WEDNESDAY was the feast day of St Benedict, generally regarded as the founder of monasticism in the western Church, who lived in the fifth and sixth centuries in Italy. As the Roman Empire gradually fell apart these were years of great turmoil in Italy, marked by lawlessness and violence. The foundation of radical communities of men (and indeed women) who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience was a profoundly counter-cultural statement over and against the spirit of the age. In the centuries that followed, monasteries in Benedict’s tradition became centres of light, learning and charity all over western Europe. Their pivotal place in English society only came to an end in the 16th century when Henry VIII closed them and took their possessions; for the Catholic community now, of course, the small number of Benedictine monasteries remain important.
In 1964 Blessed Paul VI, who is due to be made a saint later this year, named Benedict as Patron Saint of Europe. There are now five others, but for nearly twenty years he was the only one. When the Church gives a community a patron saint it is making various statements (some patron saints have that role by longstanding tradition; otherwise the Church officially designates a particular saint for this role of interceding for a particular community in heaven).
The first statement the Church is making is about the community concerned; the act is designed to enhance a community’s sense of identity. So when the Catholic Church says that six men and women are Europe’s patron saints it is affirming our commitment to European unity, in line with Catholic Social teaching; presumably this is why so many Catholics (including some clergy) don’t take Europe’s patron saints seriously. The saints remind us of the shared spiritual and Christian identity of Europe, the basis of all that we do to foster European unity.
The second statement is to do with the life and virtues of the saints concerned. There are things about a saint’s life which are special, which is why we see them as role models as well as intercessors for us. Benedict’s life and influence are immense, but I just want to concentrate on three things about him which have a message for the countries of Europe. These qualities stem from his Rule, the comprehensive document he worked out to order the communities he founded.
The first is the value of work. Benedict saw idleness as the path to ruin. Physical work was important for the communities he founded, and this challenged the traditional Roman view which saw it as only fit for slaves. The Church, in this tradition, sees work as important and part of the vocation each of us has from God, whatever we’re called to do. Unemployment and poor working conditions are social evils, in Europe and the rest of the world.
The second characteristic of Benedict’s rule which is important for today’s Europe is to do with the love and respect which members of his communities are meant to show for each other. The key is the idea of obedience – and not just for the leader of the community, the abbot. Writing of the monks Benedict claims ‘Let them obey one another…let them put aside their own concerns and abandon their own will.’ The key to living in a religious community, as indeed in a family, is a constant battle against selfishness, against a desire to control and dominate. Members of the community should cultivate humility, and always put the person first. This isn’t just for monks and nuns – it’s a good rule for all of us, and it’s a good rule in international relations. Efforts, rooted in our Church’s teaching, to bring about European unity are about sharing, the common good of the whole continent, over and against selfish nationalism and pride. We don’t want children to be selfish: why should countries be selfish? The spirit of Benedict’s rule is desperately needed in Britain and all over Europe; it wouldn’t go amiss in the United States.
Thirdly, the Rule insists that the monks greet guests as they would Our Lord. To this day if you go to stay in a Benedictine house or retreat centre you are not charged for your board and keep (although donations are received) – the monks or nuns are not allowed to ask you. Also at various points in history Benedictine houses have offered sanctuary and refuge to those in danger of arrest (think of The Sound of Music and the nuns who disable the cars of the Nazis). This emphasis on hospitality and welcoming the stranger helps to inspire the Christian message – so unpopular with so many – calling on all the nations of Europe to welcome migrants and refugees, constantly reiterated by the Holy Father, one of the most important moral issues of our time. Many Europeans, including some who parade their Catholicism, really need to listen to this part of Benedict’s rule and what it says to Europe today, and indeed the rest of the world.