Christians struggling for sanctity in a too-comfortable world should pay attention to this observation by Mark Noll: "For over a millennium, in the centuries between the reign of Constantine and the Protestant Reformation, almost everything in the church that approached the highest, noblest, and truest ideals of the gospel was done either by those who had chosen the monastic way or by those who had been inspired in their Christian life by the monks." Can Western monasticism's "father," Benedict, still give us an antidote to cultural compromise?

At first blush, this might seem unlikely, at least in the Western church. Between 1978 and 2004—nearly the entire span of John Paul II's pontificate—the number of men in monastic and religious orders (not including priests) decreased by 46% in Europe and 30% in the Americas, while the number of women decreased by 39% and 27%, respectively. Compare this to the trend in the global South: During the same period, men in monastic and religious orders increased by 48% in Africa and 39% in Asia, with women increasing on those two continents by 62% and 64%.

A number of the Catholic writers in the 2006 volume A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century frankly wonder if "monasticism as we know it" is, in God's providential plan, destined for obsolescence in the West. Yet most suggest that new and powerful forms of the monastic impulse may even now be arising.

This is certainly the impression given by the 21st annual Monastic Institute, held in July 2006 at St. John's Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota. There, Catholic Benedictines and members of established communities such as L'Arche and the Catholic Worker Movement joined with leaders of new Protestant communities with names like the ...

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