Answering Gods Call
“Come, follow me.”
every Christian has
been challenged to respond
to this call to follow Christ
in his or her life. The response,
of course, is expressed
differently, depending upon
the person, the historical
moment and the culture
involved. However, every
now and then, someone
comes along who gives
such a unique and universal
interpretation to the call of
discipleship that it endures
the passing of centuries and
even thrives within new
cultures. Each of this
month’s three male founders
of religious communities
offers such a lasting and
adaptable response to the
call of Christ.
Benedict of Nursia emerged in the
midst of political and Church
chaos and turmoil. Fifth-century
Rome had fallen to the Germanic
king, Alaric, and soon all of Italy was
ravaged by the Goths. Heresies such as
Pelagianism, the denial of the need for
God’s grace in overcoming sinfulness,
as well as Arianism, the claim that the
Son was not equal to the Father, were
Our knowledge of Benedict comes
from Book 2 of the Dialogues of Pope
St. Gregory the Great. It’s important to
note that within the past three years, a
respected scholar has raised serious doubt
that the work was written by the hand
of the sainted pope and that Book 2 was
never intended as a modern biography.
Typical of medieval times, the book was
designed to enlighten and inspire—not
inform—with spiritual lessons taken
from the life of the saint.
Tradition says that
Benedict was born in
the mountain village of
Nursia, northeast of
Rome, around 480. Sent
to Rome for classical
studies, he found city life
not to his liking. He left
Rome and settled in the
mountain town of Enfide,
some 40 miles east.
An encounter with
Romanus, a monk from
the monastery at Subiaco,
gave Benedict a new
direction. At the advice
of the monk, Benedict
became a hermit for three
years. The monks of a
then persuaded him to
become their spiritual
leader. He agreed, only
to quickly discover that the monks
lacked enthusiasm and sincerity.
The Dialogues describe two murder
attempts on Benedict’s life, both
failing as a result of his miraculous
Benedict left those monks and
traveled south to establish 12 monasteries
with 12 monks each. Around
529, he moved to Monte Cassino,
destroyed a pagan temple dedicated
to Apollo and built his first monastery.
It was there that he wrote his famous
Rule and died on March 21, 547.
Rule for Life
Benedict is not mentioned in any literature
dated before the end of the sixth
century. His Rule, translated more often
than any other book except the Bible, has
had a greater impact than Benedict himself.
The Rule of St. Benedict is a masterful
interpretation of how to follow Christ.
The genius of Benedict’s Rule lies in
its wise and compassionate blending of
the rich Eastern monastic traditions with
changes appropriate to contemporary
times. Moderation and common sense
are its hallmarks as it provides order and
stability in the midst of chaotic times.
It outlines a family lifestyle within the
walls of a monastery with little of the
harshness and penitential practices of
The liturgy, especially the Divine
Office, plays a major daily role. Manual
labor provides income and alms for the
poor. Guests are welcomed as Christ.
The abbot, head of the family and representative
of Christ, communicates the
will of God after seeking advice from
his monks, especially the younger ones.
Obedience, in its original meaning of
listening, is the monk’s primary response
to the Word of God and to the abbot.
One’s daily life is characterized by reverence
for God’s continual presence and
climbing the 12 rungs of humility.
Though there were many other
monastic Rules in circulation at the time,
the Church Council held at Aix-la-Chapelle in 817 proposed Benedict’s
as the basic Rule of western monastic
life. And today, thousands of men and
women, from Perth, Australia, to
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, continue
to find its meaning and message suitable
for their contemporary times and culture.
St. Francis of Assisi (1182?-1226)
Seven centuries later, another Italian
would “follow in the footprints of
Christ,” not behind the walls of a
monastery but in the streets. Unlike the
monk whose Rule left a greater impression
than his personality, the charismatic
person and life of Francis of Assisi would shape and outshine the Rules
he left behind.
Born into the emerging merchant
class of Assisi, probably in 1182,
the adolescent Francis had dreams
of becoming a famous knight. Those
dreams were quickly dashed as he lay
captured in neighboring Perugia.
Gaining his freedom and returning
home to convalesce, he and the evolution
of his “evangelical lifestyle” would be
greatly influenced by significant events
over the next 20 or so years. This manner
of life, unique in its radical interpretation
of the Gospels and obedience to the
pope, consisted of voluntary poverty,
care for the sick and preaching the
message of Jesus to others.
The person of Christ
Outside Assisi’s walls lay a leper hospital
run by the Brothers of St. Anthony.
One day, on his walk outside the town,
Francis encountered a leper. Surprising
even himself, he embraced the leper, an
event that he subsequently attributed to
God’s grace. Later versions of the story
have the leper vanishing after the kiss.
Francis discovered in this leper
the person of Christ: poor, crucified, a
beggar. Following in Christ’s footprints,
he decided to live his life exactly in
this way. And so, renouncing his family
inheritance and donning the rough tunic of a penitent, he started living on
the margins of society, as a beggar among
his “brothers-Christ,” the lepers.
People took notice and wanted to
follow the same path. With about a dozen
followers, Francis approached the pope
for permission to preach penance and
conversion. Permission was granted, and
a preaching ministry developed.
According to tradition, one day some
townsfolk refused to listen to Francis. So
he went into the forest and preached to the
birds. This incident, along with the famous
song he composed toward the end of his
life, Canticle of the Creatures, gave birth to
the tradition of animal stories associated
with Francis. It witnesses to the brotherhood
and sisterhood of all creation as a
gift from the divine almsgiver.
For Christmas 1223, in the town of
Greccio, Francis combined the liturgy
with an enactment of the stable scene
at Bethlehem. With donkey and sheep,
and with townsfolk portraying the Holy
Family, Francis transformed the feast
of Christmas into a celebration of the
humility of God. This humility, which
Francis also saw evident in the Eucharist
as Jesus comes under the appearance of
bread, characterizes the relationships
of all Francis’ followers.
In September 1224, while he made
a 40-day retreat on Mount La Verna,
Francis’ devotion to the crucified Christ,
begun in the encounter with the leper,
blossomed forth in his body as God
branded him with the stigmata, the
very wounds of Christ. Devotion to
the Crucified’s love would be unique
to Franciscans before entering mainstream
Catholic spirituality in the
So closely did Francis follow in the
footprints of Christ that some 50 years
after his death in 1226, he was referred
to as an alter Christus, “another Christ.”
Indeed, this shows the power of his
person that inspires and influences both
the spirituality and religious orders that
bear his name. His devotion to the crib,
the Eucharist and the cross, all suggesting God’s humility and love, continues to
find expression in countries and cultures
from Asia to the Americas.
St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556)
The Franciscans and Benedictines
played a role in the life of the
16th-century founder of the
Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.
Ignatius was born in the Basque
province of northern Spain in 1491. As
a teen, he became a page in service to
the treasurer of the kingdom of Castile.
In 1521, while defending the town of
Pamplona against the French, he was
wounded in one leg and had the other
broken by a cannonball.
During his recuperation, Ignatius
read the lives of the saints, including
that of Francis of Assisi, and decided
to imitate them. Regaining his strength
but now with a permanent limp,
he made his way to the Benedictine
monastery of Montserrat. After
dedicating himself to the Virgin Mary,
he continued on to the Holy Land,
where he hoped to convert non-
God in all things
Ignatius’s decision to spend time in
a cave near the town of Manresa,
Catalonia, proved crucial. The intended
few days became 10 months. While he
was there, the ideas of what became his
great gift to the history of spirituality,
the Spiritual Exercises, took shape.
The Exercises are both an experience
of discerning direction in life and a
handbook for guiding and facilitating
the experience. Designed originally as
an experience for a director and an
individual, the Exercises came to be
used in groups and gave birth to the
modern-day preached retreat.
Ignatius had a vision while at
Manresa. Though he never described
it, he said he learned more from it than
he did during the rest of his life. The
effect of this vision was impressive:
Ignatius was able to find God in all
things. All of Jesuit spirituality flows
from this grace.
Arriving in the Turkish-held Holy
Land where the situation was tense and
dangerous, he was ordered to leave by
the Franciscan who had authority over
Catholics. Returning to Spain, Ignatius
began studies in Latin with the hope
of becoming a priest. After classes,
he began explaining the Gospels and
teaching prayer to fellow students and
others. He attracted the attention of
the Spanish Inquisition for suspected
heresy and was thrown into jail. He
moved to another city and was jailed
again, this time by the Dominicans;
he left Spain for Paris to continue his
studies for the priesthood.
Serving the pope
His roommates at the University of
Paris were Francis Xavier and Peter
Faber. Along with four other students,
they took vows of poverty and chastity.
Thinking of themselves more as
individual priests than as a religious
order, they placed themselves at the
service of the pope in 1538. The pope
commissioned them to teach theology
and Scripture and to preach.
Ignatius’ companions met in
Rome the following Lent. After weeks
of prayer and discussion, they formed
a community in service to the pope.
This became a vow in addition to the
traditional vows of poverty, chastity
and obedience. A reluctant Ignatius
was unanimously elected superior
general of the new Society of Jesus
Ignatius spent the next 15 years,
until his death in 1556, composing the
Constitutions of the Society as well as
writing letters to Jesuits as close as Italy
and Portugal and as far away as Brazil
Though Ignatius had no intention
of including education as a ministry
of the Society, requests by rulers and
bishops soon gave birth to what the
Jesuits are best known for today.
They teach to fulfill their motto,
“Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam” (“to the
greater glory of God”).
Next: Women Founders of Religious Orders
Respond to Christ’s call in a lasting and intentional way. Follow in the footsteps of…
• St. Benedict of Nursia, who wrote a Rule of life that has guided many in their following of Christ. Write down your own “Rule” for your life. Share it with your family, friends or small faith community.
• St. Francis of Assisi, who discovered the person of Christ in a leper and the humility of Christ in his birth in a stable. Explore the “lowly” persons and places where Christ may be found in your life. Evaluate who you try to impress, and why.
• St. Ignatius Loyola, whose Spiritual Exercises led to modern-day preached retreats. Plan to participate in a retreat or make a commitment of time to spiritual reading and prayer to discern the direction of the next phase of your life.
Share how these and other saints inspire you
We will post selected inspirations in this feature.
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