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Benedictine College’s March 31-April 1 Symposium on the New Evangelization was not planned as a “Benedict Option” conference, but that is what it became.
The Benedict Option is the title of a new book by Rod Dreher that advocates using principles of Benedictine spirituality to preserve and extend Christian culture in a hostile environment. Dreher was the first keynote of the conference, followed by three keynotes who referenced his work: Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez and Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb. In between, leaders in the New Evangelization shared academic and practical insights, often in talks that incorporated one or another “option” into the titles: The Marian Option, the Francis Option, etc.
Dreher later summed up his Symposium experience on his blog.
“I’ve never been to Benedictine College, but — wow,” Dreher wrote. “It is very easy for me, living inside my online silo, to become too focused on doom and gloom. So to come to a place like this little orthodox Catholic liberal arts college on the Missouri River, and to see so many young people who are faithful, happy, and … normal — well, I can’t tell you how encouraging it is.”
He went on to compare the college to the Benedict Option:
“What they’re doing at this small liberal arts Catholic college is a great example of the Benedict Option. The thickness and the richness of the traditional spiritual and intellectual life here is startling, in a very, very good way. It’s great to be able to point to one more place in the world and say, ‘There! What they’re doing there — go see it, and learn from it.’”
In his keynote address, he explained, “The Benedict Option can take many forms. It can mean strengthening local communities that already exist — your parish, this college — or starting new institutions, such as classical Christian schools. that depends on us.”
Patrick Deneen, Chair of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame, the next morning’s keynote, spelled out the dark times we are in that need a Benedict Option.
“Today’s secularists are not pagans but draw their beliefs from a positive form of secularism. It is not the secularism of a Nietzsche but secular progressivism is a development out of Christianity. Today’s elite secularists should be considered the disciples of a set of Christian heresies,” he said. He even listed them: Pelagianism, Manicheanism, and Gnosticism.
The remaining keynotes were Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review and Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.
Lopez came late to the conference after a cancelled flight and amid a “Tweetstorm” of publicity to her nearly 4,000 Twitter followers about the Symposium.
Bishop Conley finished the event with a strong message about the need for silence.
“We have become distracted participants in a distracted culture,” Said Bishop Conley. “We need to cultivate a spirituality of silence … especially before the Lord in adoration”
He warned about the ways smartphones and other forms of technology are taking over our lives.
“The impact of our devices is not really about the content we consume, it is about the devices themselves,” he said. “We develop a near-compulsive relationship with our technology.”
“If we don’t manage technology, technology is going to manage us,” he said, and called for “periods of disconnectedness” from technology.
First, speaking of St. Benedict’s Rule on the subject of silence, he said, “Benedict doesn’t monopolize his Rule. It’s really a part of all these options.”
But then, as he was completing the talk, he said “Learning to be silent and listen to the master is the urgent first step to transforming the culture” — but his final sentence was interrupted by a cell phone, as if to prove his point.
The Symposium ended with a send-off of its organizers, David Trotter, director of Mission and Ministry at Benedictine College and Matt Muller, director of the Institute for Mission and Ministry. Both are moving on — Trotter to a key new post at FOCUS and Muller to a teaching position in the Benedictine College theology department.
Dean of Students and Gregorian Fellows Director Dr. Joseph Wurtz thanked both for their work on the symposium, which is expected to return again next year, the 50th anniversary year of the Humanae Vitae encyclical.