Whatever happened to Western civilization?

In his visit to the U.S., Pope Benedict reminded us that the Church is the heart of Western civilization. The Church in her faults and in ours—in what we have done and what we have failed to do—has much work to do. If today we carry our burden lighter, it is thanks to the Holy Father’s gentle words in 17 speeches to the various groups. But still his deep concern is over the vanishing regard for Western civilization.

The pope recognizes that Catholicism is a culture as well as a religion, and that a strong cultural identity can cultivate faith in the present generation and, as it has for centuries, pass it along to the next.

Our Catholic practices have become casual. Many self-identified Catholics believe they can carry the faith casually. They don’t have to go to Mass on Sundays. They don’t have to believe in all the Church’s teachings. They can pick and choose what suits the attitudes of their friends. A recent survey showed that while 77 percent of American Catholics said they were proud to be Catholic, a stunning 68 percent said you could be a good Catholic without going to Mass on Sundays.

Our “greatest generation,” a mélange of boys from every social, income, educational and ethnic make-up, went off to World War II to save us from Nazism and its ideas of cleansing the world of their definition of inferiors. Inferiors were Jews, Slavs, often Catholics, the mentally and physically handicapped as well as any dissidents.

WWII was a particularly bloody war. Miscalculations in war are many, execution of battle plans faulty. But they fought. Faith kept them going. Many carried rosaries and Bibles. Chaplains heard confessions and baptized soldiers in Italian fountains. The boys believed they were forcing the world back to reason.

In a mammoth failure of intelligence, Monte Cassino, a Benedictine abbey from the sixth century, was bombed in February 1944. Here black-robed Benedictines had spread the Gospel and helped preserve Western civilization. Precious manuscripts, ancient drawings and paintings, frescoes and centuries of scholarship were cataloged there. This precious monastery towered above everything. Seven acres of Travertine stone had a façade twice as long as Buckingham Palace. From there the founder, St. Benedict, had defined the rule of western monasticism with its piety, humility and obedience. Benedict and his twin sister, St. Scholastica, were buried there.

The abbey had faced demolition for 15 centuries from Lombards, Saracens and Napoleon’s guns and now Allied firepower. But it always rebuilt in keeping with its motto: “Succisa Virescit”— “Struck down, it comes to new life.”

The Allies bombed the monastery convinced the dug-in Germans were well fortified there. Hundreds of refugees sheltered in Monte Cassino were killed or wounded that day in 1944. The ruined abbey symbolized the grinding war of attrition. At home a Gallup poll taken shortly after the bombing found that if military leaders believed it necessary to target historic and religious shrines in Europe, 74 percent would approve and only 19 percent disapprove. War was whittling away all civility and moderation, youth and innocence, mountains and men.

Malaria kept Cassino uninhabitable for two years. However, the gleaming white abbey on the hill was eventually rebuilt once again. Monks are there today praying the Liturgy of the Hours, going about their labors and teaching a new generation the core truths that are the foundation of Christian culture.

Was the battle worth the candle? The generals thought so. Ask a veteran.

At times dwindling numbers of our greatest generation must wonder what they fought for as it plays out in today’s society. Mainly freedoms and rights were secured—freedom from Nazism, and tyranny. Freedom to follow bizarre, outlandish ideas, too.

What does all that WWII carnage and sacrifice say to us today? We have our end of the bargain to uphold. With Catholic beliefs under fire, the campaign is hardly won. Western civilization, our culture, practices and faith, is still in peril. But the Holy Father has lit the way. He told us that he chose the name Benedict for the effort of Benedicts past to preserve Catholic culture. Through prayer and civic effort we can and must carry the flame. We are the ones called to spread the Gospel’s teachings, to defend life, oppose abortion, and protect all human rights.

Like Monte Cassino, our Church has been besieged and battered by modernism. It is in need of repair and rebuilding if it is to fulfill its mission to be Christ’s light to the world. One soldier said, “I belong to the great American army and I am part and parcel of the forces fighting for the kind of America we always dreamed of back home.” We don’t always know the shape and style of society “back home.” Shifts come about among younger generations which we do not always approve. But we do believe our Church has long fought for the forces of reason to be heard. Now it is up to us to live under the rule of faith with reason and use both to protect the dignity of man.

We are the pope’s legions.

“Succisa Virescit.”

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.