Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Homily for the Solemnity of St. Benedict

Our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict, is the sixteenth Roman Pontiff with that name. This fact makes ‘Benedict’ the second-ranking name among popes, after ‘John’. Whether or not the first few Pope Benedicts were names after saint Benedict is difficult to say; Benedict the First was a generation younger than the great abbot, so it is possible, but given the self-effacing nature of St. Benedict, we had to wait two more popes before his biography was written by St. Gregory the Great.

The later Benedicts were most certainly inspired by the saint, since many of them were actual Benedictine monks. Four Benedicts reigned in the period between 964 and 1048, the years in which the Benedictine order, driven by the great abbey of Cluny, was beginning to give the parameters to what was to become the glory of Europe in the high Middle Ages.

It is for this reason that when our current pope’s name is explained, we often hear that St. Benedict saved civilization in a time of decline. There is a vague unease in the West right now that suggests that we are edging toward a decline analogous to the collapse of the Roman Empire. The philosopher Alasdaire MacIntyre at Notre Dame has called for a new Benedict to point the way out of the dead-end of moral relativism. Whether Pope Benedict XVI is the answer to his prayers only God knows. However, we can say that the young man Benedict of Nursia had no such important-sounding goals in mind when he abruptly dropped his studies, leaving school and the city of Rome that in so many ways symbolized the moral relativism of his own time. He simply wished to serve God in prayer and save his soul.

It was in part because Benedict did not set out with a plan that God was able to craft such an impressive legacy for him. When we start with our own plans, it is easy to insist on them eventually, even when God wants to go another direction. Benedict, instead of instructing his monks to plan carefully, says again and again, listen. Listen for the voice of Christ in the abbot, watch for Christ in the guest, listen to Christ in your work, listen to Christ in the community. This is a humble way to be sure, and the humility of Benedict’s approach is shown in no better way than in the type of man he seeks in an abbot.

In the midst of cultural decay, we tend to want strong leaders, leaders who will not back down against the many evils there are out there, men who will plan and coordinate our defenses and make them more efficient. We want the best and the brightest to form think-tanks and advise on policy. I am thinking here more of civil society, but the same applies to the Church. We want strong popes who will have vision. We want bishops to show leadership and charisma, to be quick-thinking, decisive and intelligent.

In St. Benedict’s two chapters on the abbot in his Rule, we don’t find words like, “leader,” “smart,” “organizer,” “decisive,” or “visionary.” Instead we find more workaday virtues: goodness, wisdom, chastity, temperance, mercy, prudent, moderation and discernment. The abbot is to be a servant who cares about the different types of men in his flock, who does not seek the easy way out by forcing men to obey laws, but seeks justice and fairness rather in solicitude for the strengths and weaknesses of actual men. The abbot, too, is bound to listen to the brothers. The abbot even ‘distrusts his own frailty’, and knowing his own frailty is patient with others.

Above all, the abbot is a man of prayer and faith. As we face the obscurities and dangers of the twenty-first century, our present temptation is to rely on power. We will bomb our enemies out of fear that they may bomb us first. We will attempt to force others to do things our way, for fear of an unknown future. We will produce huge sums of money to ward off the dangers of sickness and want. On the contrary, the abbot must not excitable or anxious, obstinate or oversuspicious, St. Benedict writes. He must, as we all must, seek first the kingdom of God and trust that all will be given by God in due time. It is through faith and the love of God’s law that we will build up our civilization, one converted heart at a time.

1 comment:

Watcher said...

Happy Feast Day!


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
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and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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