St. Benedict & the crucifix

The responsibility of Christians for the future of Europe

“Non nisi in obscura sidera nocte micant”, the darker the night, the more brilliantly do the stars shine: the words are inscribed on the jambs of the doorway of the monastery of Subiaco. While we celebrate the feast of St. Benedict (11 July), we have no difficulty in recognizing that the dark night of the Roman Empire between the fifth and sixth century closely resembles the dark night of Europe, which began to take shape on the ashes of that Empire, and of which the founder of the Benedictine order born at Norcia in 480 was a far-sighted precursor. The ancient world had ended and the dawn of a new world had not yet been sensed on the horizon, and so Benedict lived at night, but in a dark night spangled with luminous stars.Three stars, in a synthesis of light between faith, culture and work: the cross, the book and the plough form, together, the symbols and tools of Benedictine reconstruction, which was not limited to reclaiming the abandoned lands, but strove to implant the “Christian city” in the heart of man. The cross was the foundation of everything, because “nothing must be placed before the love of Christ”, as the “Rule” of St. Benedict says. Under the gaze of the crucifix men once again discover themselves to be sons and brothers; they learn to live with their various mentalities, to read, to write, to copy and to transmit to a disintegrating world, as bricks of a new culture.On 30 June this year – it scarcely seems true, but it is so – in a solemn and composed atmosphere, the panel of judges in the Grande Chambre, supreme chamber of the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, gathered for a new stage in the proceeding on the display of the crucifix in Italian public schools. One thousand and five hundred years after Benedict there are those who want to extirpate the cross from Europe, considering it injurious to the freedom of education that children ought to enjoy. As is well known, Italy presented a recourse against the sentence of 3 November 2009 (banning the display of the crucifix in Italian classrooms), and the lawyer Nicola Lettieri, speaking on behalf of the Italian government, declared that “it seems instead there’s a wish to impose on all European countries the extraneousness of religion” in national life and its confinement to the private sphere. “The crucifix – he added – is a passive and mute symbol that does not influence the education children receive at school and that is present in public schools not to convert anyone, but as an element of Italian culture and tradition”.The recourse of the Italian government was backed by Joseph Weiler, Professor of Law at the University of New York. He was representing some states that have given their support to Italy, and more particularly: Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Russia and San Marino. Weiler declared: “The States I represent agree on the fact that the Convention of Human Rights protects both freedom of religion and freedom from religion”, in other words the free choice of anyone to have no religious credo at all. Eight countries out of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe: a rather small number. And what about the other States? Where do they stand? “The darker the night, the more brilliantly do the stars shine”. The words inscribed on the jambs of the doorway of the sixth century monastery continue to be true in this Europe of the early years of the third millennium invested by the economic crisis, but even more affected by a deep cultural crisis that is making them forget from whence their roots come. Abbot Benedict continues to repeat unaltered his message in which the cross throws light on the book and the plough. Another Benedict, the Pope in Rome, loses no occasion to recall us to the responsibility that Christians have for the future of humanity. He did so again at Sulmona on 4 July, recalling the cross of his illustrious predecessor, Celestine V who, in renouncing the papacy, paradoxically reaffirmed the primacy of the Gospel roots from which our faith springs.

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