The Benedict Option Is Not For Me


Full disclosure: I did not actually read the book “The Benedict Option”. Spiritdaily and a NY Times article is where I gleaned information about this movement in the Church. I did, however, have limited exposure to the idea of Covenant Communities in my parish. About years ago, a very holy, sincere parish priest and several parish families were trying to form a Covenant Community in Howell, NJ. I’m not sure how it all turned out, but they were sincere and devout. My understanding of the theory of the Benedict Option is that the Culture War has been lost and that faithful Catholics must retreat to Covenant Communities. While I do agree the Culture War has been lost, I am against retreating. I will not condemn their efforts or fears but I’m more of a fighter, so retreat is not for me. I’m originally from Brooklyn. As the rap song says, “never back up, never back down.” That is a New Yorker’s motto.

The Culture War Is Lost

The book suggests that we are in a post-Christian era. We are. Okay, so what? Years ago, I was exploring different Catholic groups that sparked my interest. It boiled down to Opus Dei and the Franciscans. In response to a promise to St. Anthony of Padua, I chose the Franciscans. During my formation years, we studied a lot about Francis and his movement. He and his brothers were truly living the way every Catholic Christian should live in a medieval world that was not always friendly to the Church. In many ways, the Church and the world were experiencing the same maladies then as today. St. Francis and St. Anthony of Padua did not retreat. They never backed up and they never backed down.  There is too much to unpack about Francis and the early Franciscans in this essay but I will briefly reflect on it here and there. As a nod to Opus Dei, I must say that I was truly impressed with the quality of men I had the privilege to meet. They are a great holy group of men. They too never backed up and never back down. I wish they had a group in Monmouth County; we need them.

Be In The World Not Of It

Franciscans are taught to be in the world, not of it. That means we need to be out there hugging spiritual lepers. It means we have to first reflect on our own personal leprosy in order to embrace others in Christ. Facing our true selves stripped of all pretense, pride and false faces takes courage. Examining ourselves honestly means not backing up and not backing down from seeing the true person behind all our façades. It also means we can not retreat behind the safe walls of a church building or insular exclusive communities.

Go Out Joyfully Into The World But Be Humble

Last week, after I came out of Confession, I took my place at daily Mass. As the priest elevated Our Lord I felt elated at feeling His love. I felt clean, free from sin, in total communion with Christ. I was so joyful. Then I heard in my heart the Lord speak to me. It was almost in a chiding way. I heard these words interiorly as if spoken by Jesus. “Do you think I loved you any less before you went to Confession?” The message was clear. A form of spiritual pride had invaded me and the Lord spoke to my leprosy. I sat there and thought to myself, wow! My joy was still there but my ego had been tempered. I looked at myself at that moment and in the Presence of the Lord, I was humbled. Jesus never backs up and He never backs down either. If we listen carefully, we can hear Him. After Mass. I went joyfully back out into the World. I felt as if I was a shiny new penny, but tempered, looking at everyone I saw as if they too were shiny new pennies. I resolved, once again, to see Jesus in every person I met.

The Benedict Option As Retreat From Church Ministry

When I read the Spiritdaily article on the Benedict Option, I was elated. I interpreted the Benedict Option as a solution to the trials I was experiencing at my home parish. My efforts at ministry to the forgotten seniors at a nursing home and an outreach effort for the sick were thwarted. An unwelcome attitude also disbanded our men’s adoration group that gathered on Thursday nights for the past ten years. All this justified the Benedict Option for me, which meant retreating from Church ministry, not the world.

Retreating From Volunteerism In My Parish

After these series of disappointments, I decided to retreat from any meaningful volunteerism in my home parish. I was advised by family to just minister to those who come my way. I’m active at my work parish in Manhattan, which is exhilarating. There is a vibrant active faith among the people and clergy there. It is a spiritual oasis, a refreshment from the aridity that now permeates my home parish.  I retreated from the actual parish for a while and attended a neighboring parish. It was a good retreat. I found that in this circumstance, backing up, stepping away and taking time to access my own short comings, accessing my feelings in an unbiased way and then weighing the spiritual pros and cons was best. I have reluctantly returned to my home parish for now. It is a true test of my patience. I consider it as doing my purgatory on earth. What I discovered is that many other parishioners feel the same way. Many have left the parish, one family left the Catholic Church altogether. That is never the answer. We can’t like everyone and pastors can’t make everyone happy. The Benedict Option as I interpreted it seemed like the answer. But what would Jesus do?

Jesus Did Not Exercise The Benedict Option

Jesus was out in the world. He ate with sinners. His mission was to sinners. He loves us. Who did He criticize? The religious elites and the Jewish priests. These elites and priests were the same people who would not enter heaven and prevented others from entering. He advised the crowds about the clerical hypocrites saying do as they tell you but don’t follow their example. Jesus stayed in the world and participated in the Temple rites, reading Torah and proclaiming His identity to His people. They thwarted His mission. Jesus didn’t back up and didn’t back down. He confronted them. They crucified Him. The Church sometimes crucifies its own saints through persecution. Several examples come immediately to mind. They are in no particular order, St. Padre Pio, St. Joan of Arc, the Cure d’Ars, St. Anne Catherine Emmerich,  St. Anthony of Padua, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bernadette, The Fatima children, St. Therese of Lisieux and the list goes on. None of them backed up or backed down. None of them took the Benedict Option. Every one of them was raised to the altar because of their love, sanctity, and patience.

Saint Augustine tells us “The wicked exist in this world either to be converted or through them the good may exercise patience”.  So I guess I will have many years to learn patience ahead of me.

Priests Are People Too

I have many priest friends. Priests are people too. They sin, have bad days, suffer and must deal with the laity. They do not have easy jobs. I do not expect them to be perfect, but I do expect them to prioritize the spiritual well being of the flock. Clericalism was and is the scourge of the Church Militant and the reason the Church collapsed in Europe. The collapse in the Americas is in full force now in large part because of clericalism. They say a leopard doesn’t change his spots and so it is with clerics who forget the mission of the Church. Only serious prayer or a miracle can convert them.  That being said, overall, most of the priests I know I really like and respect. I love priests. I love the Church and that is why am so passionate about her. Zeal for Her consumes me!

Catholic Stand Provides A Platform

After two years of anguish, anger, and prayer, I reflected on the what would Jesus do question. I reflected on St. Francis. I learned from studying the life of St. Francis that he looked on occasions of persecution as opportunities for grace. He was joyful even when he was abused. I learned that I am nowhere like Francis. I think that when clergy abuse their power, take the faithful for granted or prevent them from ministry they need to be called out. Being a cradle Catholic, I also know the Church is not changing her modus operandi for me. I can’t back up and I can’t back down. Retreat from Church ministry via the Benedict Option is not for me.  After much prayer and then reading Spritdaily I found Catholic Stand. I was inspired. Maybe I could write essays about my faith journey? What a great way to evangelize. So I applied and was accepted. That never back up never back down attitude kicked right back in. I am grateful to Catholicstand for allowing me a platform and a way out of the Benedict Option.

The Benedict Option Is Not For Me

Many people in Covenant Communities would disagree with my characterization of the Benedict Option movement. Maybe my understanding of it is incorrect. But, like St. Francis of Assisi I enjoy being in the world. I enjoy interacting with people of differing religious views and practicing Catholic apologetics. The scandals in the Church make it harder than it used to be to defend our positions on high moral ground. The greatest truth in defending our Church that I love so very much is in the lesson of Judas. This man was called by Jesus to be a priest but chose his own way. He stole from the communal purse, he lied, he bore false witness against the Lord and took a bribe to betray Him to the Jewish High Priest. Even though Judas was one of their number, he was really just a wolf in sheep’s clothing out for himself. St. Francis had to deal with corrupt clergy and familial opposition. His ministry was thwarted and at the end of his life, he was cast aside by his own Order. Padre Pio was persecuted by scandalous clergy. St. Joan of Arc was martyred by the Church leaders. So the bottom line is that there have always been Judases in the Church and there always will be. People with good intentions are sometimes injured by the shepherds they rely on to protect them. Saints have been persecuted by men and women of the Church. That is nothing new. It will happen until the coming of the Lord. Retreating from the Church or the world is not the answer for me. Working in active ministry within the confines of my home parish walls has become futile, but will not stop me from serving the Lord. I must approach the challenges of a broken Church and fallen world as Francis did, with resolute patience and holy joy. I’m not there yet, but I  will never back up and never back down. I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church. Let us pray for our priests and thank God for them.