The Prophet of the Future

A friend who returned from a visit to France last week was enlivened by his experience of the new ecclesial communities there. He met members of the Community of the Beatitudes — a mixed community of men and women, married and celibate, who live a life with apostolic work and evangelization, Carmelite spirituality, and beautiful liturgy.
He met members of Communion and Liberation, visited with monks from the Community of St. John, and heard about the work of the Emmanuel Community — another Catholic community that lives a radical discipleship, working to renew the Catholic Church in France.
When I lived in England I got to meet the members of these new communities, plus many more, through my network in the Catholic Church and by traveling in Europe. In many ways, what is going on in the Catholic Church in Europe is reminiscent of events in Italy in the fifth century.
At that time, the great Roman Empire was crumbling under its own moral, financial, and cultural decay. The barbarians were invading unchecked, the infrastructure had broken down, the armies could not be paid, and the mighty glory of Rome was in tatters.
In the midst of this social decay, the young St. Benedict was sent from his patrician home to study in Rome. Within a year he was disgusted by the laziness, immorality, and despair of his fellow students. He dropped out of college and went to live as a hermit in Subiaco. Eventually he founded small communities of men and women living a simple life of prayer, work, and study. From those base communities the great monastic institutions grew, and from these centers of prayer, work, and learning there flowered the great civilization of medieval Christendom.
In our own time of societal decay, it is important to try to get into Benedict’s mindset, first remembering several vital facts: First of all, Benedict was a layman. He saw a need and took the initiative to start his communities. While he did nothing contrary to the teachings of the Church, and did not rebel against the rightful authority, he also did not sit around waiting for a priest or bishop to give him a job. With the grace of his baptism he simply got on and did what he was called to do. Details in his famous rule suggest that Benedict was somewhat cautious in his relationship with priests and regarded them as necessary, but not necessarily trustworthy.
It is also important to understand the monastic relationship to culture. A monk sees the decaying culture and believes the only possible response is withdrawal. He despises any Christianity that compromises with the decadent society, and he does not think “dialogue” is either desirable or possible. He does not believe that prophetic imprecations and predictions of God’s judgment on the immoral culture are useful. Like St. Anthony of the Desert and the first monks in Egypt, the traditional monk believes that withdrawal from the world is the only way to save the world.
The third thing to remember about Benedict is that he probably never anticipated the great resurrection of learning, culture, and spirituality that would flow from his decision to live simply in the Italian hills following a life of prayer, work, and study. In other words, he was faithful where he was with what he could do. Whether it came to something or not wasn’t his to decide. The fact that his movement eventually produced phenomenal accomplishments in virtually every area of human achievement, was the foundation for a new civilization, and changed the world forever was not something he either anticipated or predicted.
As our own society drifts into the swamp of despair, decadence, and the dictatorship of relativism, we should be prepared to develop Benedict’s mentality, even if we do not emulate his example. It is no coincidence that our present pope has taken the name of this important saint. He sees the future for the Church, and that future is already here in many parts of Europe. The new religious communities in France may be some of the few hot spots left there. Like the early communities of St. Benedict, they are oases in a desert of despair.
These basic Christian communities have grown up in the very midst of widespread apostasy, agnosticism, and aggressive atheism. They fill a real void, and as they grow they fulfill the essential gospel vision by being a lamp on a lamp stand, yeast in the dough, salt in the dish, and a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden.
As things continue to decay in the American culture of the 21st century, we must be on the alert for similar developments in the Church. The communities of faith are grassroots movements. They very often grow up through the vision of committed laypeople. They develop with zeal and courage, faith and hope. They often develop on a parallel course to the established church, and not infrequently they develop on a collision course with the establishment. These tensions are all part of the Spirit’s work in the Church, and the struggles that ensue are part of the providential plan to strengthen the new communities and to renew the Church.
As we remember the great St. Benedict, clergy and laypeople alike would do well to keep in mind these principles, to get on with what God calls us to do in a heroic way; to realize that, increasingly, complicity and even dialogue with the decaying culture will be a waste of time; and to be faithful to the vision God gives us and not worry about the future. If we do this, the future may, by God’s providence, be a far more glorious resurgence and triumph of Christendom than we ever could have imagined.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker

By

Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

  • Deacon Ed

    on a pilgrimage from Vezelay to Compostella, one of the stops along the camino was with a group calling themselves Verbe de Vie. This was a community of vowed religious men and woman, living in common with lay men and women, some married. What was most evident during our one night stay at their guesthouse was the joy in their demeanor and their reverent devotion during prayer.

    I am convinced that if Catholics are going to withstand the assault on our faith by the dominant culture, we will need similar enclaves where families (perhaps bonded by their home schooling preferences) live in community. Parish churches are simply too big to afford the mutual support as the ‘barbarians approach the gate.’

  • Pete

    I’m struck by this: “A monk sees the decaying culture and believes the only possible response is withdrawal. He despises any Christianity that compromises with the decadent society, and he does not think “dialogue” is either desirable or possible. He does not believe that prophetic imprecations and predictions of God’s judgment on the immoral culture are useful. Like St. Anthony of the Desert and the first monks in Egypt, the traditional monk believes that withdrawal from the world is the only way to save the world.”

    How does this work, first of all, this principle of withdrawing from the world to save it?

    Secondly, can you clarify what is meant by “dialogue”? If we’re talking Notre Dame-style “dialogue” I agree completely.

    Do you think it’s possible to live this no compromise Christianity while not being a monk? I want to do that.

  • Brenda

    Padre Pio said that not only in the cloister (or the monastery) can you sanctify yourself. You can begin with morning and evening prayer, which sanctify the day. The Liturgy of the Hours is what most people use. You can find some sites online, but the best is to buy the books at your local Catholic bookstore. Then fast on Wednesdays and Fridays as Our Lady is asking us to do This is a good starting point. You can also offer these things for those who persecute us…the barbarians. [smiley=evil]..who are already in the door. In this way, we will perhaps help them and sanctify ourselves in the process.[smiley=wink]

  • John

    How does this work, first of all, this principle of withdrawing from the world to save it?

    Pope Benedict’s second encyclical, Spe Salvi, has a beautiful passage about this (see #15):

    “It was commonly thought that monasteries were places of flight from the world (contemptus mundi) and of withdrawal from responsibility for the world, in search of private salvation. Bernard of Clairvaux, who inspired a multitude of young people to enter the monasteries of his reformed Order, had quite a different perspective on this. In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world. He uses many images to illustrate the responsibility that monks have towards the entire body of the Church, and indeed towards humanity; he applies to them the words of pseudo-Rufinus:

  • Melvina L. Hudson

    My prayer is that we “Pilgrim People” might band together for the good of the kingdom. SHOW “the world” that Jesus does make a difference. May we encourage one another daily, just as the first believers did.

  • Fr. John Mary, ISJ

    There is an American example of this type of community: the Institute of Saint Joseph, raised to the status of a Public Association of the Faithful in 1998 by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke (then diocesan bishop of La Crosse, WI).
    We do not all live in community but form contemplatives in all the states in life. Saint Benedict has become our secondary patron and his Rule the guiding principle of our monastic community.

  • Sid

    When I was a school boy, Western History (and by this I don’t mean just western Europe) was divided nicely into three parts: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Yet in the last 30 years a major “paradigm shift” has developed the concept of “Late Antiquity”, the period running from about A.D. 200 until Otto I. (I myself would rather call it “The Byzantine Age”). It was no “dark age”, but rather a period of learning, beauty, and outstanding individuals. And in western Europe among the most outstanding were Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Benedict.

    Anyone who has been to Rome and Ravenna knows the old three-part division was wrong: In Rome make a point to visit Santi Cosmos and Damian, Santa Pudenziana, Santa Prassede, Santa Maria in Cosmedian, and the mosaics in the nave and first triumphal arch at St. Mary Major.

    This paradigm shift to a four-part history is a major intellectual achievement of contemporary academia. And the credit goes to Peter Brown. Start with his The World of Late Antiquity.

  • Judy Kallmeyer

    For Deacon Ed, there is such a community in the United States. It is called the Brothers and Sisters of Charity and was founded by the well known spiritual musician, John Michael Talbot. His community is made up of celibate men and women, singles, married couples and their children and what he calls the Domestic Expression for people living throughout the country who want to share in the spirit of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity.You can find him on the web JohnMichaelTalbot.com. I truly think that this is the future of the monastic life. How blessed those who are called to this vocation!

  • John

    You can find him on the web JohnMichaelTalbot.com. I truly think that this is the future of the monastic life. How blessed those who are called to this vocation!

    As good as such communities might be, I pray that this is not the future of monastic life, or at least not the only future of it. We need traditional communities of men and women who give themselves totally to God in this way, apart from other vocations. I’m not at all convinced that mixing very different states of life in this way is healthy or wise, but I admit that I have no experience of such places so I really don’t know what they’re like.

  • Nathan Cushman

    Sid,
    That JohnMichaelTalbot.com address you provided is incorrect (I just tried it).

    For some reason, it is required that you type “www.” before the rest, so anyone wanting to see the page (not that I know if it’s good or not, yet), it is at:

    http://www.JohnMichaelTalbot.com

  • Nick

    Nathan,

    It is a common practice to omit the ‘www.’ prefix before a web address.

  • Nick

    Nathan,

    It is a common practice to omit the ‘www.’ prefix when referring to a web address.

  • Al

    I do believe that if priests would speak out and show by example how worthwhile devotion before the Blessed Sacrament is then we would have many silent contemplatives. It is rare to find a priest in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament even after he has exposed it. Many Catholics enter a church and ignore the Lord and one has to wonder if they truly believe in His true presence. He is among us and willing to listen but few take the time to talk to Him.

  • Domenic

    Dear Rev.

    As a frequent visitor to the wonderful Saintly sites in France I would be interested in the locations of these communities.

    Thanks,

    Domenic

  • Pam

    “BY THY HOLY AND IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, O MARY, DELIVER US FROM EVIL.”–Prophetic Prayer taught to Sister Mary Ephrem, Convent of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, Rome City, Indiana, 1956. (http://www.OurLadyofAmerica.org)

  • TDJ

    I’ve posted an interview apropos of living a lay contemplative on my blog Vivificat that might be of interest to Fr. Longenecker and all of you at the following URL:

    http://tinyurl.com/m4f68q

    Yours in Christ,
    -Theo

  • benk

    I guess there is my misunderstanding of monks. Are they withdrawing because that is the only way to be faithful and save themselves, or because they are trying to save the world from outside it?

  • Steve

    There are indeed some good things happening, but part of the challenge in the US is that we remain structured (by governance and identity) around the parish model.

    This isn’t bad of itself– in fact, it was fantastic for the immigrant Church. But it has not aged well in our mobile society with its diluted ethnic identity.

    This is part of the reason such communities have taken hold in Europe. But a key, whether there or here, is to clarify the mission of such a community? Is it apart from the world? Engaged with it? Prophetic? Contemplative? Involved in works of mercy?

    I’m not advocating for the abolition of the parish, but from what I have seen, I certainly think there are more opportunities for a focused and fruitful Christian life in community than in the typical parish in the 21st century.

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