Two Popes, Saint Benedict, and the Soul of the West
by Dr. John C. Rao
Like all traditionalists, I loathe breaking with custom and propriety. Nevertheless, if I had been responsible for presenting Pope Benedict XVI to the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square on April 19th, I would have been sorely tempted not only to announce my truly great joy at having Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as our 265th pontiff, but also my perhaps even deeper sense of relief at the thought of what the See of Peter and the Catholic faithful had escaped through his election. For even though we should feel a spiritual excitement at the dawn of the new pontificate, this must be tempered by a sober recognition of the immense strength of the forces working for the destruction of Catholicism inside the very centers of the Church herself, and the mighty battles that our Holy Father will confront in any attempt to tame and subdue them in the years to come. May those years be many, and may they be filled with a voice as firm as his has indeed been in recent days in identifying the evils facing the Bride of Christ.
Fellow traditionalists, the Holy Spirit has given us a new reason for hope with Pope Benedict XVI, first and foremost with respect to the cause of the Mass. Those hopes will, however, only be realized through terrible turmoil. I am convinced that a brutal battle for the soul of Christendom, greater than any we have witnessed over the past forty years, is about to commence, under the leadership of a man who knows the enemy all the better from having once been on the inside of its camp. This will be a war of attrition, a war in the Vatican, diocesan, and parish trenches. We must pray that the Holy Father stays the course in fighting on those battlefields that he already has spotted and reconnoitered, and that he will be still further awakened to the full nature and extent of the conflict before him. We need to send the word over there, to Rome, that we will be behind him if only he will lead; that we will not leave the trenches until the war is over over there, over here, and everywhere.
World War One language is, of course, suggested by the name that Benedict XVI has chosen for himself. Benedict XV's (1914-1922) whole dramatic pontificate was shaped by the need to deal with the disaster of the European conflagration and the demonic revolutions that it stimulated. Horrified by the "useless slaughter" from France to Russia, he begged the powers dominating the West to be "satisfied with the destruction so far accomplished" and return to their senses. Benedict desperately tried to negotiate an end to the pointless struggle. Unlike Woodrow Wilson, who encouraged a view of the war as one of total good (democracy) versus total evil (monarchical central Europe), the pope's outlook was based upon a non-ideological, realistic assessment of the errors of all of the combatants. The Church, after all, had long predicted such a nightmare as a result of a West that had lost its soul to the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and its all too many children.
Benedict, however, paid an enormous price for his truly far-sighted, Roman vision in the abuse heaped upon him by many Catholics in all the warring countries. French, German, and American bishops often competed with one another to prove how totally and unquestionably just their respective causes were. They deprecated their fellow prelates in enemy countries who not admitted the obvious wickedness of their governments and the tragedy of being ruled by a pope who was either a simpleton or a partisan rogue. So painful was this division, joyfully fomented by the press of the time, that Pope Benedict came to realize that the soul of the West was in even greater danger than he had at first thought it to be. The longtime homeland of the Faith, he came to believe, might so be punished for its sins that the center of Christendom could actually move elsewhere. Hence, his call for a deepened commitment to the promotion of missionary work in what we now label the Third World.
Did Cardinal Ratzinger have Benedict XV in mind when he decided to rule under the same name? Probably. Still, I think that he did so with Giacomo della Chiesa as a specific twentieth century papal example of the recognition of the need to wage war for the soul of the West first understood and tackled by St. Benedict of Nursia (474-547). St. Benedict, greatest of the fathers of western monasticism, lived in another momentous era when the still fresh Christianity of Europe was entering a very deep crisis, one which, with temporary reprieves, was destined to endure for some hundreds of years. That crisis involved a "clash of cultures", brought on by the intrusion of successive waves of warlike and illiterate barbarians, both pagan and Arian, into an urban, cultivated, Greco-Roman-Catholic world. St. Benedict and his followers knew how easily a Christian civilization in its infancy could be tempted to apostasy and degradation by exposure to such influences. They grasped the fact that the only way for the Truth to win in such a conflict was by reliance on all the weapons that it had at its disposal. Political and military arms were very weak at the moment. Important and desirable as these were, they were nevertheless always more vulnerable than intellectual and spiritual tools, which could not be totally destroyed. Such instruments St. Benedict and the Benedictines developed with a vengeance, adding Greek and Roman support for the mind to Christian Faith, Hope, and Charity in a superhuman effort to strengthen the souls of western men. "Cities of monks" were created, reflecting both Classical and Catholic conviction that the individual can only thrive inside and under the authority of communities both natural and supernatural. The battle for the soul of the West was engaged, moving outward from the monasteries to the hearts of those extraordinary barbarian leaders who, in contrast to our own "statesmen", demonstrated a marked docility to intellectual and spiritual superiority. That battle for the soul of the West continued through the ages to come, mapping out the way to correct and transform the average prince, barbarian warrior, peasant, and merchant all into soldiers of Christ. No wonder that St. Benedict has been named by the Church as the Patron of Europe.
Our new Holy Father is fully aware of the global hopes and possibilities of the Roman Catholic Church, so much encouraged by Benedict XV. He is not, as some of his enemies wish to depict him, somehow an enemy of the aspirations of the Third World. On the contrary, he is terribly disturbed by the fact that everything good aiding the Christian cause elsewhere on this planet is threatened primarily by evils that emerged in a West that has lost its soul. He is well aware that divided Islam is in no way as dangerous a problem for the Church as the dictatorship of secularism to which he has made repeated reference. That dictatorship is a product of a modern global anti-Church, constructed in the West, in Europe and America, and dedicated to gross materialism and the encouragement of raw pagan passions. This western tyrant gone mad now tyrannizes the world under competing liberal and conservative, socialist and capitalist forms. It has the classic revolutionary nerve to claim that it alone understands what other cultures really are and need, and thus perverts whatever "seeds of the Logos" can legitimately be found in a Third World that needs the Catholic Faith. Global the Catholic Church is and must be, but the current battle for the Truth that sets men free is one that it has to be fought firmly in the West. Until the western anti-Church which rules our culture's soul is defeated, it will spread its errors unceasingly and lose millions of men and women to the devil. In fighting that anti-Church, both St. Benedict and Benedict XV offer lessons theoretical and practical upon which to meditate.
The battle for the soul of the West, as the battle for the soul of each person living within its cultural confines, is an unending and difficult one. Cultures and the individuals comprising them are regularly tempted to think and do evil. When the good communal institutions of a civilization are especially weak, as they are in the West today, the responsibility for spiritual action on the part of individuals, in order to set social authorities right becomes correspondingly greater. That individuals must strive with all their might to transform the society around them in Christ is equally clear, since men and women seeking to reach God totally on their own face natural and supernatural burdens that God does not want them to have to endure. Individuals need to work spiritually as persons who are also guided and worked upon spiritually by good Catholic communities and a sound Catholic culture. St. Benedict, Patron of Catholic and Greco-Roman Europe understood this. Benedict XV did as well. Moreover, our new pontiff, in numerous statements regarding the soullessness of the new European Union, and other recent comments concerning the evils of our society has done the same. All this is very encouraging for the goals that we traditionalists have at heart.
Mention must be made at this point, however, of another battle, a "battle within the battle", which has just begun and will become ferocious. This is a battle for control over the image of the mind and soul of Pope Benedict XVI. Some revolutionary liberals, rather than reviling him, are presenting him as a refreshing contrast to the brutal, centralizing "Pius X-like" John Paul II, a man similar to that "moderate" Benedict XV who tempered the evils caused by the modernist-eating Sarto monster. Revolutionary conservatives such as Michael Novak have begun the depiction of the new pope as a model of the Anglo-American Enlightenment, eager to live and die for the freedom of that new "capitalist-democratic man" whose construction of mammoth shopping malls this Americanist has praised as so many steps in the Ascent of Mount Carmel. Word merchants of all kinds will soon join in the game to refashion the pope according to their will, with victory in the enterprise falling to the strongest.
Admittedly, Cardinal Ratzinger has said things in the past that seem to indicate support for what such revolutionaries, liberal or conservative want. Most of us have said or done something similar. All this means is that his soul, like that of each of us, is subject to influences from the spirit of the time and the place in which we live. None of us knows the temptations to which we may succumb. I think that Cardinal Ratzinger became more and more aware of that fact, indicating it by himself praying openly for the grace of "final perseverance".
But Cardinal Ratzinger is now Pope Benedict XVI, aided by new graces to fulfill his mission. Moreover, he brings into his pontificate not only the frail human nature that we all share, but an uncommon knowledge of the depths of the destruction of the liturgy which he has powerfully translated into both written and spoken form. He brings into his pontificate the experience of having himself said the Traditional Mass on a number of occasions in recent years. Knowledge of the liturgy is one of the most powerful tools for an understanding of the fullness of the Faith. Offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass in the Roman Rite is itself a complete transforming experience. Such knowledge and such an experience together set a snowball in motion. They confirm good inspirations and actions in all realms of life. They move one to disgust for everything mendacious, insufficient, and vulgar. They lead firmly away from revolutionary globalism in both its liberal and conservative forms, and back to the stream of Truth, beginning with the first seeds of the Logos and moving on to the full message of the Redeeming Word. They end in the recovery of the soul of the individual and the culture as a whole. Cardinal Ratzinger opened himself up this snowball effect, and herein lies our hope. It is by no means a cheap or unfounded one.
So long live Benedict XVI, Supreme Pontiff of the Holy Roman Church, a man subject to temptations like all of us, a man in dramatic need of our prayers, a man whom I consider to be the Holy Spirit's gift to despairing traditionalists in a terrible moment in history. Now is the suitable time for us to live more deeply as Catholics and as activists. Now is the suitable time to enlist in the cause of the restoration. For, as the words of the Papal Hymn, Roma Immortale, say, "force and terror will not prevail. Truth and love will reign. Rome of the apostles, mother and guide of the redeemed; Rome, light of all peoples; the world places its hope in you."
Our mother calls us to the colors, and, hopefully, we won't come back till it's over over there, over here, and everywhere.