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What’s in a name?

Patty Fawkner SGS*

The 265th Bishop of Rome has broken with very recent tradition by not becoming John Paul III. It’s been said that the name chosen by the Pope gives an indication of the direction and style of his pontificate. So the new Pope's choice of the name Benedict XVI is very encouraging – the original Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, being a man noted for his holiness and wisdom.

Saint Benedict wrote a Rule and proposed a way of life which, fifteen hundred years later, continues to attract and guide women and men in all continents of the globe. And he had much to say about church leadership.

The leader (the Abbot) of Benedict’s community was to be chosen pre-eminently for his goodness of life and wisdom in teaching. Benedict’s leader was to be a realist, aware of the faults of members of his community, but never judging them. The leader was to be merciful and to love the members of the community – all of them – from the most observant to the most recalcitrant. Let him, said Benedict, strive to be loved rather than feared.

Many commentators have said that the contemporary Catholic church is divided along ideological lines, between the so-called “progressives” and "conservatives”. What would Saint Benedict’s advice be to Benedict XVI, as he confronts such a reality? In one beautiful phrase, Benedict said that the leader of the community “must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from”.

St Benedict’s faith community was and still is one in which the abbot exercises true pastoral leadership. He is less concerned with legalism and efficiency and more concerned with healing and holiness of life. Surprisingly for the time in which he lived, Benedict moved against a number of patriarchy’s values: humble service was valued over self-aggrandisement; the weak were cared for rather than exploited; gifts and talents were nurtured for the good of the community and the glory of God rather than for self-gain. As then, so now. Benedict’s is an inclusive community which promotes a strong egalitarian ethos among its members.

Benedict upholds obedience as a key virtue. But this obedience is not a mindless submissiveness, rather a deep listening for the voice of the Spirit at work within the individual and the community. The first word of Benedict’s Rule is “Listen”. All members of the community and the leader in particular, are to listen “with the ear of the heart”.

Benedict's council of senior advisors is convened only when less important decisions are to be made. For important matters all are to be consulted. The leader has the final word, but only after listening carefully to all the voices, even those voices which can readily be marginalised. In Benedict’s time, these were the voices of the young. “God often reveals what is best to the younger”, he believed. There are many marginalized voices in the contemporary church yearning to be heard – the voices of women, the divorced, men who have left the priestly ministry, gays and lesbians are among the more obvious.

Our new Pope, Benedict XVI, has asked his people to pray for him. I pray that he will follow in the footsteps, and share in the wisdom, of his namesake.


* Patty Fawkner is the Director of Uniya and a Sister of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict


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