Today is St. Benedict’s Day, and in 522AD, the young Benedict had had enough of city life. He had been sent to Rome to study “rhetoric,” the art of “persuasive speaking,” something like communications media and journalism today. His fellow students were falling into all sorts of vices, and the young student realized that rhetoric was not about truth but about “persuasion:” selling something to somebody who doesn’t want it. So he fled into the countryside, and eventually established a system of monasteries around Europe that preserved Western culture through the decline of the Roman Empire. Thanks, St. Benedict!
Ironically, the monks who fled city life preserved the best of city life. It takes a certain distance from the seething mass of humanity to appreciate humanity, and the sciences and arts that built Athens and Rome would be preserved in the countryside monasteries, ready to rebuild those cities when the time was right. For the last 40 years, Catholic popes and bishops have been calling upon priests and laity to rebuild parishes and schools, which have taken a nose-dive since the 60s. You could shoot a few cannonballs through most parish Sunday Masses (at least in our cities) without hurting anyone. Schools that produce Catholic political leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, who legislate against fundamental Catholic principles and religious liberty, can hardly be called “Catholic” anymore. Is there anywhere in the Church where parishes, schools, and Catholic culture are flourishing?
Actually, there are. Christianity flourishes in Africa, for example, and in other humbler parts of the world. But even in wealthy and powerful nations, even in Europe, Canada, and the United States, there are plenty of thriving Catholic parishes, schools, and monasteries. As I write this, the monastery bells are ringing out over the fields, calling man and beast to glorify their Creator.
The sisters in this monastery chose to leave San Francisco 25 years ago for the “flyover” state of Nebraska (with a stop in Las Vegas, which didn’t work out!). They wanted to return to the more traditional forms of worship, and they are bursting with novices: over forty sisters, most of them under 35. If Church leadership really wants to renew parishes and religious orders, it need look no further than the healthy inclusion of the more traditional forms of worship in the Church’s liturgical life. No one can deny the numbers: more traditional parishes and religious communities have been growing for 60 years while less traditional communities are dying out. When Hollywood wants to portray "Catholic," it portrays parishes and schools and nuns who look Catholic!
But it is not only in the monastery that Catholicism flourishes near Lincoln. Yesterday I got invited to a “pig roast” at a local home. Backyards are spacious in Nebraska, so when I got to the picnic about 150 people had already arrived. Parents were chatting in small groups, six or seven of the local priests stood about in their cassocks, and hordes of children were chasing each other over the lush green grass. I had a good talk with the party’s hostess, a mother of twelve, one of whom was a priest that I had worked with in years past. At 6pm her husband, who serves as physician, mentor, and all-around elder to the neighborhood, called out for one of the priests to lead the Angelus. Everyone knew how to pray it, when to kneel, and when to stand. It was a beautifully Catholic picnic: smiling parents, racing children, venerable priests, delightful food and drinks and games, barking dogs and heartfelt prayers. No one was left out. If the Vatican, or any diocesan chancery, wants to know how to evangelize, it need look no further than the joy and the love flowing through some of our more traditionally-minded communities.