The Monk of Bavaria: Benedict XVI Was a True Son of St. Benedict

Why did Cardinal Ratzinger choose the great patron of Europe as the patron of his pontificate?

Pope Benedict XVI and St. Benedict (by Antonello da Messina)
Pope Benedict XVI and St. Benedict (by Antonello da Messina) (photo: Shutterstock / Wikimedia Commons)

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has been referred to as the “Monk of Bavaria.” Yes, he was from Bavaria — a southern German state — and a proud Bavarian.

Because of the large number of monks, especially Irish monks, who either passed through Bavaria en route to Rome or to the Holy Land, or who settled for good in the area, Bavaria is also referred to as the Benedictine land. Even the name Munich, the capital and largest city of the German state of Bavaria, literally means monks (or, more loosely translated, home of the monks). A monk appears in the city’s official coat of arms — on a golden background, wearing red shoes on his feet and a black tunic with a collar that wraps around his body, carrying a red book in his left hand, while the right rises as a sign of blessing.

Benedict XVI’s love for monasticism and monastics ran deep, since his childhood. Bavaria is the land of Benedictine monasteries of both men and women — monasteries that, with their educational activities, have helped shape Bavarians for centuries. The future pope knew their value personally, as he explained:

The gradual expansion of the Benedictine Order that he (St. Benedict) founded had an enormous influence on the spread of Christianity across the Continent. St. Benedict is therefore deeply venerated, also in Germany and particularly in Bavaria, my birthplace.

Besides this close “genetic” connection to his native Bavaria, land of monks and monasticism, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was referred to as the Monk of Bavaria or the Monk-Pope for several other reasons.

When he was still head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the eve of his election to the see of St. Peter, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made a special visit to the convent of St. Scholastica (twin sister of St. Benedict) in Subiaco, Italy, cradle of Benedictine monasticism, and delivered a lecture that turned out to be prophetic of his future papacy. He was following in the footsteps of St. Benedict, whose mission and vision which shaped his papacy and his life to the end. It was April 1, 2005, when he left Rome in the late afternoon, the evening before the death of John Paul II:

We need men whose intellects are enlightened by the light of God, and whose hearts God opens, so that their intellects can speak to the intellects of others, and so that their hearts are able to open up to the hearts of others. Only through men who have been touched by God, can God come near to men. We need men like Benedict of Norcia, who at a time of dissipation and decadence, plunged into the most profound solitude, succeeding, after all the purifications he had to suffer, to ascend again to the light, to return and to found Montecasino, the city on the mountain that, with so many ruins, gathered together the forces from which a new world was formed.
In this way Benedict, like Abraham, became the father of many nations. The recommendations to his monks presented at the end of his ‘Rule’ are guidelines that show us also the way that leads on high, beyond the crisis and the ruins.

In his first general audience on April 27, 2005, Pope Benedict explained his reasons for choosing St. Benedict as patron of his pontificate.

The name Benedict, of course, brings to mind his predecessor Benedict XV, known as the Pope of Missions and the Pope of Peace, who guided the Church through World War I and continued the Church’s commitment to peacebuilding. But the Pope also chose the name to honor St. Benedict of Norcia himself.

The merit of St. Benedict was to indicate to his followers the search for God as a fundamental purpose of existence — the search for God (quaerere Deum) leads us to proceed on the path mapped out by the humble and obedient Christ in order to let ourselves be found by him. Those who enter the monastery enter a profound union with Christ as prescribed in Rule Chapter 4, 21:

The love of Christ must come before all else.

This is the significance of Christian holiness, and St. Benedict and his Rule are the anchor of this path.

Moreover, St. Benedict of Norcia, with his life and his work, had a fundamental influence on the development of European civilization and culture. But there is additional value in the name choice.

(St. Benedict) is a fundamental reference point for European unity and a powerful reminder of the indispensable Christian roots of his culture and civilization.

Benedict XVI was keen on the Christian roots of Europe and saw monasticism as a uniting juncture between Eastern and Western Europe. For Pope Benedict, East and West co-exist in the tradition of Christian monasticism. Monasticism, as the new bloodless martyrdom, which substituted for the real martyrdom after Constantine’s Edict of Milan (A.D. 313), had its beginning in the Christian East, and in a later period, it spread in the West.

In his book Values in a Time of Upheaval, Cardinal Ratzinger reflected on what stood at the roots of a united Europe. At the top of the list, he put the common inheritance of the Sacred Scripture and the tradition of the early Church, the same understanding of the empire and ecclesiology, and Christian monasticism — an enormous force lying outside and above politics.

According to Ratzinger, monasticism had provided again and again the impetus for a necessary rebirth of society and the Church. But, for Ratzinger, unity is also about continuity and a common collective memory, and a shared spirituality. Continuity has to do with a continuous memory of classical culture, and an awareness of common Christian faith in its Eastern and Western expressions, which translated into two traditions (East and West) of the same Church.

This was a conception of Europe as a distinct society, consisting of diversity in unity — diversity of peoples and cultures that were bound together by a network of mutual rights and obligations, and founded on a common spiritual citizenship and a common moral and intellectual culture. He conceived of Europe not as just geographical reality, but as a cultural, spiritual reality — a meeting place of the God of Israel and classical Greek thought.

Moreover, Ratzinger understood the European Union not only as a representation of economic unity but also as a manifestation of cultural and spiritual unity, founded on the Christian roots to which monasticism was one of the main contributors. This is what he said about European unity:

Of course, in order to create new and lasting unity, political, economic and juridical instruments are important, but it is also necessary to awaken an ethical and spiritual renewal which draws on the Christian roots of the Continent, otherwise a new Europe cannot be built.

Pope Benedict XVI’s concept of history is the history of a civilization that is solidly build on the dialogue between faith and reason. Thus, distancing the society from its Christian roots, identity and values is the reason for crisis. According to Ratzinger, Europe needs to recognize Christianity as the source of unity and identity:

… Europe which at one time, we can say, was the Christian continent, but which was also the starting point of that new scientific rationality which has given us great possibilities, as well as great threats. Christianity, it is true, did not start in Europe, and therefore it cannot even be classified as a European religion, the religion of the European cultural realm. But it received precisely in Europe its most effective cultural and intellectual imprint and remains, therefore, identified in a special way with Europe.
Furthermore, it is also true that this Europe, since the time of the Renaissance, and in a fuller sense since the time of the Enlightenment, has developed precisely that scientific rationality which not only in the era of the discoveries led to the geographic unity of the world, to the meeting of continents and cultures, but which today, much more profoundly, thanks to the technical culture made possible by science, imprints itself on the whole world, and even more than that, in a certain sense, gives it uniformity.

European civilization was built thanks to the work of the Benedictine monks and their schools of God’s service. Monasticism and monks welcomed the image of the creator God and his intervention in history. The founding of Europe as we know it would have been unthinkable without monasticism. What is at the foundations of Europe, according to Benedict XVI? What is his European legacy?

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.

Monasticism, monastic values and prayers accompanied Pope Benedict XVI on every step in his life and his pontificate. When he resigned, he retired to his Benedictine core — a life of silence and prayer in Mater Ecclesiae monastery in the Vatican.

When he resigned, he asked the contemplative monasteries and convents throughout the world for special payers for the conclave:

His Holiness Benedict XVI has asked all the faithful to accompany him with their prayers as he commends the Petrine ministry into the Lord’s hands, and to await with trust the arrival of the new Pope. In a particularly urgent way this appeal is addressed to those chosen members of the Church who are contemplatives. The Holy Father is certain that you, in your monasteries and convents throughout the world, will provide the precious resource of that prayerful faith which down the centuries has accompanied and sustained the Church along her pilgrim path. The coming conclave will thus depend in a special way on the transparent purity of your prayer and worship.

This was in a nutshell the “monk” in Pope Benedict XVI and his monastic theology and vision, which directed him throughout his entire life in search for and love of God, as his final words specify: “Jesus, ich liebe dich” (“Jesus, I love you”). In these last words, Pope Benedict XVI revealed that his life and work had led him to union with Christ. He had, through years of ora et labora, come to exemplify the Benedictine principle: “The love of Christ must come before all else.”

This is the foundation of European culture; it is the foundation of civilization; it is the foundation of human existence.