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Cascina San Benedetto: A Family Monastery

Photo by Giovanni Zennaro

The great Cardinal Robert Sarah delivered a powerful address after visiting the burned remains of Notre Dame de Paris. In it, he said:

I am convinced that this civilization is living through its mortal hour. As once during the decline and fall of Rome, so today the elites care for nothing but increasing the luxury of their daily lives, and the people have been anaesthetized by every more vulgar entertainments.

As a bishop, it is my duty to warn the West: behold the flames of barbarism threaten you! And who are these barbarians? The barbarians are those who hate human nature. The barbarians are those who trample the sacred under foot. The barbarians are those who despise and manipulate life and strive for “human enhancement”!

More:

I want to sound a cry of alarm that is also a cry of love and compassion for Europe and the West: A West that renounces its faith, history, and Christian roots is destined for scorn and death. It no longer resembles a beautiful cathedral founded on faith, but a senseless ruin!

Here’s the Benedict Option part:

We must find places where the virtues can flourish. It is time to rediscover the courage of non-conformism. Christians must create places where the air is breathable, or simply where the Christian life is possible. I call upon Christians to bravely open oases of freedom in the midst of the desert created by rampant profiteering. Indeed you must not be alone in the desert of a society without God. A Christian who stays alone is a Christian in danger! He will end up being devoured by the sharks of the market society. Christians must regroup in communities around their cathedrals: the houses of God. Our communities must put God in the center. At the center of our lives, our thoughts, our actions, our liturgies, and our cathedrals.

Amidst the avalanche of lies, we must be able to find places where truth is not only explained but experienced. In a word, we must live the Gospel: not merely thinking about it as a utopia, but living it in a concrete way. The Faith is like a fire, but it has to be burning in order to be transmitted to others. Watch over this sacred fire! Let it be your warmth in the heart of this winter of the West.

When a fire glows in the night, men slowly gather around it. This is our hope. This is our cathedral.

Read the whole thing. It’s the thunder of a prophet.

As you know, this is what I try to say in The Benedict Option, and in the talks I give about it. The book has been out for just over two years now, and I hear from readers now and again that it is beginning to bear fruit. A couple of years ago in Italy, I met two young Catholic friends, Giovanni Zennaro and Stefano Schileo at San Benedetto del Tronto. They told me they and their wives are interested in the Ben Op. Here’s a photo of us from back then, taken at Norcia:

With Giovanni and Stefano

Last year, I visited them at the home of Giovanni, his wife Alice, and their three children, in the countryside near Milan. Giovanni and his cherubic son Pietro greeted me with exactly the right drink:

I stayed with the Zennaros for a few days, prayed with them, and talked with them, the Schileos, and other faithful young Catholic families who are working together to build a real Benedict Option community. Here’s a shot I took of a local priest, Don Luigi, celebrating mass for them in the Zennaros’ home:

These families are not content to sit around reading my book and stirring speeches by prophetic cardinals, and hoping that somebody does something to help. They have been working hard to create something for themselves, and for others.

Today, I have very good news: these families’ common project, the Cascina San Benedetto, or “St. Benedict House,” has officially launched! Follow that link to read their Manifesto in Italian, English, and German. There is also a link where you can donate to help them purchase housing. These families are not wealthy, and are trusting in God to send them what they need.

Now that the Cascina project has been formally announced, Giovanni, a Benedictine oblate, agreed to answer some questions from me via e-mail. Here is our interview:

RD: The Benedict Option needs Christians to think creatively about ways we can construct communities and institutions within which we can live out the faith through hard times to come. Tell me how you and your friends are responding to this challenge?

GZ: Let me start by talking about my initial approach to the Benedict Option. I discovered your book in 2017, while I was completing my novitiate to become a Benedictine Oblate (lay member of the Order of St. Benedict). For me, it was a very happy discovery for two different reasons: not just because it offers useful insights to live the Christian faith in our post-Christian Western world, but also because it is inspired by St. Benedict and the Benedictine monks, the religious family I’m a member of.

At that time, my wife and I were starting to realize that our friendship with a couple of other families was taking a certain direction. During our usual Sunday meetings we were spontaneously adopting a kind of routine: the Holy Mass, the lunch together, a time dedicated to conversation, Vespers, the dinner. These very simple things turned into good regular practice. We felt the need to maintain and cultivate that practice.

Reading The Benedict Option was what made us wonder: why don’t we make this friendship stable? “Stable” stands for the Benedictine stabilitas loci. It means to choose a place and a community, considering them as the main tools for living a fully Christian life – not because a place or a community have value per se, but because being loyal to them helps one’s own Quaerere Deum (search for God).

We started talking about this with some wise friends, including some Benedictine monks from different Italian monasteries. Thanks to their guidance, we developed the idea of living together in the same place, as a group of families that share some material goods and a spiritual path, through a rule of prayer to be respected every day. That’s what you can read in the Acts of the Apostles about the first Christian community in Jerusalem (2:42-47), and that’s what the monks do in their monasteries.

We called our community life project “Cascina San Benedetto” (“St. Benedict House”; the word “Cascina” means a particular kind of country house, typical of northern Italy). A year ago we started spreading the first version of our manifesto, in order to ask friends and religious communities to pray for us. We recently published a new version of it, hoping that it will help us to collect the necessary funds to start. We need some money to buy and renovate the first apartments and some community spaces for prayer, school activity and meetings with other people interested in spending some of their time with us.

I visited you and your young family last year, and met the other families who want to be part of the Cascina. It really was beautiful, observing you all praying together, and feasting together. It seems like the most natural thing in the world, but in fact bringing together young Christian families who want to share lives saturated in prayer and worship is surprisingly difficult. Why?

Because we have lost the social habit of living in community. It seems to me that in the second half of the twentieth century the West completed the mental bourgeoisification process that began with the Industrial Revolution. The main aspiration of the single person and family — regardless of social class — has become self-fulfillment and individual well-being. We have lost the idea of a human community as the context in which the person is born and grows, suffers and rejoices, sharing with the other members the deeper aspects of his own life. Even Christians have not been immune to this phenomenon. Faith has been reduced to one of the many values we try to maintain, rather than being the unique experience that gives taste and meaning to everything in life. Today we can clearly see that a faith of this kind, a practice that does not really affect our lives, can only survive for a few generations.

We live in a secularized society, imbued with relativism. Its teachings are often opposed to those of Jesus and the Church. I think it will be increasingly important for us Christians to practice particular ways of life, similar to the way of life of the first Christian communities. We will need places where faith is visibly expressed in every action of the everyday life. I mean a kind of oasis of faith — certainly not devoid of all our human contradictions and weaknesses — in which one can continuously regenerate oneself. This should also allow us to better live as true Christians in the world out there. “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13): we need — at least I think I need — places where we can keep ourselves “salty,” where we can continue to feel the typical taste of Christian life. If we don’t first keep that taste in ourselves, we won’t be able to offer it to the world.

Today the great solitude of people is generating new attempts of community belonging. Nonetheless, they usually start from important but partial aspects of life: an interest, a hobby, a particular social commitment, a value in which a person strongly believes. In this way, we create forms of coming together in which solitude is fought by being with other people, but without sharing the real drama of life, the big questions about the meaning of our existence. These are the questions that affect the religious sphere of the human being. I think we Christians have the task of practicing for ourselves a different way of being together, and we have to show it to the world. We must live as brothers and sisters not because we are very close friends or share the same interests, but because we all want to build the Kingdom of God and live a holy life to reach Paradise. I believe that this strong common purpose can allow people and families to live together. Just like in monasteries, this will be possible if prayer, and nothing else, is the foundation of all life.

If you all are able to launch the Cascina, how do you think the life together will change the adults? How will it change the children?

From a practical point of view, each family will continue to live its own life: as my wife often reminds me, we must not confuse a Christian community of families with a hippie commune. However, by living in the same place we can be faithful to some community prayer meetings during the day, especially by reciting the Liturgy of the Hours in the morning and in the evening. Sometimes the families will have lunch or dinner together, especially on weekends. We will welcome other people who want to spend time with us, in particular to pray: to make this possible, it would be nice to have a guest house soon.

I think that, at least in the beginning, each of us will keep his current job. Despite this, should we consider it useful, someone will give up all or part of their job to dedicate themselves to the education of children and the needs of the community.

Children’s lives will change because the children of each family will have more opportunities to be in contact with adults who believe what their parents believe, and to play with their children. We are not inventing anything: it is a way of life that until a recent past was normal for most families. We must consider that ours is a generation of immigrants. Even those who remained in Italy often moved from city to city to find a job, and many of those who changed city for their university studies did not return to live in their hometown. This is not a tragedy, but it is a phenomenon that has contributed to cutting our roots: there are many young families who live far from their relatives. This is our story and the story of many of our friends. Also for this reason we would like to live a daily familiar relationship with those who believe in what we believe.

You are thinking about starting a school at the Cascina. Why? How would this school be different from the others your children could attend?

We would like to start a small parental school – which is possible according to the Italian Constitution – to allow parents to be fully involved in the educational path of their children. Private Catholic schools would guarantee respect for freedom of education, meeting our desires and needs. Unfortunately, they are too expensive for families who have to send more than one child there, especially for many years.

And, it seems to me that many families, due to a lack of religious and cultural roots, don’t have a clear educational idea. They use school and every other possible activity to fill the time of children, with the illusion of being able to delegate their education to others. Consequently, the school itself becomes a service provider, rather than a tool for the educational role that belongs to the family. We want for our children to grow guided by people who tell them the truth. And the truth is that reality is beautiful and everything is a gift from God. We want them to be able to learn everything, from history to mathematics, in the light of the Christian faith and the teachings of the Catholic Church. We also think that educating small groups of children can promote personalized teaching for each student, enhancing their talents and attitudes.

You all work in Milan, but you want to start the Cascina in the countryside, where you and your wife Alice already live. Why is it important to you all to live in a rural area?

The area in which Alice and I live is still rich in farming and animal husbandry. Many of our neighbors work in the fields and stables. Here you can breathe a genuine air, and it’s easier to build new relationships than in the city. Looking around we see meadows and hills, instead of luminous signs and billboards. Silence still exists here. These are conditions that help the spiritual life. We can easily reach Milan every morning to go to work. Moreover, in the countryside the buildings have much more accessible prices.

If you all succeed in launching the Cascina, and everything goes well, what will it look like in 15 years?

OK, let’s try to use some imagination. In fifteen years, our older children will be twenty. Maybe they will be about to decide whether to accept or reject the model of life that we have chosen and proposed to them. Perhaps they will be considering whether to stay with us or go somewhere else. By then we will have understood if we have done a good job with them: we will see it not from the choice they will make, but from their freedom in choosing.

Maybe in fifteen years other young families will be added to the community, and we can help them by sharing our experience.

Finally, a dream: perhaps our choice of life will have attracted not only other families, but also some monks who will have built a monastery near our house. There’s a story behind this dream: some monks invited us to move near them – they live in an isolated town, many hours away from where we live now – and start our community life project next to their monastery. Having a daily relationship with the monks, participating in their liturgy and involving them in the education of our children would be the most beautiful thing, the best embodiment of our project. We’re also considering this possibility. It is extremely fascinating but very difficult, because we wouldn’t know how to make a living there. If we have to stay close to Milan, the city where we work, my dream is that the opposite can happen – that some monks will one day come close to us.

I often meet young people like you who want to do something like this, but don’t have the resources. I know you all aren’t rich. How are you going to afford to do this project?

If we fail to get some help, we will try to start with our resources anyway, even if they are very scarce. We would like to settle right away not only our apartments, but also some small community space for prayer, for school and for guests. If it must be a “monastery of families,” it must succeed in fulfilling the typical functions of the monastery: prayer, study, manual work, hospitality. This is why we are looking for financial support. The monasteries live on their own work and on what God provides them. We will do the same.

One final question: how countercultural is this idea for young Catholic families in today’s Italy? You are all in your 20s, maybe early 30s. What advice would you give to other Christians in Italy, as well as in the US and other countries, about doing a project like this?

Our idea is certainly countercultural in Italy, but not entirely new. Thank God, there are several other communities of Christian families, born in recent decades within specific ecclesial experiences or around particular social works. We are in contact with some of these communities, we can learn a lot from them. The peculiarity of Cascina San Benedetto is that we want to be inspired by the monastic model: our “social work” will be prayer.

I don’t know what advice I can give to other Christians who want to carry out similar projects. The only thing I can say is to pray a lot and try to always listen to the will of God: his projects will flourish, ours will die. We ourselves don’t know yet what the Lord intends to do with this great desire of ours.

Readers, if you want to help the Cascina San Benedetto project, or to learn more information about it, please visit the website. Here is a concrete example of engaged young Christian families who want nothing more than to serve God and to raise their kids in faithful community, making the Benedict Option real. Be encouraged! And help these practical visionaries if you can.

Cascina San Benedetto is exactly what I dreamed about in writing The Benedict Option. What a sign of hope for us all! Giovanni and the others have been thinking hard about this for a couple of years, praying about it, and doing serious work to make it happen. I’m sure he will be happy to share what he’s learned with you.

 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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