Benedict XVI & The Benedict Option
Hello from Rome, where there was something of an earthquake this morning.
The De Gasperi Foundation held an invitation-only conference in Rome’s House of Deputies this morning, to discuss The Benedict Option. I gave a talk, and then gave the floor to Archbishop Georg Gänswein. He is the prefect of the papal household, but more importantly, is the longtime personal secretary to Benedict XVI. I was extremely curious to know what he would have to say about my book, as I have not hidden the fact that Benedict XVI is “the second Benedict of The Benedict Option.”
What Monsignor Gänswein said was nothing short of astounding. An Italian journalist just texted me to say
I assure you that a lot of people in Rome and all over the Catholic world are stunned by those remarks. Exactly because it clearly means approval [of The Benedict Option] by BXVI …
— Eduard Habsburg (@EduardHabsburg) September 11, 2018
I will post an official translation of the entire text when it becomes available in English. Here are highlights from the Italian original, translated with Google and with the help of Italian-speaking friends:
1. It is “an act of Divine Providence” that we are having this conference today, on September 11, because the sex abuse scandal is the Catholic Church’s own 9/11.
2. No churches have been destroyed (so far) by terrorists, but symbolically, US churches (“all the churches of Pennsylvania, along with the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington”) have “collapsed” because of the “mortal wounds” delivered to souls by “priests of the Catholic Church.” [The basilica cite might be a reference to Cardinal Wuerl]
3. “I remember as if it were yesterday when on April 16, 2008, accompanying Pope Benedict XVI right in that National Shrine of the Catholic Church in the United States of America, he touchingly tried to shake the bishops convened from all the United States: he spoke bent over the ‘profound shame’ caused by ‘the sexual abuse of minors by priests’ and ‘the immense sorrow your communities have suffered when men of the Church have betrayed their priestly duties and duties with such grossly unethical behavior.’ But evidently in vain, as we see today. The lament of the Holy Father was not able to contain the evil, nor the formal assurances and the commitments in words of a large part of the hierarchy.”
4. Mons. Gänswein said that reading The Benedict Option, he thought a lot about the following words that Benedict XVI said on the flight back to Rome from Fatima on May 11, 2010:
“The Lord told us that the Church would always be suffering, in different ways, until the end of the world. […] As for the news that we can discover today (in this third secret of the Fatima message), there is also the fact that not only are the Pope and the Church attacked from outside, but the sufferings of the Church come from interior of the Church, from the sin that exists in the Church. This too has always been known, but today we see it in a truly terrifying way: that the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from outside enemies, but arises from sin in the Church. “
5. Talking about the collapse of churchgoing in his home country, Germany, Mons. Gänswein contrasted that to the picture BXVI gave in these 2005 remarks to a meeting in Bari. The pope talked about the arrest in the year 304 of a group of Christians as they prayed in church. The Emperor Diocletian had forbidden them from gathering on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist, and to build churches. In the North African town of Abitene, 49 Christians were arrested during Sunday worship. They told their captors that they could not live without the Eucharist — and they were all martyred for their faith. Today, though, very few Catholics in Germany can bother to get out of bed on Sunday to go to mass.
6. Speaking in a frankly apocalyptic vein, BXVI’s secretary — think of that! — said these days make him think of the Bible’s warnings that in the Last Days, believers will see “the abomination of desolation in the holy place.” He said that he wonders, along with Cardinal Eijk of the Netherlands, if the Church is facing its final trial before the Second Coming.
7. Mons. Gänswein praised my coverage of the Catholic abuse scandal, saying that I am “a man who completely corresponds to the desires and tastes of Pope Francis, because no one else in Rome knows better than he that the crisis of the Church, in its core, is a crisis of the clergy. And so the time has come for the strong and determined laymen, especially in the new independent Catholic media, as embodied by Rod Dreher.”
8. He said that since his retirement, BXVI has considered himself to be an “old monk” spending all his time praying for the Church and the world. Mons. Gänswein offers as BXVI’s response the Pope Emeritus’s 2008 lecture to the Collège des Bernardins in Paris. The entire point of the Benedicine mission, the pope said, was “quarere Deum” — to search for God. Everything else followed from that.
Along those lines, the archbishop highlights The Benedict Option‘s claim that this general crisis of disbelief roiling the Christian world — not just the Catholic one — may actually save our souls by forcing us to draw nearer to God. Mons. Gänswein said, of the book:
…it does not contain a ready answer. In it you will not find an infallible recipe or a master key to reopen all those doors that until now were accessible to us but that are now slamming shut again. Between the first and the last cover you will find, however, an authentic example of what Pope Benedict said ten years ago about the Benedictine spirit of the beginnings. It is a real “Quaerere Deum”. It is that search for the true God of Isaac and of Jacob who, in Jesus Christ, has shown his human face.
9. Many people are saying today that the Church is finished, that she cannot recover, said Gänswein. However:
And this is the hour when Rod Dreher from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, presents his book near the tombs of the Apostles; and, in the midst of the eclipse of God who is terrifying all over the world, he comes among us and says: “The Church is not dead, but only sleeps and rests”.
And not only this: the Church “is young” also seems to tell us, and with that joy and freedom with which Benedict XVI said it in the Mass for the beginning of the Petrine ministry on April 24, 2005. Recalling once again the suffering and the death of Saint John Paul II of which he had been a collaborator for so many years, addressing each one of us in St Peter’s Square, said:
“It was precisely in the sad days of the Pope’s illness and death that this manifested itself in a marvelous way in our eyes: that the Church is alive. And the Church is young. It carries within itself the future of the world and therefore also shows each of us the path to the future. The Church is alive and we see it: we experience the joy that the Risen One has promised to his own. The Church is alive – she is alive, because Christ is alive, because he has truly risen. In pain, present on the face of the Holy Father on Easter days, we contemplated the mystery of the passion of Christ and together touched his wounds. But in all these days we have also been able, in a profound sense, to touch the Risen One. We have been given the opportunity to experience the joy that he promised, after a short period of darkness, as the fruit of his resurrection “.
10. His concluding lines:
Therefore I have to confess sincerely that I perceive this time of great crisis, one that is evident to everyone, mostly as a time of grace. In the end, we will be “set free” not by a specific effort, but by the “truth”, as the Lord assured us. Within this hope, I look at the recent accounts made by Rod Dreher for the “purification of the memory” requested by John Paul II; and hence, with gratitude, I read his “Benedict Option”, as a marvelous source of inspiration. In these last few weeks, nothing else has provided me as much consolation.
Here is a man at the pinnacle of the Catholic Church, a man who loyally served Pope Benedict XVI (and who now serves Pope Francis as head of his household), speaking in apocalyptic terms about the sex abuse scandal and the general loss of faith across the West. He praised my work on the Catholic scandal, and the work of independent Catholic journalists. He said that The Benedict Option is a prophetic work, “a marvelous source of inspiration,” and the source of the greatest consolation to him as he grapples with the meaning of the scandals.
Note well: my book is not a counsel of despair, but of hope, real hope! So says the longtime top aide to Benedict XVI. Now will you people who have set opinions about The Benedict Optionwithout having read it actually open the thing?
My gratitude to Monsignor Gänswein — one of Joseph Ratzinger’s closest friends and colleagues — for his words about my book cannot be measured. The monsignor said in his talk that in reading the book, he got the sense that much of it was written in constant dialogue with Benedict XVI. Well, he’s right about that — but then, most of what I think and write is in some real sense a dialogue with that old monk living in the Mater Ecclesiae in the Vatican.
The “Nine-Eleven” of the Catholic Church
(Archbishop Dr. Georg Gänswein, Prefect of the Papal Household)
Thank you very much for the invitation to this esteemed House, which I accepted gladly, to present this book by the American author Rod Dreher, of which I had already heard a lot. The great monk from Norcia, who gave the book its programmatic title, made it very appealing for me to come here. But I was also touched and moved by the date on which we are meeting with this daring author here in Rome.
For it is September 11th, which in America – since the Fall of 2001 – has only been referred to as “9/11” in reference to that apocalyptic disaster in which members of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda attacked the United States of America as the whole world watched, in New York and Washington – using fully occupied passenger planes, which they had captured in-flight, as missiles.
The more time I spent reading the book of Rod Dreher during the hurricane of news over these past few weeks, the more I grew to understand our meeting tonight as purely an act of providence, following the publication of the report of the grand jury of Pennsylvania, on which now the Catholic Church too must cast a horrified glance at what constitutes its own “Nine-Eleven”, even if this catastrophe unfortunately is not only occurred on a single day, but over many days and years, and affecting countless victims.
Please do not make the mistake of misconstruing my remarks. I am neither comparing the victims nor the numbers of abuse cases in the Catholic Church with those 2,996 innocent people who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 9, 2001.
No one has (to this date) attacked the Church of Christ by passenger plane. St. Peter’s is still standing, as are the cathedrals of France, Germany or Italy, which are still the landmarks of many cities in the western world, from Florence to Chartres, from Cologne to Munich.
And yet, the recent news from America, where so many souls have been permanently and mortally injured by priests of the Catholic Church, is worse than any news could be of Pennsylvania’s churches suddenly collapsing, along with the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
And yet I remember, as though it were just yesterday, how I accompanied Pope Benedict XVI on 16 April 2008 to this National Shrine of the Catholic Church in the United States of America, where he so touchingly tried to rouse the bishops of that country by describing to them the “deep shame” caused by the “sexual abuse of minors by priests”, and “the enormous pain that your congregations have suffered as clergy have betrayed their priestly duties and responsibilities through such gravely immoral behavior.”
It was probably in vain, as we see today. The lament of the Holy Father could not stop the evil and not even the lip service of a large part of the hierarchy.
And now Rod Dreher is here, among us, who begins his book with the words: “No one saw the Great Flood coming”. In the Acknowledgements, he dedicates his book, in a certain way, to Pope Benedict XVI. And it seems to me that in large parts he wrote it in a sort of quiet dialogue with the silent Papa emerito, referring to his analytical and prophetic power, when he writes: “in 2012, the then-pontiff said that the spiritual crisis overtaking the West is the most serious since the fall of the Roman Empire near the end of the fifth century. The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West.”
I would therefore, if I may, like to complement the presentation of the “Benedict Option” by Rod Dreher with a few memorable words from the mouth of Benedict XVI during his ministry; words that I was reminded of when I read the book, for instance those of May 11, 2010, when he entrusted the following to the journalists accompanying him on the flight to Fatima:
“The Lord told us that the Church would constantly be suffering, in different ways, until the end of the world. … As for the new things which we can find in this message [the third secret of Fatima, ed.] today, there is also the fact that attacks on the Pope and the Church come not only from without, but the sufferings of the Church come precisely from within the Church, from the sin existing within the Church.”
At that time, he had already been pope for five years. More than five years earlier – on 25 March 2005 – Cardinal Ratzinger had already found the following words at the 9th Station of the Way of the Cross on Good Friday at the Colosseum, before the dying John Paul II:
“Should we not also think of how much Christ suffers in his own Church? How often is the holy sacrament of his Presence abused, how often must he enter empty and evil hearts! How often do we celebrate only ourselves, without even realizing that he is there! How often is his Word twisted and misused! What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words! How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him! How much pride, how much self-complacency! What little respect we pay to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where he waits for us, ready to raise us up whenever we fall! All this is present in his Passion. His betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his Body and Blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison – Lord, save us.”
We had learned earlier, from St. John Paul II, that in our historical hour the true and perfect ecumenism was the ecumenism of the martyrs, allowing us to call, in our need, upon St. Edith Stein next to Dietrich Bonhoeffer as intercessors in heaven. But as we now know, there is also an ecumenism of need and secularization, and an ecumenism of unbelief and common flight from God and the Church across all denominations. And an ecumenism of the eclipse of God in general. We are only now witnessing the watershed of an epochal change that Dreher had already prophesied in the US a year ago. He saw the Great Flood coming!
But he also notes that the eclipse of God does not mean that God no longer exists. Rather, it means that many no longer recognize God, because shadows have been cast before the Lord. Today it is the shadows of sins and of transgressions and crimes from within the Church that for many darken His brilliant presence.
In the process of this darkening, the phenomenon of what in German is called the Volkskirche – a “popular church” to which everyone belonged, something which we were still born into, but that never existed in America as it did in Europe — has long since died. Does that sound too dramatic to you?
The number of people turning their back on the Church is dramatic. Even more dramatic, however, is another statistic: According to the most recent surveys, of the Catholics who have not yet left the Church in Germany, only 9.8 percent still meet on Sunday in their places of worship to celebrate the Blessed Eucharist together.
This brings to mind Pope Benedict’s very first journey after his election. On May 29, 2005, on the banks of the Adriatic Sea, he reminded the predominantly youthful audience that Sunday is a “weekly celebration of Easter”, thereby expressing the identity of the Christian community and the center of its life and mission. However, the theme of the Eucharistic Congress (“We cannot live without Sunday”) goes back to the year 304, when Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians under death penalty to possess Holy Scripture, to meet on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist, and to construct rooms for their meetings.
“In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus.
Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor’s severe orders. He replied: “Sine dominico non possumus”: that is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb.
After atrocious tortures, these 49 martyrs of Abitene were killed. Thus, they confirmed their faith with bloodshed. They died, but they were victorious: today we remember them in the glory of the Risen Christ.”
In other words, what we, as children of the so-called “popular church”, have come to know as the “Sunday obligation” is, in fact, the precious, unique characteristic of Christians. And it is much older than any Volkskirche. Therefore, it is truly an eschatological crisis that the Catholic Church has been in for a long time now, just as my mother and father reckoned they could perceive it in their day – with “horrors of devastation in holy places” – something perhaps every generation in church history recognized from a distance on its own horizon.
Finally, however, some days I felt myself transported back to the days of my childhood – back to my father’s smithy in the Black Forest, where the hammer struck the anvil without ceasing, but did not do so without my father, whose safe hands I trusted like I trust the hands of God.
Obviously, I am not alone in this. In May, the Archbishop of Utrecht in Holland, Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk, confessed that the present crisis reminded him of the “final trial” of the Church, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it in paragraph 675, which the Church must undergo before the return of Christ, as a trial that ” will shake the faith of many believers”. The Catechism continues: “The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity.’”
Like an exorcist, Rod Dreher is also familiar with this “mysterium iniquitatis”, as he has proven with his reports over the last few months, in which he also promoted the enlightenment of the scandalous history of the former archbishop of Newark and Washington like perhaps no other journalist. Yet he is not an investigative reporter. Neither is he a fantasist, but a sober analyst who has been following the state of the Church and the world alertly and critically for a long time whilst nonetheless retaining an almost childlike, loving view of the world.
That is why Dreher does not present an apocalyptic novel like the famous “Lord of the World”, with which the British clergyman Robert Hugh Benson shook the Anglo-Saxon world in 1906. Rather, Dreher’s book resembles a practicable guide to building an ark, because he knows that there is no dam to stop the Great Flood that has been flooding the old Christian Occident since long before yesterday, and to which America belongs for him as a matter of course.
This also makes for a threefold difference between Dreher and Benson: As a typical American, Dreher is firstly more practical than the somewhat eccentric Briton from Cambridge in the period before the First World War. Secondly, Dreher, as a citizen of Louisiana, has experience with hurricanes. And thirdly, he is not at all a clergyman, but a layman who does not speak on behalf of others, but out of his own will and zeal for the Kingdom of God, which Jesus Christ proclaimed for us. In this sense, he is a man who is entirely after the flavor and taste of Pope Francis, who knows like no one else in Rome does that the crisis of the Church is at its core a crisis of the clergy. And that now the hour of the sovereign laity has struck, especially in the new and independent Catholic media, as almost embodied by Rod Dreher.
The ease of his portrayal probably has to do with the noble narrative traditions of the southern states of America, which Mark Twain once helped achieve global recognition. And when I said earlier that I last saw myself again and again as a child in the forge before my father’s hammer blows on the anvil, I must confess that the uncomplicated reading of this weighty book took me again and again into the adventure world of my childhood, where I daydreamed about Tom Sawyer and his friend Huck’ Finn.
Rod Dreher, on the other hand, is not about dreams, but about facts and analyses, which he condenses into sentences like these: “Psychological Man won decisively and now owns the culture—including most churches—as surely as the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, and other conquering peoples owned the remains of the Western Roman Empire.”
Or this one: “Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes—they are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human. Our barbarians have exchanged the animal pelts and spears of the past for designer suits and smartphones.”
Chapter 3 of his book begins with the words: “You can’t go back to the past, but you can go to Norcia.” Shortly thereafter he continues – prophetically on topic, but in no way gloatingly – as follows: “Legend has it that in an argument with a cardinal, Napoleon pointed out that he had the power to destroy the church.
“Your majesty,” the cardinal replied, “we, the clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last eighteen hundred years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”
Four years after sending the Benedictines away from their home of nearly a millennium, Napoleon’s empire was in ruins, and he was in exile. Today, the sound of Gregorian chants can once again be heard in the saint’s hometown…”
In the same Norcia, however, more recently was heard the roar from the depths of that great earthquake that shook the city in August 2016 and ruined the Basilica of St. Benedict in just a few seconds, right down to the front façade. At about the same time, cloudbursts also flooded the hometown of Rod Dreher on the upper reaches of the Mississippi. These two dramatic key scenes now stand at the beginning and end of his book, as though based on a divine script – and as if to illustrate a thesis Dreher formulated in Chapter 1: “The reality of our situation is indeed alarming, but we do not have the luxury of doom-and-gloom hysteria. There is a hidden blessing in this crisis, if we will open our eyes to it… The coming storm may be the means through which God delivers us.
In recent days, the term earthquake was often used to describe the collapse within the Church, and of which I am now saying the Catholic Church has also experienced its “Nine-Eleven.”
Rod Dreher describes the response of the monks of Norcia to the catastrophe that destroyed their abbey in the birthplace of Saint Benedict, in but few words that I must read to you because they are so eloquent:
“The Benedictine monks of Norcia have become a sign to the world in ways I did not anticipate when I began writing this book. In August 2016, a devastating earthquake shook their region. When the quake hit in the middle of the night, the monks were awake to pray matins, and they fled the monastery for the safety of the open-air piazza.
Father Cassian later reflected that the earthquake symbolized the crumbling of the West’s Christian culture, but that there was a second, hopeful symbol that night. ‘The second symbol is the gathering of the people around the statue of Saint Benedict in the piazza in order to pray,’ he wrote to supporters. ‘That is the only way to rebuild.'”
Given Father Cassian’s testimony, I would like to tell you that Benedict XVI, since his resignation, has understood himself as an old monk who, after February 28, 2013, is committed above all to prayer for Mother Church and his successor, Pope Francis, and for the Petrine ministry founded by Christ himself.
From the monastery Mater Ecclesiae behind the Basilica of St. Peter, the old monk would therefore, considering Dreher’s work, likely point to a speech he gave as acting Pope on 12 September 2008 in the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, in front of the spiritual elite of France.
That was exactly ten years ago tomorrow, and I would therefore like to briefly present excerpts of this speech to you once again:
In the great cultural upheaval of the migration period of the Völkerwanderung and the emergence of new structures of state, the monasteries were the place where the treasures of the old culture survived and at the same time a new culture was slowly formed by them, said Benedict XVI at the time and asked:
“But how did it happen? What motivated men to come together to these places? What did they want? How did they live?
First and foremost, it must be frankly admitted straight away that it was not their intention to create a culture nor even to preserve a culture from the past. Their motivation was much more basic. Their goal was: Quaerere Deum. Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential – to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself. They were searching for God. They wanted to go from the inessential to the essential, to the only truly important and reliable thing there is…they were seeking the definitive behind the provisional…
Quaerere Deum – to seek God and to let oneself be found by him, that is today no less necessary than in former times. A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe’s culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture.”
These were the words of Pope Benedict XVI on September 12, 2008 about the true “option” of Saint Benedict of Nursia. – After that, all that remains for me to say about Dreher’s book is this: It does not contain a finished answer. There is no panacea, no skeleton key for all the gates that were open to us for so long and have now been thrown shut again. Between these two books covers, however, there is an authentic example of what Pope Benedict said ten years ago about the Benedictine spirit of the beginning. It is a true “Quaerere Deum”. It is that search for the true God of Isaac and Jacob, who showed his human face in Jesus of Nazareth.
For this reason, a sentence from chapter 4,21 of the Rule of Saint Benedict comes to my mind, which also pervades and animates the entire book of Dreher as Cantus Firmus. This is the legendary “Nihil amori Christi praeponere”. That means translated: the love of Christ must come before all else. It is the key to the whole miracle of occidental monasticism.
Benedict of Nursia was a lighthouse during the migration of peoples, when he saved the Church through the turmoil of time and thus in a certain sense re-founded European civilization.
But now, not only in Europe, but all over the world, we are experiencing for decades a migration of peoples that will never come to an end again, as Pope Francis has clearly recognized and urgently speaks about to our consciences. That is why not everything is different this time, as compared to how it was then.
If the Church does not know how to renew itself again this time with God’s help, then the whole project of our civilization is at stake again. For many it looks as if the Church of Jesus Christ will never be able to recover from the catastrophe of its sin – it almost seems about to be devoured by it.
And this is precisely the hour in which Rod Dreher from Baton-Rouge in Louisiana is presenting his book today near the tombs of the apostles. And during the eclipse of God, which is frightening us all over the world, he steps before us and says: “The Church is not dead, it only sleeps and rests”.
And not only that. The Church is “young”, he seems to say, and he says it so joyfully and freely, as Benedict XVI said when he took over the Petrine ministry on April 24, 2005, when he recalled the suffering and death of Saint John Paul, whose collaborator he had been for so many years. He called out to all of us in St Peter’s Square:
“During those sad days of the Pope’s illness and death, it became wonderfully evident to us that the Church is alive. And the Church is young. She holds within herself the future of the world and therefore shows each of us the way towards the future. The Church is alive, and we are seeing it: we are experiencing the joy that the Risen Lord promised his followers. The Church is alive – she is alive because Christ is alive, because he is truly risen. In the suffering that we saw on the Holy Father’s face in those days of Easter, we contemplated the mystery of Christ’s Passion and we touched his wounds. But throughout these days we have also been able, in a profound sense, to touch the Risen One. We have been able to experience the joy that he promised, after a brief period of darkness, as the fruit of his resurrection.”
Even the satanic “Nine-Eleven” of the Universal Catholic Church can not weaken or destroy this truth, the origin of its foundation by the Risen Lord and Victor.
I must therefore honestly confess that I perceive this time of great crisis, which today is no longer hidden from anyone, above all as a time of Grace, because in the end it will not be any special effort that will free us, but only “the Truth”, as the Lord has assured us. It is in this hope that I look at Rod Dreher’s recent reports on the “purification of memory” which John Paul II entrusted to us, and so I also gratefully read his “Benedict option” as a wonderful inspiration in many respects. In recent weeks, few things have given me so much comfort.
Thank you for your attention.
Translated by Anian Christoph Wimmer