I find some reassurance in the celebration of the feast of St Benedict this year (July 11). After several weeks of anxiety after the referendum, it is an opportune time to think about the Patron of Europe and to consider what perspective his life can bring to our present situation.
St Benedict was named as Patron of Europe in 1964. At the time, Europe was finally beginning to recover from the devastation wrought by two world wars, and the movement towards European unity had begun to develop. It was natural that the Church should have placed this desire within a sacred context under a spiritual patron. St Benedict seems to have been an inspired choice.
In his apostolic letter Pacis Nuntius, which proclaimed St Benedict as patron of Europe, Pope Paul VI declared that this great saint is a “Messenger of Peace, moulder of union, magister of civilisation and above all herald of Christ and founder of monastic life in the West.”
A vision for the dissemination of Christian culture in a spiritually united Europe, under the protection of a patron such as St Benedict, was certainly noble. Yet I cannot help but feel that we haven’t fully embraced St Benedict as the patron of our nations.
St Benedict’s mission brought forth a new and brighter era to Europe. He established priorities which inspired men and woman to embrace the religious life and develop houses and foundations all in many nations. In a world which was often devoid of civilisation, those who followed St Benedict brought light and hope where previously there has been division and darkness. The vacuum left by the retreating and crumbling Roman Empire had created a Europe with little prospect of goodness and Benedictines were a key part of the remedy.
In the second half of the twentieth Century, as modern Europe was recovering from its own darkness, the impetus that St Benedict gave to spiritual unity and order made him an obvious choice as Patron. St Benedict, who helped to dispel the power of darkness in his own time, was sought to pray for the light of Jesus to be made known in our own family of nations which had been divided and ravaged by war.
So what does St Benedict’s patronage mean to us today? Pope Pius XII saluted St Benedict as the “father of Europe”. Thinking beyond the recent referendum, it is clear that Europe, as a continent, needs a spiritual father who can engender unity and gather his children together. The European family cannot afford to be characterised by dissonance and division.
We are entering a new reality which we must now embrace even if the immediate future seems uncertain. During his lifetime St Benedict brought consistency to public life. We need him more than ever, as the father and patron of Europe, to provide example and intercession.
In the Europe of today we see a situation which has many parallels to the world inhabited by St Benedict. Intolerance, lack of concern for the vulnerable, extremism and prejudice were all part of the context within which Benedictine communities grew. St Benedict responded positively and practically to human needs which were not too dissimilar to the needs of those who are now fleeing poverty, disease and war in search of a better life in Europe.
One of the key charisms of St Benedict was hospitality. His genius for organisation coupled with generosity of resources is a pattern that we should try to emulate. Part of me can’t help but think that St Benedict would have been dismayed at the heavily bureaucratic reality that the European Union has become. Any new reality would do well to understand something of the simplicity and munificence of Benedictine life, order and spirituality.
Our relationship with Europe will change. But as Catholics, our commitment to Pope Paul VI’s vision of a spiritually united community of peoples, under St Benedict’s protection, should not be allowed to die.
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