- The Washington Times - Monday, May 2, 2005

The Catholic Church has a new pope, Benedict XVI. As the media battle over whether this man is a “conservative,” or simply a humble servant of the Lord, I would like to step away from that argument to discuss his name, and what that can mean to all people.

Having graduated from St. John’s University — a Minnesota university founded by Benedictine monks — the name Benedict is significant in my life. The Benedictine Monastic Order, founded by St. Benedict, is among the oldest monastic orders. Benedictines emphasize prayer, work and hospitable community. Consistent with this philosophy, the monks at St. John’s have a devout schedule of prayer and Masses, which we were encouraged to participate in as students.

Further, aside from the work of educating, St. John’s monks over time have kept up a farm, baked their own bread, maintained a printing press and been active in woodworking and pottery. The hospitality and community of inclusiveness at St. John’s is unforgettable. I have fond memories of St. John’s being a friendly place that bustled with visitors.

The Benedictine way of life may not be aristocratic or “modern”; it is monastic, and certainly relevant. I decided to become a third-generation “Johnnie” because of my family’s tradition. Then, I knew little about the Benedictine tradition or St. Benedict. Today, I understand that I am fortunate to claim the Benedictine tradition as part of my heritage — in order to have a connection to St. Benedict’s namesake.

Names have been important through the ages. Many names have meanings, some names have historical significance, and all names help to create identity. We all like certain names — they are either biblical, or patriotic, or ethnic or unique. Or perhaps we know someone we admire who bears a particular name. Why did my brother and his wife name their son John Paul? It has meaning to them — it was borne by someone who served God with gentle determination. Names are also important for popes.

While there have been 16 popes named Benedict, St. Benedict himself was not a pope. He is the Patron Saint of Europe, due to his European evangelization. St. Benedict started several monasteries and performed many miracles. He was a holy man, remembered not as a scholar, but a leader, who focused on serving the Lord. The Rule of St. Benedict is a cornerstone of Benedictine virtues like humility, silence and obedience, which are linked to the values I witnessed at St. John’s — prayer, work and community. It is a prescription for a simple life, dedicated to the Lord.

This leads me to the question — why did our new pope choose the name Benedict? Humbly, I think the reason could be three-fold. First, perhaps he is telling us something about who he is — other than the “enforcer” of Catholic doctrine. Maybe he wants us to understand that there is more to the man — humility and prayerfulness.

Second, he could be sending a geographical message. The Church is growing more rapidly in Africa and Latin America than in the West. So, instead of the Church “going to its strengths,” perhaps Pope Benedict XVI wishes to confront where the Church is struggling some by choosing a name associated with the West — namely Europe.

Third, I hope that he is attempting to inspire us to sainthood. Perhaps he wants us to demonstrate holy leadership. We cannot properly help others unless we are fed by the Lord — if we are not prepared. In our modern society bent on self-gratification, entitlement and individualism, we could use more humility, silence, obedience, prayer, work and community.

Although St. Benedict was not a pope, he is a saint. But why do saints matter? Saints matter because they are examples — role models. With human flaws and temptations, they maximized their God-given gifts in such a courageous manner that they began to truly know God. Although not all saints had athletic, musical or even intellectual greatness — they knew how to serve the Lord. Few could doubt that our beloved late Pope John Paul II will be canonized a saint.

We are all called to be saints — like St. Benedict. Although it’s not easy, saints show us that it’s possible. The Bible states that much is expected of those who are given much. In America, many of our cups overflow. Further, democracy is the greatest secular, human manifestation of the Trinitarian view of free will. That leads to one conclusion — that we must be a beacon for this world, an example of a holy and responsible exercise of free will. By exercising our free will and embracing what St. Benedict has to teach — by striving to be saints — we stand a better chance of knowing God. Our new pope may be inviting all of us to this challenge by choosing the name Benedict XVI. If this is true, let us embrace that challenge by striving to live holy lives.

Matt Hughes graduated from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and resides in Washington.

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