March 27, 2006

Return To Monasticism

Could a resurgence in monastic life presage a general reawakening of faith in Europe? Or, as the author alludes, merely an anomaly that obscures the deepening chasm between contemporary Europe and its Christian faith? Certainly a provocative thesis, although given present conditions, a greater amount of clear evidence pointing to increased vocations and a general return of Christian adherents in terms of church attendance would allow more confidence in this argument (though this is clearly a good start):
IT IS BY NOW a commonplace that the state of Europe hovers between dire and grave. Sclerotic economies, plummeting birthrates, and moribund militaries all appear symptomatic of imminent collapse. Exacerbating its condition is the widespread decline of the continent's ancestral faith. Europe, it seems, has lost its faith, and with it, its will to live. But lest early drafts of the continent's obituary prove premature, it is worth noting the occasional indication of European renewal.

Italy, for instance, is often viewed as a case study in secularization. Yet across the peninsula, weekly attendance at Catholic Mass has been steadily climbing for two decades. In 1980, roughly 35 percent of Italians regularly attended the Mass; by 2000 that figure had climbed to nearly 50 percent.

But even more pregnant with possible significance is Italy's sudden surge in new monastic vocations. A recent conference organized by the Vicariate of Rome and the Unione Superiore Maggiori D'Italia revealed that in the last year, no fewer than 550 women entered cloistered convents--up from 350 two years earlier. In contrast to recent trends, the new candidates were predominantly native-born and college-educated Italians. Similar gains are said to have occurred among male monastics. The Italian village of Nursia, for example, recently welcomed a small group of American monks to rehabilitate a monastery built at the birthplace of St. Benedict, the great patriarch of western monasticism. Last year, for the first time since its suppression by Napoleonic edict, the community celebrated a Benedictine
ordination. Though many monasteries continue to close, new houses are beginning to open, suggesting--perhaps--that a corner has been turned.

WHAT, then, is one to make of Italy's renewed interest in monasticism? It may very well be a statistical anomaly, influenced, perhaps, by the new pope's special devotion to St. Benedict. But monasticism's utility as a leading social indicator should not be underestimated. "The monastic turn," writes historian Bernard McGinn, "was the great religious innovation of late antiquity, and monastic institutions and values have continued to affect the history of Christianity to the present." The possibility exists that a contemporary monastic risorgimento may likewise presage something more profound. . .

. . .Again, Italy's spike in new monastic vocations may be nothing more than a statistical outlier. But nobody should be altogether dismayed if in fact it foreshadows something deeper. Monasticism seems to prosper in moments of great tumult and confusion. One may fear with Gibbon that its revival suggests another long, dark night of the European soul. One may, of course, equally hope with Benedict that its resurgence portends for the continent a new and glorious dawn.


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