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."

Gibbon, it should be noted, composed his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at a low-ebb in the history of western monasticism. The third of Gibbon's six volumes--in which appears his scathing indictment of monasticism--was published in 1781. A decade later, the furies of the French Revolution would tear down the gates of the abbey at Cluny, only to discover the full measure of monastic decline. Cluny, after all, had once been the glory of early medieval monasticism. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, its walls reverberated with the unceasing prayer of hundreds of monks singing the psalmody day and night. Until the construction of St. Peter's in Rome, it housed the largest church in Christendom. Surely, the revolutionaries thought, here they would discover the luxurious indolence of a thousand idle aristocrats. What they found instead were a dozen or so elderly monks.

Yet monasticism was at that very moment poised on the verge of spectacular growth. The eighteenth century had seen a long, steady attrition give way to a brief, furious persecution . The nineteenth century, however, would witness a breathtaking resurgence of monasticism. So great was its lure that, on the heels of the Oxford Movement, the Church of England elected to revive monastic orders. A magisterial Protestant communion, among whose first acts was the closure of the cloisters and abbeys, found its best and brightest divines ineluctably drawn to the cenobitic life. It was a single but telling instance. At the very moment of Europe's greatest power, its monasteries were full and growing. If monasticism had flourished during Rome's decline and fall, it would also flourish during Europe's rise and triumph.

IT IS REASONABLE, then, to see more hopeful signs in a possible monastic renaissance. This is certainly the view of Pope Benedict XVI, who views monasticism as one of three historic elements which forged Latin, Greek, Slavic, Nordic, and Germanic cultures into the amalgam known as Europe. Monasticism, Benedict recently noted, has long been "the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental and religious and moral values." It acts as "a pre-political and supra-political force," which brings "ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization." (Even Gibbon conceded that "posterity must be grateful to acknowledge, that the monuments of Greek and Roman literature have been preserved and multiplied by [the monks'] indefatigable pens.") Benedict's high sense of monastic purpose dovetails neatly with his belief that a small but vibrant church will be well positioned to invigorate Western civilization.

Again, Italy's spike in new monastic vocations may be nothing more than a statistical outlier. But nobody should be altogether dismayed if in fact it foreshadows something deeper. Monasticism seems to prosper in moments of great tumult and confusion. One may fear with Gibbon that its revival suggests another long, dark night of the European soul. One may, of course, equally hope with Benedict that its resurgence portends for the continent a new and glorious dawn.

Christopher Levenick is the W. H. Brady Doctoral Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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