Keeping new Sky View readers up to speed on previous posts. The following piece is revised and was originally posted in July of 2011:
“Like a star in the darkness of night, Benedict of Nursia brilliantly shines, a glory not only to Italy but of the whole Church.”
-Pope Pius XII, Fulgens Radiatur (On St. Benedict)
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 (480–547 A.D.) 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's 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 and sixth centuries can be revived and brought to bear upon the trying circumstances which challenges America today. "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 Catholics abroad, always needing an infusion of Christ's eternal youth, also benefited from St. Benedict's sanctity and teachings during the fifth and sixth centuries. Because the Roman empire had collapsed a century prior, the task fell upon the Church to pick up the pieces and start over. As indicated, it was due in no small part to St. Benedict that an even better civilization would be built up from these ruins.
Whenever the Church is challenged with great difficulties, the Lord supplies holy leaders to navigate through the fog of uncertainty. Pope Pius XII said as much in his encyclical: "[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."
The good news is that what was, still is. What was effective for individual holiness in the fifth and sixth centuries- 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 about America.
From the depths of St. Benedict's solitude, meditation and prayer came forth 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 policy making or political programs, 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. In prayer, hope, strength, and new ideas are born. What is more, the dead end roads of worldly pleasures are seen for what they are and the sacrifices which the love of God and neighbor requires of us shows forth a value once overlooked.
Although the dark clouds had gathered in the fifth and sixth centuries 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 kicked up from the collapse of the Empire had just begun to settle when St. Benedict forged this a new life for the people in Italy.
His followers developed new agricultural methods, a cash economy, a just legal system, universal education and representative government. Indeed, the twelve monasteries that he founded also inspired principles of democracy in which the monks were consulted before a rule or decree was enjoined. Also, we cannot forget the institutions of that served the lowly and unlearned such as hospitals, orphanages and schools. All of these Christian enterprises had emerged from the ruins of Rome.
Pius XII also reminds us of decay which besets every human institution: “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 Pope Pius XII followed up by asking 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?” Without missing a heartbeat, the Holy Father provided an answer that many today would expect or agree with. The answer? He said, “It came from the Catholic Church.”
The only institution (or nation, as St. Peter would have it) gifted with immortality is the Catholic Church. 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 and his Church, they can at least hope for a lengthy existence.
The pope went on to say that, “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 continued, 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. And he did so with the same spiritual means that are available today.