TUESDAY this week is the feast day of St Benedict, the first saint to be declared patron saint of Europe, by Pope Blessed Paul VI, and for some years he was the only one. Some of you may not know that we have a small statue of him in a niche in the Lady Chapel, given in memory of the late Tony Kinch who had for some years worked as a lawyer in EU institutions.
As I often point out, when the Church chooses a patron saint for a place or a group, asking him or her to intercede specially for the place or group in heaven, it draws on the qualities of the saint’s life or teachings to set a good and particular example, to enhance the community’s sense of Christian identity and help its members to progress in holiness, dependent on God’s grace. The Church always has an agenda. If a saint’s role as a patron is somewhat shrouded in legend (which is really what we have to say about St George) this isn’t easy, but we know a lot about Benedict’s message.
Benedict was born in Tuscany in the year 480; he went to Rome to study but was alienated by dissolute student life and gave it all up to go and live as a hermit in a cave east of Rome.
Communities grew up around him, but what made them distinctive was that Benedict wrote a ‘Rule’ for them, laying down the essentials of their lives, which is still the basis for every Benedictine monastic community. There are at least four aspects of the Rule and of the role in history of Benedictine communities which are important for contemporary Europe.
The first is the nature of human work and the emphasis on obedience and humility in the community. The monasteries were counter-cultural – living in a community was at odds with the values of Roman men, trained to be self-reliant and independent, and conditioned also to look down on manual work. Being humble, being co-operative rather than competitive: these are virtues for all in today’s Europe, not just monks and nuns.
Secondly, Benedict’s rule commanded monks to accept the guest or the stranger as if he or she were Christ, to offer hospitality. This is why to this day if you stay in a Benedictine house you won’t be charged. Europe as a whole is not doing a very good job at the moment of welcoming strangers, refugees, migrants, and Pope Francis has repeatedly challenged all the nations of Europe to be more generous and Christ-like, over and against the meanness and hatred which is so prevalent. The Benedictine example of hospitality needs to challenge and inspire Europe.
The motto of the Benedictine order is PAX, ‘Peace’. In the Rule Benedict constantly stresses the need for peace, harmony and reconciliation, the only way in which large numbers of people can live together in close proximity; and monasteries rapidly became centres of peace and sanctuary amidst conditions of violence. Europe needs to reaffirm its commitment to peace and reconciliation in the world, inspired by the ways in which its nations since the early 1950’s have pledged themselves to be reconciled and to stop fighting each other.
Finally, Benedict’s communities became, as time went on, centres of education. This has to be central to the Church’s vision for Europe, since it is only through learning and decent education for all that ignorance, suspicion and fear in Europe can be dispelled: that’s why the Church itself is so committed to education, to enable all of us to grow closer to God, and to enable our children to do so. In Europe exchange schemes like the Erasmus programme for students enable young people to break down so many of the barriers which still remain in Europe, consistent with the Church’s vision.
So ask for Benedict’s prayers this week for Europe, and think about his message.