A ray of hope may be found, however, in the radical service of the monks of Norcia.
Q: You even caution Christians to be ready for persecution and you allude to the “new Dark Ages” that will be coming. Many Christian writers seem to believe we are entering a dark and troubled time in history. Why do think this is so?
A: No less an authority than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, shortly before he became Benedict XVI, said that the West is undergoing its worst spiritual crisis since the fall of the Roman Empire. He said that we had lost our roots in Christianity, and that this would have tremendous consequences. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre made the same point, though not from a theological point of view. He said that we have lost the shared beliefs that bound us together, and gave us a sense of purpose and mission outside of ourselves. It was MacIntyre who said [in After Virtue – ed] that we need to look to St. Benedict as an example for how to live in this new Dark Age.
Obviously I think he’s right, and I believe that we are headed into tumultuous times, politically and otherwise. I don’t see how anybody who pays attention to politics can think otherwise. And I believe that we may well see persecution of the faithful. Europe’s crisis with Muslim immigrants is going to be of world-historical importance. That said, I believe that external persecution is far less of a threat to us as internal collapse of Christian theology and morality. This is something that is very hard for lots of us to contemplate, because we still see lots of churches around us. But it’s true. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has demonstrated in his research that Christianity, as it has been historically understood, has been hollowed out from within.
We cannot afford our complacency. The Catholic church historian Robert Louis Wilken said over a decade ago that there is nothing more important to Christians right now than for the Church to tell itself its own story. We are in an age of mass forgetting. We cannot hope to evangelize the world if we can’t even pass on the faith to our own children, and if we don’t even know what it means to be a Christian. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and Christians who don’t recognize this and take action are like the people of Noah’s time who figured the rain would stop sooner or later, if they just sat tight and waited.
Q: Can you offer us a ray of hope in all this?
A: Yes, indeed. I made a pilgrimage to Norcia, St. Benedict’s hometown, last year, and spent a week going to Mass at the monastery, and interviewing the monks. They are luminous. The peace of Christ shines on their faces. They are not optimists about where the world is and is going today, but they are hopeful. What is the difference between optimism and Christian hope? Optimists expect things to keep getting better and better. I don’t think we have grounds for optimism right now. But we have every reason for hope. Hope trusts that the Lord’s hand is in all things, that His purposes are always at work. Again, look at the three faithful Hebrew men: they told Nebuchadnezzar that their God might save them from the furnace, but even if He didn’t, they would praise him. They trusted that He could use even their deaths for His purposes, just as He was using the suffering of the Hebrews in their Babylonian exile for His own purposes. In the history of the Church, the saints and martyrs were able to suffer and even to die, because they knew that death does not have the final word. Their hope was in the Lord – the same Lord who suffered and died for the salvation of the world. But He was resurrected, and that makes all the difference.
When St. Benedict left the fallen city of Rome for the forest to fast and pray and seek the Lord’s will, he experienced the calling to become an abbot. When he founded his monasteries, Benedict could not possibly have known how God was going to use his mustard seed of faith to advance the Kingdom in barbarian Europe. Benedict did not set out to save Western civilization. He only wanted to figure out how to serve God in community, under very challenging conditions. What God did through the fidelity of the Benedictines was to bring the Gospel throughout barbarian Europe, and over time, through lots of patient, ordinary work, lay the groundwork for the rebuilding of civilization. The key thing to remember here is that God did that not by raising up faithful men who wanted to Make The Empire Great Again. He did it by raising up faithful men who wanted to serve Him radically. All the rest followed from that.
As your readers may know, the Norcia basilica, and most of the monastery complex, collapsed in a catastrophic earthquake last fall. By the grace of God, the monks survived. Because they read the signs of the times, so to speak, from earlier, milder earthquakes, they were living just outside the town, in tents pitched on the side of a hill. Because they had taken shelter there when the earth first began to shake at summer’s end, they survived the collapse, and are now there for the rebuilding. They regard the rubble of their basilica as a symbol for the Church in the West today – and they see their call to rebuild as the call for all Christians in the West today. Because the monks built their lives around ordinary practices of prayer, fasting, worship, Bible study, and work, they have within them the internal and communal resilience that was not destroyed by the catastrophic earthquake. It has been a terrible blow to them, of course, but in this crisis, we can see their hope shining brightly in the darkness. This is what the Lord calls us to as well. I’m telling you, that band of monastic brothers in Norcia are a light to the entire Christian world right now, not just Catholics.