To a delegation of U.S. bishops from the Eastern Catholic churches, Pope Benedict XVI once said that there is an urgent need to for a renewal of female religious life. As the Catholic News Agency reported, the pope spoke to the effects a holy and vibrant religious life will have on society. “With the progressive weakening of traditional Christian values, and the threat of a season in which our fidelity to the Gospel may cost us dearly,” he warned, “the truth of Christ needs not only to be understood, articulated and defended, but to be proposed joyfully and confidently as the key to authentic human fulfillment and to the welfare of society as a whole.”
Of course, the Holy Father was right to say that a progressive weakening of traditional Christian values will cost us dearly. Few make the connection that the “cost” is the loss of freedom and lower standards of living. In fact, socialism, a cheap imitation of the religious life and monasticism, seeks to fill the void. After all, it pretends to be a brotherhood of man; something which unites people under the auspice of the State. You may have heard the communist cry: “Workers unite!” Again, when monasticism diminishes like it has, the secularized ideology of “brotherhood and community of goods” fills that vacuum.
Traditionally, religious life was where the love of poverty, brotherhood, manual labor, ongoing prayer and adoration was to be found. It was these virtues and practices that were originally cultivated by monks and friars in the West. But when these monastic communities decreased in number, society ceased to esteem these virtues. Today, they are even shunned. In America, for instance, manual labor has taken on a kind of stigma. Instead of seeing work as that which sanctifies the soul, it is often associated the uneducated class. When Americans are reluctant to get their hands dirty, immigrants move in and take on the “dirty jobs” with greater enthusiasm.
Encyclical: On St. Francis of Assisi:
When Pope Leo XIII wrote about St. Francis of Assisi, he maintained that his example and sanctity was and still is the answer to materialism and socialism. He said, “[N]othing is more efficacious to extinguish utterly every vice…whether violence, injuries, desire for revolution, hatred among the different ranks of society, in all which vices the beginnings and the weapons of socialism are found.” In the days of St. Francis, there were heresies very much akin to socialism and communism. “[T]he manifold errors of the Albigenses, by stirring up the masses against the power of the Church, had disturbed society and paved the way to a certain kind of Socialism.” Then he added that religious orders returning to their “pristine state” would also roll back materialism and class warfare:
“[N]o small alleviation is to be found in the institutes of St. Francis, if only they are brought back to their pristine state; for if they only were in a flourishing condition, faith and piety, and every Christian virtue would easily flourish; the lawless desire for perishing things would be broken; nor would men refuse to have their desires ruled by virtue, though that seems to many to be a most hateful burden. Men bound together by the bonds of true fraternal concord would mutually love each other, and would give that reverence which is becoming to the poor and distressed, as bearing the image of Christ.”
We may be tempted to think that it is an exaggeration to say that the monasticism or the religious life has that profound of an effect on society. But historically, it did. It can be likened to sports. Each sport has its professional class, if you will. For football, it is the NFL; for baseball, it is the MLB; and for basketball, it is the NBA. Professional athletes do not play their respective sports occasionally or for recreational purposes. They play the game as a full time occupation. For them, football, baseball and basketball are not just a game- it is a way of life. As such, they set standards of excellence for younger players. Take away professional sports, you likewise takeaway the high standards of the game. Soon thereafter, younger players will cease to know what an ideal football, baseball or basketball player looks like. This same principle applies to the spiritual world.
The religious life are made up of those “professional” Christians who pray, fast, read Scripture, sing hymns, work, and serve the needy on a full time basis. Not only does their constant intercession pacify the justice of God and ward off evil spirits who seek to prey on souls, but from this microcosm of intense religious activity comes forth examples of sanctity, spiritual exercises and profound insights for others to emulate. Indeed, there is considerable creativity that flows from monasteries. They were the tabernacles of society.
On the other hand, Catholic business men and women are not in much of a position to inspire love of poverty. After all, they work, generally speaking, to provide for their families. No doubt, this is a moral obligation. From this obligation there develops a legitimate pursuit to increase wealth, to buy a bigger house and to drive a better car. As such, the incentive to embrace poverty, let alone love it, does not flourish as much under these conditions. Nevertheless, as followers of Christ we are called, at the very least, to be detached from riches and earthly goods. It is only by a careless abandon of material concerns that we can truly value material things at their worth. Oreste Brownson, a Catholic convert in the 19th century, said that the key to happiness is not to increase your belongings, but to decrease your wants. This is something that the religious life is great at doing. It also happens to be one of the greatest ironies of Christian joy.
Monasticism, more than any other way of life on earth, inspires a love of poverty. But with fewer religious brothers and sisters showing the way, people are more apt to place the highest value on material things and on the economy. However, the Church has long taught that to covet material things divides and inspires envy among the classes; whereas the whole way of religious life, quite the contrary, binds souls together and inspires a generosity unknown to people outside of the Christian world.
Unfortunately, Western Civilization grew tired of Christianity during the 19th and 20th centuries. As a result, the spirit of charity grew cold even among Christians. Now the State does what the Church used to do. To be sure, politicians have exploited the lack of charity by appealing to religious themes.
The Catholic Church, it seems to me, needs to capitalize on the historic and social implications of monasticism. It is not just a calling that benefits the one who is called or the religious order he or she is called to, it has a profound effect on society. This effect needs to be explained to Catholics from the pulpit, in the classroom and elsewhere. It just may be a selling point with certain souls who are discerning a vocation.
There are two holy enterprises that led to the creation of Christian civilization: The preaching of the Gospel by bishops and the monastic movement. The former planted seeds of life, the latter fosters the grow. St. Francis of Assisi was a soul that the Lord raised up to prune and to foster growth within the Church. Pope Innocent III had a vision “wherein it seemed to him that St. Francis was supporting on his shoulders the falling walls of the Lateran Basilica.” (The Lateran Basilica was the papal church at the time) Unbeknownst to many Catholics of his day, this roughly clad beggar was pretty important to the Church; to say the least.
St. Francis made poverty honorable again even though the medieval culture in which he lived was refined and delicate. As Pope Leo XIII said, “[A]midst the effeminacy and over-fastidiousness of the time, he [St. Francis] is seen to go about careless and roughly clad, begging his food from door to door, not only enduring what is generally deemed most hard to bear, the senseless ridicule of the crowd, but even to welcome it with a wondrous readiness and pleasure. And this because he had embraced the folly of the cross of Jesus Christ, and because he deemed it the highest wisdom. Having penetrated and understood its awful mysteries, he plainly saw that nowhere else could his glory be better placed.”
St. Francis of Assisi is an icon and model of that great tradition of monasticism; a font of spiritual renewal and cultural creativity. This roughly clad man from Assisi represented men and women who voluntary embraced poverty for the sake of the kingdom throughout the ages. But when fewer souls responded to this high calling, socialism and communism filled the void by preaching a secular unity of mankind. But this unity can only be brought about through an autocratic State and involuntary acceptance of poverty which it will undoubtedly impose.