There is so much talk these days about restoration in the Church that we rarely consider how Christendom was established in the first place. The answer is very simple—monks.
The following are selections from a larger, two-part series: "...Forward to Benedict" originally published in The Angelus in 2001. The full series has been posted on this site in honor of St. Benedict's feast in 2018.
Above, we say "the answer is simple - monks." Monks following the Rule of St. Benedict to be precise. It may be a simplification, but any student of history knows that the monasteries were the primary Christianizing and civilizing influence on a pagan (at best Arian) Europe.
We must not have an incorrect notion of how monasticism affects society. It is certainly not by striving to implement a political program. No, the means are entirely supernatural. The weapons are, by the grace of God, prayer, Faith, Hope and Charity. It is as Our Lord promised, "Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be given you besides" (Mt. 6:33).
The monasticism that will solve social problems is that which aims primarily at the reformation of the individual. Without holiness, nothing... with holiness, everything.
Today in every nation thinking men recognize that our boasted civilization approaches the brink of ruin. Happily there is no need to go to the politician, the economist or the superficial student of political science or sociology for an analysis of the present day problem.
Never was the world in a more deplorable condition than it was at the end of the first five centuries of Christendom. All historians portray the confusion, the corruption and despair. In morals, in law, in science and in art all was in ruin. The followers of Christianity were hopelessly divided by heresy and throughout the whole Roman Empire there was not an emperor, king, prince or ruler who was not a pagan, Arian or a Eutychian.
Outside the Roman Empire was Ireland alone, under the apostle Patrick, Christianized from king to serf.
The end of five centuries of Christianity witnessed civilization at its lowest ebb. Without an understanding of this fact no man can understand the centuries which followed. In the midst of darkness one candle burned. That candle was St. Benedict who unwittingly was to regenerate the western world.
Benedict founded the monastery of Monte Cassino on a high, rugged and desolate hill overlooking the Valley of the Liris. At Monte Cassino, he destroyed the altar to Apollo, led the neighboring peoples from paganism to the Catholic Faith, cultivated the arid lands of the mountain, cleared the fertile fields below, built a monastery and oratories, practiced hospitality and perfected the Rule, which was to be a path of sanctity for millions and consequently the basis of the regeneration of the western world.
Benedict found this common denominator among the peoples of the world in the human family. The monks became, under the Benedictine Rule, a family, with the Abbot as father (cf. RB 2). This father was regarded as the representative of Christ. His spiritual sons worked with him for spiritual perfection. They were to produce by manual labor that wealth which would provide for themselves a sufficiency and for the poor a surplus. All over and above necessity belonged to the poor.
Throughout the entire Rule, the relation between the natural and the supernatural is apparent. Throughout the whole Rule moderation, in contrast to spiritual calisthenics, is apparent.
Benedict recognized that the reform of morals and society must have a social approach, because it is a social problem. So he patterned the monastic life on the permanency of family life and he patterned his family life on the virtues of the Gospels. The Rule epitomizes the Gospels and sets up a norm which was practical and possible for millions to follow.
When Benedict wrote the Rule there was no Benedictine Order. There were monks galore in the East and in the West. There were rules that preceded the Rule of Benedict. St. Basil had written a rule; St. Augustine had a rule which was followed by the regular canons; Columbanus and the Irish monasteries had a rule.
Benedict not only thought of new monasteries but also of the right governance of those already in existence. He had lived the life of an ascetic and yet he was condemning individualism as he created his concept of the Christian monastic family.
The Rule was a minimum capable of being obeyed by all. Benedict did not set out to regenerate human society. He makes no promises as to results. He had no grandiose plans. He tells us frankly, he is writing a guide to sanctity for beginners. His whole life refutes the suggestion that he was conscious of any imprint he would leave on society.
He never put himself forward. He left no writings except the Rule. He never received the priesthood. Certainly he never planned a school system, never planned to preserve the classics of antiquity, never planned to dot Europe with cathedrals and monasteries, never planned the conversion of a continent, never dreamed of his influence on institutions and never planned the regeneration of the western world.
The divine reflection of success in his work is proof once again that God loves to build on nothing.