There’s a perceptive article by Christopher Levenick on the Weekly Standard’s site. It’s titled “Monkish: What the increase of monastic vocations in Italy could mean for European secularism”.
First, the surpising data:
Italy [...] is often viewed as a case study in secularization. Yet across the peninsula, weekly attendance at Catholic Mass has been steadily climbing for two decades. In 1980, roughly 35 percent of Italians regularly attended the Mass; by 2000 that figure had climbed to nearly 50 percent.
But even more pregnant with possible significance is Italy’s sudden surge in new monastic vocations. A recent conference organized by the Vicariate of Rome and the Unione Superiore Maggiori D’Italia revealed that in the last year, no fewer than 550 women entered cloistered convents–up from 350 two years earlier. In contrast to recent trends, the new candidates were predominantly native-born and college-educated Italians. Similar gains are said to have occurred among male monastics.
It may seem strange that Europe’s woes can be cured by a retreat from the world. Some may be more likely to argue that many of its current problems are political and economic, and therefore must be corrected by policy reforms undertaken by political leaders. If secularization and demographics are the main problems, the answer would seem to involve more people going to church, marrying and raising families. Europeans must become more, not less, engaged with worldly matters, it would seem.
So how does a devotion to prayer and manual labor help this dire situation?
Here is Levenick’s answer:
IT IS REASONABLE [...] to see more hopeful signs in a possible monastic renaissance. This is certainly the view of Pope Benedict XVI, who views monasticism as one of three historic elements which forged Latin, Greek, Slavic, Nordic, and Germanic cultures into the amalgam known as Europe. Monasticism, Benedict recently noted, has long been “the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental and religious and moral values.” It acts as “a pre-political and supra-political force,” which brings “ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization.” (Even Gibbon conceded that “posterity must be grateful to acknowledge, that the monuments of Greek and Roman literature have been preserved and multiplied by [the monks'] indefatigable pens.”) Benedict’s high sense of monastic purpose dovetails neatly with his belief that a small but vibrant church will be well positioned to invigorate Western civilization.
In its own way, monasticism may provide the spiritual energies needed for cultural renewal and reform – and as George Weigel has argued, there can be no “re-form” without a concern for the “form” of Christian life, i.e. religious life. It’s a fascinating argument about which much more can and should be said.