Pope Benedict XVI took the papal name Benedict in hope that his good example would inspire the nations of Europe to recall and appreciate their Christian roots that had been preserved from ancient times in great measure by St. Benedict and his many Benedictine monasteries established throughout Europe. Surely, these Benedictine monasteries preserved church life during the so-called Dark Ages when Goths and Visigoths and Vandals and other assorted barbarians laid waste the old Roman Empire. Certainly, the influence of the monasteries on the Church’s liturgical life is most evident. The Roman Breviary that all priests and deacons are obligated to pray every day follows the monastic daily schedule for prayer seven times a day. And the world can thank God for the preservation of ancient tomes and volumes translated and hand-copied by monks in their scriptoria.
But the Benedictine monks, and the Benedictine nuns as well, not only preserved Europe’s prayer life and Europe’s intellectual life, the monasteries of Europe greatly influenced Europe’s agricultural and commercial life as well. Writer Thomas E. Woods observed that wherever they went, the monks introduced crops, or industries, or production methods which people had not previously known. They initiated the rearing of cattle and horses, the brewing of beer and the raising of bees or fruit. In Sweden the corn trade owed its existence to the monks. In Italy it was cheese making; in Ireland, salmon fisheries; and everywhere, the monks cultivated the finest vineyards. The monks stored up waters from springs which they distributed in time of drought. Monks taught peasants about irrigation. The monks improved the breeding of cattle. And let’s not forget that the discovery of champagne can be traced to Dom Perignon of St. Peter’s Abbey, Hautvilliers-on-the-Marne, France. The fundamental principles that he established continue to govern the manufacture of champagne even today.
Other authors note that more recently it was the Benedictine monasteries scattered throughout Europe that allowed the oppressed population of Nazi-controlled Europe to communicate regularly with the Vatican during World War II. Important messages could be transferred from monastery to monastery, eventually arriving at the Eternal City supplying Pope Pius XII with vital information.
The early and later monasteries of Europe are fine examples of the Christian faith erupting into practical good works. Since Apostolic times the fruitfulness of religious beliefs has been a core conviction of the religious community. St. James famously wrote, “So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead (2:17).” And St. Paul, often the great promoter of faith, similarly writes, “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them (Ephesians 2:10). Truly authentic faith will properly bubble over into good deeds. Deep faith will surely prove itself through fervent prayer. Keen faith will certainly be manifested through eager study. And just as definitely, authentic faith will express itself in everyday acts of charity.
As present day society is becoming increasingly aware, authentic Christian faith can accordingly be expressed through a keen respect for the material world around us just as the Christian monastic communities of the past clearly did. The monks appreciated God’s material world as well as His spiritual world and believed that they were honoring God and respecting God’s plan when they respected their environment and developed the natural world. Pope Francis has certainly encouraged major initiatives toward appreciating and respecting the natural world. Quoting Saint John Paul II, the Pontiff insists that Christians must “realize that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and their Creator are an essential part of their faith.” While his encyclical “Laudato Si’” definitely criticizes consumerism, irresponsible development, environmental abuse and global warming, his Holiness also calls for “swift and unified global action” that will combat poverty and restore dignity to excluded humanity as well as protecting nature. Authentic faith will respect the earth’s environment certainly, as the monks did. But true faith will likewise respect the earth’s many inhabitants just as sincere Christians always have.
When St. Peter’s mother-in-law is cured of her fever in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, she immediately renders a good turn: “Then the fever left her and she waited on them.” True faith always leads to practical service: service to neighbor, service to the earth, service to God Himself.