The period of history into which St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547) was born was not much different from our own. He grew up in Italy at a time when the Roman Empire was in shambles and the sense of order which the empire gave had given way to decadence. Benedict was given a traditional Roman education, but decided that the life that he found in Rome did not appeal to him. Instead, he chose to become a hermit and eventually founded the monastery of Montecassino (just outside of Rome) and wrote a rule of life which his “sons and daughters” still live by today.As our economy continues to worsen, it is only a matter of time before decadence becomes the order of the day as people begin to feel a greater and greater sense of hopelessness. There is only so much that the state can do so much. We can see on the nightly news that with every effort that the government makes to improve the economy, the stock market goes down. Benedict watched the economy of Rome crumble and he became convinced that it was life in community with likeminded individuals who are dedicated to serving God was the answer. After over fifteen hundred years the way of life which Benedict introduced to the Western world is still alive and well.
St. Benedict’s official biographer, Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604), played a major role in furthering the influence of the Benedictines and spreading the Gospel by sending Augustine and several other monks from St. Andrew’s Monastery in Italy to England. Augustine had a great deal of success in England following the conversion of King Ethelbert of Kent. King Ethelbert gave the monks land to build a monastery and Pope Gregory appointed Augustine as the first archbishop of Canterbury in 598.
Another major contribution the Benedictines have made to Western civilization is maintaining our culture through the arts and education. Following his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800, Charlemagne (742-814) promoted the importance of education and relied upon his advisors, who were all Benedictine monks, to implement his education plans throughout the empire. The monks also helped him promote the arts. At a time when concert halls and art galleries did not exist, the monasteries would provide the people with a chance to listen to music and view artwork.
Even today the Benedictines are major promoters of the arts. Here at St. Mary’s Abbey in Morristown, New Jersey we have a jazz ensemble, orchestra, and we have several art shows throughout the year. This is true of quite a few monasteries in the United States and Europe. Benedictines throughout the world are also responsible for educating generations of young men and women. St. Mary’s Abbey owns and operates a boys’ college preparatory school, Delbarton School, on the grounds of the monastery.
St. Boniface (d. 755) was sent by the abbot of the Abbey of Nhutscelle in England to bring the Good News to the people of Germany.1 Through the efforts of Boniface, the people of Germany accepted the Catholic faith and monastic life began to flourish. Even today, the German monasteries provide pastors and teachers to the local communities. St. Michael’s Abbey in Metten, Bavaria, the “grandmother house” of St. Mary’s Abbey, owns and operates a school as well as provides pastoral assistance to area parishes.
Father Boniface Wimmer of St. Michael’s Abbey (1809-1887) and twenty other monks came to the United States in 1846 from Germany with the express purpose of assisting the German Catholics here who were in dire need of priests who could speak their language. He settled in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania in the town of Latrobe and began Saint Vincent Archabbey which today operates a co-educational college, a major seminary, and staffs over twenty-five parishes in several states. St. Mary’s Abbey was founded by the monks of Saint Vincent Archabbey in 1857.
Many of the communities of the American Cassinese Congregation of Benedictines, to which St. Mary’s Abbey belongs, founded communities in various areas in the 1960s as a response to Pope John XXIII call for religious communities to become more missionary minded. Saint Vincent Archabbey took charge of St. Benedict Priory in Vinhedo, Brazil in 1964 which had been founded in 1650 by Benedictine monks from Portugal. St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kansas founded St. Joseph’s Monastery in Mineiros, Brazil. Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota founded a monastery in Bogota, Columbia. St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota has founded a monastic community in Japan.
In the beginning of the tenth century a monastery was founded which would have a major influence on European history for the next eight hundred years. In 910, William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine, founded the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, France. During the first 250 years of its existence Cluny was governed by a series of remarkable abbots, men who have left their mark upon the history of Western Europe and who were prominently concerned with all the great political questions of their day. Among these were Sts. Odo, Mayeul, Odilo, and Hugh, and Peter the Venerable. Under the last named, the ninth abbot, who ruled from 1122 to 1156, Cluny reached the zenith of its influence and prosperity, at which time it was second only to Rome as the chief centre of the Christian world. It became a home of learning and a training school for popes, four of whom, Gregory VII (Hildebrand), Urban II, Paschal II, and Urban V, were called from its cloisters to rule the Universal Church. In England the Cluniac houses numbered thirty-five at the time of the dissolution. There were three in Scotland. The earliest foundation was the priory of St. Pancras at Lewes (1077), the prior of which usually held the position of vicar-general of the Abbot of Cluny for England and Scotland. Other important English houses were at Castleacre, Montacute, Northampton, and Bermondsey.2 The Abbey of Cluny was dissolved in 1790 during the French Revolution and the only thing left of this once majestic monastery is a single tower.
Since the time of the Abbey of Cluny the Benedictines have been at the forefront of liturgical renewal. Men such as Fathers Lambert Boudoin, Odo Casel, Adian Kavanaugh, and Virgil Michel have each made a valuable contribution to the study of sacramentology and the Church’s liturgy. This spirit is still very much alive in those seminaries such as the Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Indiana, Mount Angel Seminary in Mt. Angel, Oregon and St. Vincent Archabbey Seminary which are operated by Benedictine monks. This spirit flows from the dedication of the monk-professors to their prayer life and their reverential celebration of the Church’s sacraments. The daily conversion of a monk’s life, which he promises when he professes vows, has a transforming influence on him which is both sustained and strengthened through reception of the Eucharist.3
It is not by chance that our present Holy Father chose the name Benedict after his election as Bishop of Rome in 2005. He understands the problems facing the Church in Europe and the Western World and has called upon the intercession of St. Benedict, co- patron saint of Europe, along with Saints Cyril and Methodius, to assist him in his efforts to bring the Good News to a world which so desperately needs to hear it.
While attending seminary at Saint Meinrad I had two classmates who are monks from Togo, West Africa. Monastic life in Africa, India, and various other countries is thriving; however, this is not true in Europe or North America. By virtue of the vow of stability the Benedictines are in a unique position to benefit the greater community since the monks take root in a particular area. The monks of St. Mary’s Abbey have served the needs of the Church in northern New Jersey for over one hundred fifty years.
It has been said that the Church stands on the shoulders of giants. As the oldest Christian organization in the world, the Benedictines have a long history of men and women who have served the Church. Men and women such as St. Benedict of Aniane, St. Peter Damien, St. Hugh the Great, St. Augustine of Canterbury, St. Gertrude the Great, St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Peter the Venerable, Pope Gregory VII, Blessed Columba Marmion, and others each had a profound impact on the period of history they lived in.
There is no reason to believe that the Benedictines cannot have the same impact on future generations that our ancestors had on past generations. The Rule of St. Benedict is timeless. Its seventy three chapters provide insights for living an authentic Christian life for those in the monastic life as well as those searching for an anchor in a world which can toss us around like a ship on the open seas. Even though many Benedictines in North America and Western Europe are no longer engaged in agriculture, the fact is that they are still following a rule of life which has impacted countless generations of Christians and will continue to benefit future generations for years to come.
On September 22, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to various Benedictine abbots and other superiors in Europe at Castel Gandolfo. The Supreme Pontiff said, “Dedicate yourselves to young people with renewed apostolic ardor, as they are the future of the Church and of humanity, to build a ‘new’ Europe, it is necessary to begin with the new generations, offering them the possibility to profoundly approach the spiritual riches of the liturgy, of meditation and of lectio divina(holy reading).”4 What the Holy Father says about building a ‘new’ Europe is also true here in the United States.
Pope Benedict encouraged the Benedictine superiors not to become discouraged because of a lack of vocations, but to remain faithful to their calling. He told them, “By persevering faithfully in it, you confess, instead, with great effectiveness in face of the world, your own firm trust in the Lord of history, in whose hands are the times and destinies of persons, institutions, peoples; to him we entrust all that touches upon the historical fulfillment of his gifts.”5
With its rich spiritual tradition, the Benedictines have weathered the various storms of history. Providing stability in a chaotic and ever changing world and offering hospitality to those who valiantly search for meaning and purpose in their lives, the Benedictines are in a position to restore the beauty of Christian culture to the world just as they brought Christian culture to western Europe so many centuries ago.
End Notes1) St. Boniface
2) Congregation of Cluny
3) Grosse, Jeremiah R. “Eucharist and Monastic Life”
4) “Pope Lauds Benedictines for Helping World Find God”
5) “Pope Lauds Benedictines…”