Pontifex Minimus Blog: Presidential Reflections on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC


We often, and with considerable justification, fret over the disengagement of our youth from the church: their minimalist approach to membership, their quiet as opposed to radical disaffiliation, the drift that turned into a flood.


There is an array of reasons for this huge demographic phenomenon and there are a plethora of institutional responses keen on staunching the loss of numbers, but that is a book not a blog entry.


Why “spiritual and not religious” has become a mantra, a soundbite, a neat way to encapsulate a complex and, in my view, essentially unhelpful polarity, maintains traction in our time is not so puzzling really given the parlous state of establishment religion.


However, there are surprises aplenty if only we would look for them. For instance, a recent article by the Irish novelist, Anthony Gardner, in The Tablet (London) on the Community of St. Anselm is a bracing reminder that the creative commingling of the old and the new is fertile ground for fresh seeing.


The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, created a “monastic” community of young people to live with him in Lambeth Palace for a year of prayer, service to the poor, and study. Modelled on Chemin Neuf in France, it is a hybrid of regulated religious life and spiritual fervour. It brings monasticism to the young. And why not!!


Raimundo Panikkar has spoken of the essential monkhood in all of us—that need for the rhythm of prayer, the fecund punctuations of silence, the cascading curiosities that carry us to the Transcendent—that are not constrained by chronology. The young can be as monastic as the old.

Panikkar writes in Blessed Simplicity that “the monk is an expression of an archetype which is a constitutive dimension of human life. This archetype is a unique quality of each person, which at once needs and shuns institutionalization.”


It is that paradox that our young can live most dramatically, most beautifully. The Community of St. Anselm is like, but also unlike, other monastic communities, Taize or Bose for example, in that it is only for the young (20 to 35), time-limited, urban-centred, and resident in an episcopal residence of distinguished pedigree.


Natalie, a Catholic physician, spoke to Gardner about her reason for joining the other Anselmians: “I’ve always had a realization that if you have an intense career it can absorb your whole life. I wanted to make sure, that faith remained at the centre, and I recognized the value of the community in bringing people to God.”


In a time of social fracturing and crippling isolation—exacerbated by a global plague—community, structured prayer, service to the vulnerable, speak not only to an awakening of youth’s natural idealism, but to its grounding in ancient wisdom.


If I were 50 years younger, I would join for a year. Strikes me as a sound spiritual bargain.


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