St Benedict, Patron of Europe

Benedictines don’t do things by halves; so we have two feasts of St Benedict, the Transitus or memorial of his death, celebrated on 21 March, and the Translatio or translation of his relics, celebrated today. When Paul VI proclaimed him first patron of Europe in 1964, he especially lauded the contribution made by St Benedict and his Benedictine sons and daughters to the unity of Europe (see here). Half a century later, how does that look?

The first thing to remark is that today is also chosen as the day to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, the worst atrocity committed on European soil since the Second World War, when approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces amid the break-up of Yugoslavia. Most of the Serbs were, nominally at least, Christians. The dark shame of that massacre is a dreadful contrast to the bright achievement of St Benedict and a warning that one has only to scratch the civilized man to discover the barbarian beneath.

We might also remark that Paul VI’s enthusiasm for European unity and what we now call the E.U. (European Union) looks more than a little naive. With Greece trembling on the brink, Britain wanting to re-negotiate terms, France and Germany acting like schoolmasters dealing with rowdy schoolboys, and a huge number of Brussels bureaucrats loved by nobody, the whole project seems much shakier than originally envisaged.

When Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, back in 1981, that

if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St Benedict. (After Virtue: emphasis mine)

his words were seized upon and manipulated to mean virtually anything the commentator wanted them to mean as people speculated what a ‘very different St Benedict’ might be like. For some, the answer was a ‘new monasticism’ which to someone formed in the ‘old monasticism’ of classical Benedictinism could seem very far removed from what St Benedict had in mind. For others, it was a drive towards a greater political union of Europe, analogous to the old Holy Roman Empire in which the Rule of St Benedict, along with the monasteries following it, had played such an important role. What we all seem to have missed, however, is the obvious: St Benedict’s concerns were other-worldly. His Rule is only incidentally about how to organize a human community. His principal concern is to lead people to God. To do that he establishes a rule of life, quite detailed in many of its provisions, but all with the aim of enabling the individual to grow in holiness and closeness to God, to become the worker cleansed of vice and sin, of which he writes so eloquently in chapter 7 of his Rule. (cf RB 7.70)

How does that measure up today? For myself, I’d say that we never had more need of the monastic quest for God; for perseverance in prayer; and for the kind of creative scholarship and activity that a dedicated life of prayer and service can produce. But I’d go further. If we speak of institutions, the one European unity that has subsisted throughout the centuries is the unity of the Catholic Church. That in itself should make us think. It may not be popular to say so, but without the Christian religious basis of Europe — a basis St Benedict did much to strengthen — we are surely in danger of reverting to barbarism. And the world has enough barbarians already.