Papal names are a mystery. There is, it seems, some discussion of names among the cardinals even before they choose a pope. And so there must be: the new pope must immediately choose a name that will identify him to posterity. Hard to imagine. Benedict XVI, our present pope, has been a bit obscure about his own choice. He usually speaks of Benedict XV (1914-22), the most obscure pope of the twentieth century. It has been suggested that this comparison is meant to reference the predecessors: Pope St. Pius X (1902-14) was enormously popular with the faithful and quickly canonized; Benedict XV remains veiled in obscurity. So too, perhaps, John Paul II and Benedict XVI? That is the main explanation Benedict himself gives.
But there is no doubt he is also referring to St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543), whose Rule for Monks codified Eastern monasticism for the West and gained him the titles Patron of Western Monasticism and Patron of Europe. Before he was pope, Benedict XVI often spoke of the great abbot as one of his models for Christian renewal. Indeed, as we shall see below, St. Benedict might be the key to Benedict XVI’s evocation of the obscure Benedict XV.
The standard explanation of Ratzinger’s love of St. Benedict talks about small intense communities. The stereotype (which Pope Benedict has directly rejected) notes that John Paul II spoke of a “new springtime” and claims that this meant a rapid expansion of numbers and Christians overtaking society. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger, by contrast, is said to have preferred diminished numbers, a sort of separating of the wheat and the chaff, so that what Catholics remained would be really solid in their faith, and all the dross would be cast aside. (This view is often favored, I might cynically add, by those who think they alone are the true Christians. Theirs is often a Christianity without mercy, conversion, or redemption, a gnosticism in which the traditionalist elect consider themselves already perfect. But don’t let me tip my hand too much!)
In any case, the stereotype doesn’t fit the data. Benedict XVI has himself embraced the language of a “new springtime,” perhaps to undermine this opposition, and has been quite shy about affirming his vision of a smaller, more radical church, when asked. He has taken remarkably little disciplinary action, and has chosen to portray Christianity in terms of charity and hope, a message at least as welcoming as his predecessor’s. Indeed, as I have argued previously, the toughness of Cardinal Ratzinger may belong more to John Paul than to the man who is now pope.
So let’s rethink the Benedictine strategy. By way of contrast, consider the strategy of the Jesuits. The greatest Jesuit apostle is supposed to be the companion of St. Ignatius (1491-1556) St. Francis Xavier (1506-52). Xavier travelled unaccompanied throughout
Until you consider the fruit. The missions to these countries are, without question, the least successful in Christian history.
The Jesuits pursued a similar strategy to the American Indians.
The Jesuits went to
Finally, the Jesuits went out to
And indeed, during the four hundred years while the Jesuits dominated the Church, roughly 1550-1950,
Compare the Benedictines. The Benedictines were the primary evangelizers of
Under the Benedictines, Christianity took root in
To understand the difference, it’s important, I think, to understand the parallels between the Benedictine monastery and the feudal culture of the time. From our perspective we might think that what distinguishes the Benedictine monastery is its seclusion. The Benedictine strategy, we might think, is to wall off the outside world, to head for the hills and seclude ourselves from the pagan culture.
But this is precisely what the Benedictines did not do. The Benedictine monastery was based on control of land, to be sure — but so was the culture of the time. Like every other feudal lord, they had their own place, their own serfs, and their own land that they farmed. That is not what distinguished the Benedictines from the culture around them.
What distinguished them was, first, religion: they prayed. They brought the culture of their time into contact with the eternal. From this flowed other key differences. The Benedictines loved one another, living peacefully instead of warring with their neighbors. They welcomed strangers, making hospitality their chief form of evangelization. And they embraced the intellectual life, keeping alive the Roman classics and the great achievements of culture and philosophy in an age that did not care. All these things made them a city on a hill, a light to the nations.
They did not so much challenge the culture around them so much as transform it from within. They did not separate themselves, but entered in — like leaven. The building of monasteries in pagan lands is a perfect symbol of this. They showed that the life their neighbors lived could be lived in greater dignity by being seasoned with divine love.
This also explains the successors of the Benedictines, the mendicant Franciscans and Dominicans. The early mendicants considered themselves monks and contemplatives, but the culture of their time was no longer so closely rooted to a place, so the mendicants went to the cities, and travelled throughout
The failure of the Jesuits, I propose, was in failing to integrate. The Jesuits were the first movement to be exclusively priests, rather than predominantly lay brothers. They were the first to have no sisters. They were the first to go as active individuals, rather than living in contemplative communities. They were the first to put their priority in commanding the culture. The Benedictines commanded the culture simply by being the best. They led, as it were, by default: not because they took anything over, but because they were excellent. The Jesuits set themselves up to control and to demand followers. By being predominantly active rather than contemplative, they put the cart before the horse, trying to preach and lead before they showed how to follow and live. They set themselves up as heroes rather than models.
This, I propose, is the key to the Benedictine strategy. Today, the Benedictine strategy does not mean heading for the hills and abandoning the culture. Rather, it means embedding ourselves within the culture, being contemplatives in the middle of the world, doing what the world does in a more excellent, more beautiful way. The world around us is no more pagan than the Germany of St. Boniface. Different, to be sure, since it is post-Christian rather than pre-. But let us not underestimate the challenges of a pre-Christian culture. It was enough to defeat the Jesuits at every turn.
And that, I propose, is why Pope Benedict began with encyclicals on charity and hope. Our goal is not to take control of the world, but to season it with Christian hope and love, to live in the middle of the world as ones who hope for a lasting city. We are not to shout at the world and demand our rights, but to show the world the only true goodness. Perhaps that is also why Benedict XVI compares himself to the silent, obscure Pope Benedict XV. This quiet man, welcoming the wounded, speaking gently of peace and truth, embedding himself in prayer—here is a model of the Benedictine strategy.
Perhaps that is also why Benedict XVI compares himself to the silent, obscure Pope Benedict XV. This quiet man, welcoming the wounded, speaking gently of peace and truth, embedding himself in prayer—here is a model of the Benedictine strategy.