The patron saint of the new Pope has some powerful lessons to teach the Church today
When the 265th Pope emerged on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica last month to meet his flock face to face, his first words were distinctly Benedictine.
“Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me — a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, had opted to take the name of a sixth-century saint who has been credited with nothing less than the preservation of Western Civilization and the creation of Christendom. During a dark period in Europe’s history, when the superpower of Rome was collapsing under the weight of barbarian attacks and its own internal decadence, St. Benedict founded monasteries across Europe, sparking a religious revival that led to the flourishing of medieval Christian culture.
As a leading theologian and student of Church history, Pope Benedict XVI surely knows the parallels between St. Benedict’s historical situation and his own. On the day before his election, then-Cardinal Ratzinger warned his fellow churchmen against the “dictatorship of relativism” that endangers Western civilization. He explained that this relativism, which denies the existence of absolute truth and exalts self-gratification above all, poses a grave threat to the Church and the culture.
By taking St. Benedict as the patron for his papacy, this new shepherd has made an important statement about how he intends to deal with the challenge posed by our relativistic, hedonistic, materialistic culture. He will combat it with the same weapons St. Benedict used in his day: prayer, humility, and hard work.
St. Benedict believed deeply in the virtues of ora et labora — prayer and work. He counseled his followers to live disciplined lives of humble service, lives that centered on what he called the “Work of God”: Christian worship. St. Benedict believed that worship must stand at the center of the Christian life, infusing all other daily activities with the spirit of Christ.
Yet St. Benedict also recognized the sanctifying potential of ordinary work. In his Rule, he advises his monks on everything from how they should wash their towels to how they should greet strangers at the door and how they should make up their beds. Pulsing through these seemingly mundane details is a sublime message: The duties of daily life matter because they give us the chance to grow in humility, holiness, and joy.
Humble service and joyful hospitality are constant themes in Benedictine spirituality. The saint urged his followers to greet others as if they are greeting Jesus Christ himself, and to serve others as if they are serving Christ. “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else,” St. Benedict said. “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ.”
That motto — “Christ before all” — is one that the new Pope has taken as his own. As Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn told Vatican Radio last month, Pope Benedict XVI told the Cardinals that he considers St. Benedict “a man of great faith” and the Benedictine counsel to put Christ first “is and remains an example also for the new Pontiff.”
Indeed, St. Benedict’s 1,500-year-old message of unflinching fidelity to Jesus Christ and zealous pursuit of personal holiness is timelier today than ever. By choosing to take the name of this simple, humble worker, Pope Benedict XVI has revealed the path by which he wishes to lead the Church in the coming years — a path that begins in personal conversion and ends in cultural transformation.
(This article originally appeared in the May 8, 2005 issue of Our Sunday Visitor. It has been republished here by kind permission of the author.)