Christian: Celebrating the Benedicts in tough times

MONDAY, JULY 11: To borrow from Kermit the Frog: It sure ain’t easy being pope! Especially not in the summer of 2011! Today is the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia and it comes on the heels of Pope Benedict XVI’s 60th anniversary of his ordination on June 29, 1961. So, it’s a time to doubly celebrate with Benedicts—but it’s safe to say that in terms of spiritual opinion around the world: The original saint is a whole lot more popular than the papal version these days.

What’s in the Benedict name?

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—the church’s longtime watchdog over orthdoxy—became the pontiff in 2005, he told the world that he was choosing his papal name to honor both WWI-era Pope Benedict XV and St. Benedict. The pope was a tireless peacemaker, Ratzinger said, and the saint was a founder of monasteries who wrote what still is the world’s most influential guide to monastic life.

Why is it so tough being pope this summer?

It’s always tough being the head of the world’s largest organized religious group: the billion-member Roman Catholic Church. But it’s especially trying at the moment.

The Showtime network has what amounts to a big-budget, R-rated soap opera running into its second year now about the Borgias—reminding the whole world of one of the most infamously corrupt eras in papal history. Just how bad is this tale of lust and greed? Well, the New York Times review of the Borgias is typical: “The Borgias were rich, ruthless, scheming and corrupt, and so sexually voracious that, if you believe the rumors, they slept with everyone, including one another. … They resemble The Sopranos a little. Imagine if Tony, instead of running a garbage hauling business, had bought himself the papacy.”

Then, on Sunday July 10, the front cover of the NY Times book section was devoted to Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, which will be released on Tuesday in hardback and Kindle editions by Amazon. In John Julian Norwich’s new book, which was highly praised by the Times, the Borgias are lumped in a chapter titled “Monsters.” Believe it or not, they’re not the worst popes in this sure-to-be-best-selling new book. To make matters worse for papal reputations, the review was written by soon-to-retire Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, whose review included shots like this one: “The bishops who recently blamed the scourge of pedo­phile priests on the libertine culture of the 1960s should consult Norwich for evidence that clerical abuses are not a historical aberration.”

FINALLY: The inspirational life of the real St. Benedict

Now we’re back on more truly inspirational turf! St. Benedict is revered by Christians East and West, including many Protestants who dip into his work to learn about spiritual disciplines that are growing in popularity among all American Christians these days, whatever their denominational affiliation.

St. Benedict came into the world through a wealthy and respected family in Italy, and he spent his childhood studying in Rome. Despite the material riches before him, though, St. Benedict chose the monastic life at an early age; St. Benedict’s sister, Scholastica, also vowed her life to God early on. In a world of a torn Church, overwhelming armies and low ethics, St. Benedict retreated to a small town before taking to the mountains and spending three years as a hermit. Monks who discovered St. Benedict began seeking his leadership, and after a few conflicts with those who found his monastic rules too suffocating, Benedict built 12 communities for monks in Italy. (A full biography is at the Global Catholic Network site.) Today, the Order of St. Benedict follows his “Rule” for monks, and Benedictine monks lead a life of strict moderation, intensive prayer, manual labor and frequent charity.

Want St. Benedict to inspire you today? ReadTheSpirit highly recommends Joan Chittister’s marvelous book: Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today, which still is available in a reasonably priced paperback edition from Amazon. Especially if you’re frightened by—or angry at—all those monstrous images of popes in popular culture this summer, grab a copy of Chittister’s book and rediscover the spiritual genius of the original Benedict.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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