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What the increase of monastic vocations in Italy could mean for European secularism.

11:00 PM, Mar 22, 2006 • By CHRISTOPHER LEVENICK
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IT IS BY NOW a commonplace that the state of Europe hovers between dire and grave. Sclerotic economies, plummeting birthrates, and moribund militaries all appear symptomatic of imminent collapse. Exacerbating its condition is the widespread decline of the continent's ancestral faith. Europe, it seems, has lost its faith, and with it, its will to live. But lest early drafts of the continent's obituary prove premature, it is worth noting the occasional indication of European renewal.

Italy, for instance, is often viewed as a case study in secularization. Yet across the peninsula, weekly attendance at Catholic Mass has been steadily climbing for two decades. In 1980, roughly 35 percent of Italians regularly attended the Mass; by 2000 that figure had climbed to nearly 50 percent.

But even more pregnant with possible significance is Italy's sudden surge in new monastic vocations. A recent conference organized by the Vicariate of Rome and the Unione Superiore Maggiori D'Italia revealed that in the last year, no fewer than 550 women entered cloistered convents--up from 350 two years earlier. In contrast to recent trends, the new candidates were predominantly native-born and college-educated Italians. Similar gains are said to have occurred among male monastics. The Italian village of Nursia, for example, recently welcomed a small group of American monks to rehabilitate a monastery built at the birthplace of St. Benedict, the great patriarch of western monasticism. Last year, for the first time since its suppression by Napoleonic edict, the community celebrated a Benedictine ordination. Though many monasteries continue to close, new houses are beginning to open, suggesting--perhaps--that a corner has been turned.

WHAT, then, is one to make of Italy's renewed interest in monasticism? It may very well be a statistical anomaly, influenced, perhaps, by the new pope's special devotion to St. Benedict. But monasticism's utility as a leading social indicator should not be underestimated. "The monastic turn," writes historian Bernard McGinn, "was the great religious innovation of late antiquity, and monastic institutions and values have continued to affect the history of Christianity to the present." The possibility exists that a contemporary monastic risorgimento may likewise presage something more profound.

For all its ongoing influence, monasticism remains widely misunderstood. At its heart, monasticism involves a retreat from the world, a retreat intended to serve man by pleasing God. The Christian monk thus leads an ascetic life of constant prayer, contemplation, and labor not only because he believes it conducive to his own spiritual perfection, but also because it gains divine mercy for his fellow man. The forms of monastic life have varied greatly since St. Antony and St. Pachomius first fled to the Egyptian desert some 17 centuries ago. Sometimes it has celebrated the heroism of the individual anachorite, at other times it has lauded self-effacement within the community. Sometimes it has emphasized manual labor, other times it has stressed mental exertion. But throughout its long and varied history, Christian monasticism has cherished the ideal of withdrawing from the world for the sake of the world.

Those inclined to gaze askance at this withdrawal will find no spokesman more eloquent or erudite than Edward Gibbon. "These unhappy exiles from social life," wrote Gibbon of the early Christian monks, "were impelled by the dark and implacable genius of superstition." He could forgive individual Christians for entering the monastery--especially "the infirm minds of children and females"--but by his lights the success of monasticism as an institution represented a form of collective cowardice. "[T]he pusillanimous youth preferred the penance of a monastic, to the dangers of a military, life." The last remains of Roman military spirit, he asserted, "were buried in the cloister."