The Saint Benedict – Saint Francis Option
How should the Church in the West face what is seen as a rising tide of secularity often antagonistic to religion? One solution which has been suggested recently is called the “Benedict Option”. What does it require? It demands withdrawal and consolidation. If the Church is to survive this menace it must stop trying to compete with the combined forces of indifference to Jesus and anti-Christian influences, promoted especially through technology which spreads apathy and moral degradation. So members of the Church must withdraw from the world and concentrate on building up their Catholic identity by separating themselves from the world. Just as Saint Benedict in the fifth century withdrew from the decadence of city of Rome before the fall of that great empire and founded monastic communities so Christians today must become creative minority communities who keep alive the flame of faith.
In the passages we have been reading from Saint John’s Gospel since Easter, Jesus is faced with a similar situation. In this farewell speech Jesus is preparing His disciples how to face life without Him. How will they survive after His crucifixion, death, resurrection and His impending ascension into heaven? He does not want them to have any illusions. The worldly types will hate them as they have hated Him. His followers will face persecution. So He concentrates on turning them inwards to shape them into a community set apart. They must find their true identity by living as a spiritual family with the teachings of Jesus and the reception of His life-giving Sacraments.
Jesus forms them into His Church Family. This new Church Family will worship His heavenly Father with, in and through Him. Jesus Himself has replaced the old temple, even before it’s destruction by the Romans. Jesus is where they will experience the presence of God. As Jesus tells them ‘‘I am in the Father and you in me and I in you’’. The Christian Community is where the Father and the Son will dwell and each member will experience the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus will not leave them orphans, for they will be children of God living as members of this new family.
But while the Gospel highlights the inner consolidation of this new movement, the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles highlights the outward missionary thrust of the Church towards the world. Obviously, it makes sense for the Church to know its own identity as it reaches out to convert others. And as the members remains in Jerusalem after Pentecost they hold fast to certain practices which defines them as a Church Family. They insist on the teaching of apostolic doctrine; that the wealthy members shares with the poorer members; that it prays regularly and that they come together to celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday, the day of their Lord’s resurrection. These practices define the Church. But once it knows who it is, then it must obey Christ’s command to reach out to others. It can not remain isolated. ‘You will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but throughout Judea and Samaria and indeed to the ends of the earth.’
Persecution forces the Christians to leave Jerusalem. Saint Stephen is stoned for his witness to Christ. And today Philip enters the hostile world of the Samaritans and proclaims the Gospel. The Spirit of truth in John’s Gospel is now the Spirit which drives the Church out of its comfort zone. Through the power of the Spirit Philip continues the work of Jesus as he drives out the demonic spirits and heals the sick. Peter and John come up from Jerusalem to legitimate what has been happening. The church is one in its teaching and its mission. And the Kingdom of God extends to new territories as the new converts are baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The missionary outreach must continue if Christ is to be a light to the gentiles.
Saint John’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles must complement each other. Catholics must know their faith and live it before they can evangelize those around them. The Church is meant to be both contemplative and missionary. Neglect one aspect and you undermine its witness. In the 13th century Saint Francis of Assisi was commissioned by the voice of Christ to rebuild His Church. Saint Francis did much good for Jesus and His Church through a mixture of the reception of the Sacraments, prayer, and active outreach. Prayer and the reception of the Sacraments must be joined to our outreach to others. We could call this approach the Saint Benedict-Saint Francis Option.