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Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI’s Address on Cultural Renewal

January 11, 2023


Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy will be found mainly in his speeches and writings. His Regensburg Address, encyclicals, wednesday audiences, and Jesus of Nazareth trilogy will continue to be read, but there are many more of his writings and speeches yet to be more widely known. One of my favorites is an address he delivered to the Representatives of the World of Culture at the College des Bernardins, a thirteenth-century Cistercian abbey founded by the abbot of Clairvaux near the University of Paris (now the Sorbonne), the intellectual center of medieval Europe, in 2008. It was delivered to inaugurate the college’s restoration after centuries of abandonment and its renewal as a cultural center in Paris in 2008. This address is a good introduction to the centrality that monasticism had not only in Pope Benedict’s life—he chose the name “Benedict,” the famous monk of Western monasticism, and lived like a monk after his resignation—but also in how he thought about culture, work, education, and ecclesial life. By becoming familiar with this address, educators concerned about the fate of Catholic education will better see what is necessary for its renewal. It is simpler and yet more profound than you might think. 

The late Dr. David L. Schindler, editor of Communio—a journal founded by Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)—made this address required reading in his famous “Faith and American Culture” class. Dr. Schindler personally knew Pope Benedict and visited him shortly after his resignation. I was taking this class around the time Dr. Schindler made this visit. By all accounts, the Pope was now living the cloistered life of a monk, praying for the Church. Dr. Schindler found this fitting, remarking that praying for the Church was more powerful than all politics. After this, with his usual smirk, Dr. Schindler introduced the class to Benedict’s address, laughing that to the ministers of the world of culture, Pope Benedict decided to focus on singing monks and the search for God. But this was just right. According to Dr. Schindler and Pope Benedict, culture flows out of the search for God, the quaerere Deum

Culture is the byproduct of our loves, and Christian culture, which Benedict argues is the root of European culture, is the consequence of seeking the face of the Lord in Jesus Christ, the Word—or as Benedict puts it, “creative Reason”—made flesh. 

This is a point worth repeating today given all the commentary on questions of culture. While detailed analysis of why culture matters is important, Benedict’s simple approach to Catholic culture is worth reconsidering: worship creates culture; culture does not generate itself. Monks never set out to create a culture; their goal was quaerere Deum (the search for God). Benedict says that they were “eschatologically orientated” in that they were seeking the definitive behind the provisional. Knowing that God has given us signposts in the words of Scripture, their culture was a culture of the word. And given that the word of God revealed God as Creator who was “still working” (John 5:18), labor took on a nobility absent in many ancient cultures’ divinities that, like their aristocracy, believed labor to be undignified or at least not fit for a god. The culture that took root in Europe shaped its education too. 

Under the monks, education was eschatologically orientated: it was a quest for the Eternal, that is, the quaerere Deum. And in seeking God, students were formed to become like God who has come to us as the Last Man, the Resurrected, Eucharistic Jesus who not only dwells (prays) “with the Father” but appeared to Mary Magdalene as a gardener, the perfection of the life of Adam. In Jesus, we find the way, the truth, and the life. The goal of the educator is to lead students down various ways, behind which is the Way of the Lord. So even if the goal is to form a student to be a worker, the goal ought to never be a mere worker but as someone who participates in the life of God and his creativity. 

Catholic school leaders eager to make school culture more Catholic ought to study monastic culture in works like the one cited four times by Pope Benedict XVI in his address: Jean Leclercq’s The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. While the book has some flaws—such as Leclercq’s too stark contrast between scholastic culture and monastic culture—it is a good explanation as to why the quaerere Deum (the search for the God who is “creative Reason”) lies at the heart of good education. Like abbots, school leaders ought to encourage their teachers to be on fire for the Lord, seeking his face in all the signposts of creation and the word, and teaching students how to read them with intelligence.

As my friend and mentor Larry Chapp often says regarding educational reform, “People are policy.” If a school’s faculty are indifferent to the Lord, the school will never have a true Catholic culture. Changing that is not an easy fix. No teacher workshops, curriculums, or mission statements will renew a school in the faith. Only a conversion of hearts will suffice. Is this likely to happen in most Catholic schools? Probably not. But there are some things we can do to make this more likely. The first thing is to begin with prayer, cultivating a silence ready to hear the Lord. 

In addition to the faculty, the school ought to be architecturally ordered around the quaerere Deum as well. The school chapel ought to be central to the design of the school. Like the temple in Jerusalem, the chapel and its Eucharistic altar are the source and summit of the school community. Education must find its apex in the liturgy, where we find communion with the One through whom all things were made. Education is about excellence. And human excellence is found in orthodoxy: ortho + doxia = right divine praise. Thus, good education is ultimately connected to right divine praise. Culture finds expression in the way we build, but how we live is also influenced by our built environment. Investing in the chapel is a good place to begin cultural renewal in the school. 

Benedict XVI’s address is a reminder of Israel’s shema prayer, taken from Deuteronomy 6:4. Paraphrasing the prayer, we can say: seek the Lord and the soul will revive; seek the Lord and the culture will revive; seek the Lord and even schools will revive. Sadly, our hearts, like pharaoh’s, are hardened, and we would rather worship idols than the true Lord, making our souls, culture, and schools dead. They have entered what St. Bernard of Clairvaux called “the zone of dissimiliarity.” And like the College des Bernardins, it may take decades, perhaps centuries, for things to be restored. Perhaps we live in an age like St. Benedict’s. A new Dark Age may be upon us, only now under the guise of technocracy and various postmodern ideologies. But like St. Benedict and Pope Benedict we ought to plant good seed. Eventually, such seed will blossom. And like Catholic cultures of the past, it may take centuries for the good seed to blossom. Pope Benedict’s seed is querere Deum—setting out in search of God. We ought to cherish this text like good seed and pray for the conditions by which the culture it calls for may grow.