At a recent general audience, Pope Benedict was speaking about the Church’s ability to constantly renew and reform herself and the society around her in every time and place, and he used the example of the Mendicant Orders that arose in the 13th century: the Dominicans and Franciscans.

Aside from my joy that the Holy Father spoke about Dominicans, it also gave me great joy to hear him speak about the Medieval Church and Medieval Saints.  It was a very different age, of course, and yet I always find that it resonates with me.  I don’t think it was as different as we may think today.  The word “medieval” has a connotation today that is far more negative than it deserves.

In fact, the Medieval Church was dealing with some of the same issues our modern Church faces: issues such as the role of the laity, the universal call to holiness, the relationship between faith and reason, and the necessity of the Church’s voice in the academy and in society at large.

Not a few lay faithful, who lived in greatly expanding cities, wished to practice a spiritually intense Christian life. Hence they sought to deepen their knowledge of the faith and to be guided in the arduous but exciting path of holiness. Happily, the Mendicant Orders were also able to meet this need: the proclamation of the Gospel in simplicity and in its depth and greatness was one objective, perhaps the main objective of this movement. … They dealt with themes close to the life of the people, especially the practice of the theological and moral virtues, with concrete examples, easily understood. Moreover, they taught ways to nourish the life of prayer and piety. … Hence it is not surprising that the faithful were numerous, women and men, who chose to be supported in their Christian journey by the Franciscan and Dominican Friars, sought after and appreciated spiritual directors and confessors.

Thus were born associations of lay faithful that were inspired by the spirituality of Sts. Francis and Dominic, adapted to their state of life. It was the Third Order, whether Franciscan or Dominican. In other words, the proposal of a “lay sanctity” won many people. As the Second Vatican Council recalled, the call to holiness is not reserved to some, but is universal (cf. “Lumen Gentium,” 40). In every state of life, according to the needs of each, there is the possibility of living the Gospel. Also today every Christian must tend to the “lofty measure of Christian life,” no matter what state of life he belongs to!

Ha, did you see that? He linked the 13th century with Vatican II! One of the things I love about being a Lay Dominican is that I am indeed part of a tradition that traces itself all the way back to the 13th century, and yet it remains incredibly relevant and up-to-date. I do sort of wish that the Holy Father had mentioned that these religious third orders still exist and still provide a powerful means for people to seek out the “lay sanctity” that has been talked about so much since Vatican II. We hear lots about “lay sanctity” today… but not nearly enough about the religious third orders. I think we need to work on that.

The greatest thinkers, Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, were mendicants, operating in fact with this dynamism of the new evangelization, which also renewed the courage of thought, of dialogue between reason and faith. Today also there is a “charity of and in truth,” an “intellectual charity” to exercise, to enlighten intelligences and combine faith with culture. The widespread commitment of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the Medieval universities is an invitation, dear faithful, to make oneself present in places of the elaboration of learning, to propose, with respect and conviction, the light of the Gospel on the fundamental questions that concern man, his dignity, and his eternal destiny. Thinking of the role of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the Middle Ages, of the spiritual renewal they aroused, of the breath of new life that they communicated in the world, a monk says: “At that time the world was growing old. Two orders arose in the Church, from which it renewed its youth, like that of an eagle” (Burchard d’Ursperg, Chronicon).

Through the example of the great saint scholars, the Holy Father is calling us to bring our faith into the academy, to “combine faith with culture.”  I can’t help but think that this is a much taller order today than it was in the Medieval period.  I constantly struggle with it.

As a Catholic, and particularly as a Lay Dominican, I consider it my duty and also my right to carry my faith wherever I go–to carry it as a lantern that casts its light around me and before me and upon everything and everybody I come in contact with.  If I did not do so, I would risk not only losing my way, but also losing myself.  And yet there is at least a little part of me that has been manufactured by a very secularist society and a secularist educational system.  And a little voice that always tempts me to keep my faith shut up in a box… to keep my lantern hidden away, my light beneath a bushel basket.

I’m sure the Medieval scholars had their own struggles and challenges–although I can’t imagine that secularism was one of them.   No, secularism is the great challenge of our era.  The challenge for the future Saints now living among us.  Facing it will come down to heroic virtue.  To conviction and to courage.  To God’s grace transforming that little part of us that has been manufactured by our society.

Anyway, I highly recommend reading the full address.  The Dominican Province of St. Joseph (eastern U.S.) has a full translation at their blog.

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