. Yet Benedict’s spirituality was not an interiority removed from reality. In the anxiety and confusion of his day, he lived under God’s gaze and in this very way never lost sight of the duties of daily life and of man with his practical needs. Seeing God, he understood the reality of man and his mission. In his Rule he describes monastic life as “a school for the service of the Lord” (Prol. 45) and advises his monks, “let nothing be preferred to the Work of God” [that is, the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours] (43, 3). However, Benedict states that in the first place prayer is an act of listening (Prol. 9-11), which must then be expressed in action. “The Lord is waiting every day for us to respond to his holy admonitions by our deeds” (Prol. 35). Thus, the monk’s life becomes a fruitful symbiosis between action and contemplation, “so that God may be glorified in all things” (57, 9). In contrast with a facile and egocentric self-fulfillment, today often exalted, the first and indispensable commitment of a disciple of Saint Benedict is the sincere search for God (58, 7) on the path mapped out by the humble and obedient Christ (5, 13), whose love he must put before all else (4, 21; 72, 11), and in this way, in the service of the other, he becomes a man of service and peace. In the exercise of obedience practiced by faith inspired by love (5, 2), the monk achieves humility (5, 1), to which the Rule dedicates an entire chapter (7). In this way, man conforms ever more to Christ and attains true self-fulfillment as a creature in the image and likeness of God.
The obedience of the disciple must correspond with the wisdom of the Abbot, who, in the monastery, “is believed to hold the place of Christ” (2, 2; 63, 13). The figure of the Abbot, which is described above all in Chapter 2 of the Rule with a profile of spiritual beauty and demanding commitment, can be considered a self-portrait of Benedict, since, as Saint Gregory the Great wrote, “the holy man could not teach otherwise than as he himself lived” (cf. II Dialogues 36). The Abbot must be at the same time a tender father and a strict teacher (cf. 2, 24), a true educator. Inflexible against vices, he is nevertheless called above all to imitate the tenderness of the Good Shepherd (27, 8), to “serve rather than to rule” (64, 8) in order “to show them all what is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words” and “illustrate the divine precepts by his example” (2, 12). To be able to decide responsibly, the Abbot must also be a person who listens to “the brethren’s views” (3, 2), because “the Lord often reveals to the youngest what is best” (3, 3). This provision makes a Rule written almost fifteen centuries ago surprisingly modern! A man with public responsibility even in small circles must always be a man who can listen and learn from what he hears.
Benedict describes the Rule he wrote as “minimal, just an initial outline” (cf. 73, 8); in fact, however, he offers useful guidelines not only for monks but for all who seek guidance on their journey toward God. For its moderation, humanity, and sober discernment between the essential and the secondary in the spiritual life, his Rule has retained its illuminating power even to today. By proclaiming Saint Benedict Patron of Europe on 24 October 1964, Paul VI intended to recognize the marvelous work the Saint achieved with his Rule for the formation of the civilization and culture of Europe. Having recently emerged from a century that was deeply wounded by two World Wars and the collapse of the great ideologies, now revealed as tragic utopias, Europe today is in search of its own identity. Of course, in order to create new and lasting unity, political, economic, and juridical instruments are important, but it is also necessary to awaken an ethical and spiritual renewal which draws on the Christian roots of the Continent; otherwise a new Europe cannot be built. Without this vital sap, man is exposed to the danger of succumbing to the ancient temptation of seeking to redeem himself by himself—a utopia which in different ways, in twentieth-century Europe, as Pope John Paul II pointed out, has caused “a regression without precedent in the tormented history of humanity” (Address to the Pontifical Council for Culture, 12 January 1990). Today, in seeking true progress, let us also listen to the Rule of Saint Benedict as a guiding light on our journey. The great monk is still a true master at whose school we can learn to become proficient in true humanism.
(9 April 2008)
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