When Joseph Ratzinger was chosen as the new prelate of the world’s largest church, Roman Catholicism, many speculated about why he chose the name Benedict. Perhaps a bit of history, a quick review of the stories of past Benedict’s, will help shed some light.
First, there was St. Benedict--best known as the founder of western monasticism. He was born at Nursia, a small town near Rome around 480. According to the early church historian Bede, he had a twin sister, Scholastica, and the two were raised in a wealthy Christian home. At about the age of 14, he left Rome in an effort to find some place away from the life of the great city where he might more faithfully serve Christ. He took with him his old nurse and they settled down to live in Enfide, near a church dedicated to St. Peter. There he entered into a sort of association with a company of virtuous men who were likewise seeking a path of purity and faithfulness. His notoriety as a saintly young man followed him there and soon his hours were crowded with the demands and responsibilities of unwelcome celebrity.
Benedict determined that in order to live a quiet and holy life he would have to escape again. This time he committed himself to be a hermit in a cave above a narrow, gloomy valley, penetrating the mountains not far from the old ruins of Nero’s infamous villa. He remained hidden away there for three years. Even so, his renown only continued to spread. When the abbot of a nearby monastery died, the community came to him and begged him to become its abbot. Though reluctant at first, Benedict was persuaded and went to live in their little community.
The experiment was not a happy one however, and the young firebrand soon retreated back to his cave—but this time, in the company of several other young men equally committed to a life of prayer. Eventually, he had to build some twelve monasteries in the valley, in each of which he placed a superior with twelve monks. In a thirteenth he lived with a handful of the most promising young men who he discipled directly. It was within this context, serving as the father or abbot, that he developed and implemented his famous Rule.
It was this Rule, or guide to the disciple of the community of faith, that laid the foundations of monastic life—and thereby brought about the first great reformation of the church, provided the spiritual impetus for the spread of the Gospel throughout Europe, and thus, helped to transform the raucous Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire into the glorious flowering of Western Christendom.
Then there was Benedict I: Very little of historical certainty is known of the first Pontiff who bore the name Benedict practically nothing is known. Even the date of his birth is unknown. We do know that because of persistent invasions from the barbarian Lombards, communication between the papal court in Rome and the imperial court in Constantinople had become virtually impossible. Because the Byzantine emperor had historically claimed the privilege of confirming the election of the popes, there had been a vacancy of nearly eleven months between the death of John III and the arrival of the imperial confirmation of Benedict’s election, 2 June, 575. Afterward, he reigned for just a little over four years.
Next, there was Benedict II: Like the first Pontiff who bore the name Benedict, memory of the second has been shrouded in the mists of time as well. He was apparently a Roman of high birth and thus was sent as young boy to the schola cantorum where he distinguished himself by his knowledge of the Scriptures and by his singing. As was the case with his namesake, he was confirmed as the choice of the conclave in 684 only after an interval of over eleven months because of the difficult communications between Rome and Constantinople. Afterward, Benedict secured the ecclesiastical independence of the Vatican conclave from the Byzantines so that such a delay could not be repeated--he obtained from the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus a decree which either abolished imperial confirmations altogether or made them obtainable from the exarch in Italy. Though he reigned for less than a year, with this single act he left an extraordinary legacy that allowed for the development of a distinctively western church and western culture. It was for this reason that he was later declared to be the “patron saint of Europe.”
Finally, there was Benedict XV: Despite the fact that he had only been elevated to the College of Cardinal two months earlier, Giacomo della Chiesa was chosen by the conclave to succeed Pius X in the summer of 1914. Pope Benedict XV was a man with renowned diplomatic talents, having served as the Vatican’s Secretary of State for most of the previous decade. Alas, the pope found his abilities--and unique position as a worldwide emissary of peace—altogether ignored by the belligerent powers. His proposal for a Christmas truce in 1914 to avert what he called “the suicide of Europe,” was initially accepted by the Germans but dismissed by the Western Allies. The next year, the Treaty of London included secret provisions whereby the Allies agreed with Italy to ignore papal peace moves towards the Central Powers. Afterward, all the combatants purposely ignored the pope—believing that his peace initiatives weakened the war resolve of the citizenry. They even went so far as to exclude the Vatican from any participation in the Paris Peace Conference--which eventually crafted the disastrous Versailles Treaty.
His passion for Europe never waned and may be seen in both his voluminous writings—which included biographies of European patrons like Boniface, Jerome, St. Ephraim, Dante, St. Francis, and St. Dominic—and in his canonization decrees—which included Gabriel Delacourte, Joan of Arc, and Margaret Mary Alacoque.
Thus, all the Benedicts were Europeans with a passion for European renewal and recovery; all the Benedicts were renowned for both their intellectual and their spiritual prowess; and all the Benedicts were marked by a fierce independent streak. So, what does all this bode in the life and career of the newest Benedict? We shall see.