Saturday, 21 March 2009
Feast of St Benedict
Today is the Feast of St Benedict. Given that our current Pope has adopted him as the patron saint of his pontificate, an appropriate day indeed to pray for him as he continues his travels in Africa.
Pope Benedict XVI has had quite a lot to say about St Benedict and his continuing relevance to us today, but I thought for a change today I'd put up some extracts from an oldie but goody, the Encyclical Fulgens Radiatur, issued by His Holiness Pope Pius XII Encyclical on St. Benedict March 21, 1947.
"Like a star in the darkness of night, Benedict of Nursia brilliantly shines, a glory not only to Italy but of the whole Church. Whoever considers his celebrated life and studies in the light of the truth of history, the gloomy and stormy times in which he lived, will without doubt realize the truth of the divine promise which Christ made to the Apostles and to the society He founded "I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world."
At no time in history does this promise lose its force; it is verified in the course of all ages flowing, as they do, under the guidance of divine Providence. But when enemies assail the Christian name more fiercely, when 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.
2. Among these champions shines out in resplendent light Our Benedict--blessed "by name and grace". In the providential designs of God he emerged from a dark century when the position and fate of civilization as well as of the Church and of civil society was in danger of collapse. The Roman Empire which had attained such a summit of glory and had joined with wise and equally tempered laws so many peoples, nations and tribes, so that it could be called more correctly the world's protector rather than its imperial master, this 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.
3. 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? It came from the Catholic Church. 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. Thus sustained and fortified the Church comes out victorious through the hostile fortunes of time and circumstances; amid their ruins and failures it 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.
4. We are happy, Venerable Brethren, to treat briefly in this Encyclical Letter the part played by Benedict in this renewal and restoration; for this year, it would seem fourteen centuries have elapsed since he happily exchanged this earthly exile for his heavenly country after innumerable labors for God's glory and man's salvation.
5. "Born in the province of Nursia of honorable parentage he was filled with the spirit of all justice" and in a remarkable way he supported Christianity by his holiness, prudence and wisdom. While the century had grown old in vice, while Italy and all Europe seemed to be a wretched theater for the life and death struggle of nations, and even the monastic discipline was weakened with worldliness and was not up to the task of resisting and overcoming the allurements of corruption, Benedict proved the perennial youth of the Church by his outstanding sanctity and work; he restored morality by his teaching and example; he protected the sanctuary of religious life with safer and holier laws. Nor was that all; he and his followers 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.
6. In the first flower of youth he was sent to Rome to study the liberal sciences; there with great grief he noticed heresies and all manner of errors prevalent and many minds deceived and corrupted; private and public morality were crumbling and very many, especially the fine elegant youth, were sadly sunk in the mire of pleasure. The result was that it could be said of Roman society "it is dying and it laughs. In nearly every part of the world tears follow on our laughter". However, under God's influence, "he gave himself to no disport or pleasure . . . but when he saw many through the uneven paths of vice run headlong to their own ruin, he drew back his foot but new-set in the world. . . Contemning therefore learning and studies, and abandoning his father's house and goods, he desired only to please God in a virtuous life". He willingly bid farewell to the comforts of life and the charms of a corrupt age, as well as to the enticing and honorable offices of a promising future to which he could have aspired; leaving Rome behind, he sought out wild and solitary places where he could devote himself to the contemplation of the divine. Thus he came to Subiaco and there retiring into a narrow cave he began to live a life that was more heavenly than human.
7. 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. He made the practice of shunning all earthly things to seek alone and ardently heavenly things; of holding converse with God day and night; of praying incessantly for his own salvation and for the salvation of men; in curbing and mastering the body by voluntary punishment, and checking and controlling the evil motions of the senses. In this way of life 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. One day the enemy of human nature aroused in him very strong allurements of the flesh; at once he strenuously resisted--noble and strong soul that he was, and casting himself into a thicket of briars and sharp nettles by voluntary wounds he conquered and quenched the interior fire. Victorious over himself he seemed to have been strengthened from on high as a reward. "After which time, as he himself related to his disciples, he was so free from the like temptation that he never felt any such motion. . . Being now altogether free from vicious temptation he worthily deserved to be a master of virtue".
8. Our saint, then, living for a long time this secluded and solitary life in the cave of Subiaco, shaped and set himself in sanctity, and laid those solid foundations of Christian perfection on which he was given later to raise a mighty building of lofty heights. As you well know, Venerable Brethren, zealous and apostolic works become useless and vain unless they proceed from a soul enriched with those Christian qualities which alone with God's grace can make human undertakings contribute to the glory of God and the salvation of souls. This Benedict knew well and had found to be true. Before undertaking and executing those great designs and plans to which he was called by God, he first devoted his most earnest efforts and fervent prayers to make himself fully master of that integral, evangelical holiness which he desired the others to acquire.
9. When the reputation of his sanctity spread and daily increased everywhere, not only the monks who lived close by desired to come under his rule, but a multitude of townsfolk began to flock to him in groups desiring to hear his soothing voice, to admire his extraordinary virtue and to see the wondrous signs that God often worked through him. Indeed that bright light that shone from the dark cave of Subiaco spread so far and wide that it even reached remote regions. Thus "nobles and devout persons of the city of Rome began to resort to him and commended their children to be brought up by him in the service of Almighty God".
10. Then it was that this holy man saw that the time, ordained by God's providence, had come for him to found a family of religious men and to mold them to the perfection of the Gospels. He began under most favorable auspices. "For in those parts he had gathered together a great many in the service of God, so that by the assistance of Our Lord Jesus Christ he built there 12 monasteries, in each of which he put 12 monks with their Superiors, and retained a few with himself whom he thought to instruct further".
11. But while things started very favorably, as We said, and yielded rich and salutary results, promising still greater in the future, Our saint with the greatest grief of soul, saw a storm breaking over the growing harvest, which an envious spirit had provoked and desires of earthly gain had stirred up. Since Benedict was prompted by divine and not human counsel, and feared lest the envy which had been aroused mainly against himself should wrongfully recoil on his followers, "he let envy take its course, and after he had disposed of the oratories and other buildings--leaving in them a competent number of brethren with superiors--he took with him a few monks and went to another place". Trusting in God and relying on His ever present help, he went south and arrived at a fort "called Cassino situated on the side of a high mountain . . .; on this stood an old temple where Apollo was worshipped by the foolish country people, according to the custom of the ancient heathens. Around it likewise grew groves, in which even till that time the mad multitude of infidels used to offer their idolatrous sacrifices. The man of God coming to that place broke the idol, overthrew the altar, burned the groves, and of the temple of Apollo made a chapel of St. Martin. Where the profane altar had stood he built a chapel of St. John; and by continual preaching he converted many of the people thereabout".
12. Cassino, as all know, was the chief dwelling place and the main theater of the Holy Patriarch's virtue and sanctity. From the summit of this mountain, while practically on all sides ignorance and the darkness of vice kept trying to overshadow and envelop everything, a new light shone, kindled by the teaching and civilization of old and further enriched by the precepts of Christianity; it illumined the wandering peoples and nations, recalled them to truth and directed them along the right path. Thus indeed it may be rightly asserted that the holy monastery built there was a haven and shelter of highest learning and of all the virtues, and in those very troubled times was, "as it were, a pillar of the Church and a bulwark of the faith".
13. It was here that Benedict brought the monastic life to that degree of perfection to which he had long aspired by prayer, meditation and practice. The special and chief task that seemed to have been given to him in the designs of God's providence was not so much to impose on the West the manner of life of the monks of the East, as to adapt that life and accommodate it to the genius, needs and conditions of Italy and the rest of Europe. Thus to the placid asceticism which flowered so well in the monasteries of the East, he added laborious and tireless activity which allows the monks "to give to others the fruit of contemplation", and not only to produce crops from uncultivated land, but also to cultivate spiritual fruit through their exhausting apostolate. The community life of a Benedictine house tempered and softened the severities of the solitary life, not suitable for all and even dangerous at times for some; through prayer, work and application to sacred and profane sciences, a blessed peace knows not idleness nor sloth; activity and work, far from wearying the mind, distracting it and applying it to useless things, rather tranquilize it, strengthen it and lift it up to higher things. Indeed, an excessive rigor of discipline or severity of penance is not imposed, but before all else love of God and a fraternal charity that is universal and sincere. "He so tempered the rule that the strong would desire to do more and the weak not be frightened by its severity; he tried to govern his disciples by love rather than dominate them by fear". When one day he saw an anchorite, who had bound himself with chains and confined himself in a narrow cave, so that he could not return to his sins and to his worldly life, with gentle words Benedict admonished him: "If you are a servant of God, let not the chains of iron bind you but the chains of Christ".
14. Thus the special norms of eremitic life and their particular precepts, which were generally not very certain or fixed and often depended on the wish of the superior, gave way to Benedictine monastic law, outstanding monument of Roman and Christian prudence. In it the rights, duties and works of the monks are tempered by the benevolence and charity of the Gospel. It has proved and still proves a powerful means to encourage many to virtue and lead them to sanctity. For in the Benedictine law the highest prudence and simplicity are united; Christian humility is joined to virile virtue; mildness tempers severity; and a healthy freedom ennobles due submission. In it correction is given with firmness, but clemency and benignity hold sway; the ordinances are observed but obedience brings rest to mind and peace to soul; gravity is honored by silence but easy grace adds ornament to conversation; the power of authority is wielded but weakness is not without its support.
15. It is no wonder then that "the rule which Benedict, the man of God, wrote for the monks was outstanding for wisdom and elegant in language"; and today receives the highest praise from all.....
Thus animated and burning with a perfect love of God and the neighbor he fulfilled and perfected his task; and when rejoicing and full of merits he felt in advance the breath of heaven, promise of eternal bliss; and foretasted its sweetness, "six days before his death he caused his grave to be opened. Soon seized by a fever, he began to be consumed by burning fire; day by day his strength began to wax faint, and the infirmity daily increasing the sixth day, he caused his disciples to carry him into the Oratory, where he armed himself for his going forth by receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord: then supporting his weak limbs by the hands of his disciples he stood up, his hands lifted toward heaven, and with words of prayer at last breathed forth his soul."
21. After his pious death, when the holy Patriarch went to heaven, the Order of monks he founded was far from failing or collapsing; rather, it seemed not only to be over nourished and strengthened by his living example, but also to be supported and vivified by his heavenly patronage, so that it went on increasing year by year....
25. Furthermore, all the classes of society, if they studiously and seriously examine the life, teaching and glorious achievements of St. Benedict, cannot but fall under the influence of his gentle but powerful inspiration; indeed they will spontaneously recognize that even our age troubled and anxious for the vast material and moral ruins, perils and losses that have been heaped up, can borrow from him the needed remedies...."
If you would like to read the full thing, go here.