St. Benedict was born in the year 480, in the province of Nursia, Italy. The Roman Empire had come to an end only four years before, in 476, and thus the young Benedict grew up in a country where the decay of the old Roman civilisation was in evidence everywhere. His parents were Christian and sent him to study law in Rome when he was about sixteen years of age. However, the atmosphere of the great city shocked and depressed him. He decided to leave Rome and for a short time joined a small group of like-minded young men at a place called Enfide. His companions called themselves monks, but they followed no rule, each apparently ordering his life as he wished. Not satisfied with this situation, Benedict, though still under twenty, resolved to lead the more strict life of a hermit. According to the testimony of his first biographer, Pope St Gregory the Great, Benedict found a narrow cave at a place called Subiaco, where he spent three years in solitude and prayer.
After this period of preparation, Benedict gathered a number of disciples around him and organised them into a community. Already, at this stage, he was determined to reform the accepted way of monastic life in Italy. Above all, he was anxious to introduce regular observance and some form of community life. However, this first experiment met with such opposition that some of the monks tried to poison him. Undaunted, Benedict returned to his cave at Subiaco, and after some years succeeded in attracting to the place a number of young men who were prepared to follow his lead. He built twelve cells or small monasteries in the valley of the Anio, and drew up a Rule or way of life for the monks. Subiaco is thus the cradle of Benedictine monasticism.
Again trouble broke out, this time from a neighbouring priest, so that Benedict, along with some of his monks, was forced to move to a new and very beautiful site overlooking the plains of Campagna. This place was called Monte Cassino. Here Benedict built a monastery in 529, and also wrote his famous Rule for monks. He remained in Monte Cassino until his death in 547. Monte Cassino can be considered the second cradle of Benedictine monasticism. Though the monastery has been destroyed no less than three times – the last time was in 1944 during World War Two – it has always risen from the ashes.
Up to St Benedict’s time there was no such thing as Western monasticism. Whatever monasteries existed were adaptations, or imitations, of the way of life followed by the monks of the East. St. Benedict can be said to have saved the monastic institution from decline by introducing a number of essential elements. First of all he insisted on his monks taking a vow of stability. This meant in practice that they should reside and persevere in the monastery they had joined. He did not approve of those monks who were continually travelling from monastery to monastery. Secondly, he insisted that his monks – at least those who could read – would spend some time, each day, in what he called ‘Lectio divina’ (Holy Reading). Many of Benedict’s fellow monks were ignorant of the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church. Benedict set out a certain time each day for study and reflective reading.
Thirdly, Benedict believed that monks, especially younger ones, needed guidance and discipline. His Rule is not a severe one, but rather inspired by discretion and prudent moderation. He wished to arrange everything in the monastery so that the strong might have something to strive for, while the weak ones would not be driven away. The Rule is a wonderful harmony of wisdom, good sense and firmness. Modelling his monastery on a Roman villa, Benedict intended that each monastery be independent. It seems unlikely that he intended founding a religious Order as such, but rather a group of separate and autonomous houses. Thus each monastery has its own traditions, customs and identity. No two Benedictine monasteries are alike in every detail. What gives them a unity is the Rule. Indeed, the real influence of St Benedict down the centuries was not so much due to the monasteries he founded, as to the Rule he wrote for monks. The Rule spread thoughout all Europe, and so widespread was Benedictine monasticism during the Middle Ages, that the years 600 to 1200 are often called “The Benedictine Centuries”.
The Benedictines Worldwide
The Order of Saint Benedict (O.S.B.) is not a religious order in the usual sense, i.e. with a superior-general, a central council and headquarters, frequently but not necessarily, in Rome. The basic unit of Benedictine life is the individual independent monastery. Most of these are abbeys, with an abbot as superior, but some which have not yet reached abbatial status are called conventual priories with a conventual prior as superior. These superiors are elected by their respective comunities. The usual way a monastery is established is by foundation from an existing abbey or conventual priory and it is usual for these foundations to become independent houses in their turn. Until this happens they remain dependent on the founding house. For a Benedictine monk his major superior is usually his abbot or conventual prior.
Monasteries are grouped in loose federations called Congregations of which there are 20 in the world. The purpose of these is for general oversight of monastic life and for mutual assistence. Some Congregations are nationally based as, for example, the Bavarian and Brazilian Congregations. Other Congregations, such at the Congregation of the Annunciation to which Glenstal Abbey belongs, have houses all over the world. Every Congregation has an elected Abbot President whose jurisdiction is very limited and only in exceptional circumstances can supersede that of the local abbot or conventual prior. The main functions of an Abbot President is to arrange for the regular visitation of the monasteries to check monastic life and discipline and give any help that may be necessary. He also presides at the election of an abbot or conventual prior. The Abbot President is expected to respect and facilitate the legitimate diversity that exists between individual monasteries while guaranteeing its adherance to the general Benedictine ethos.
In 1886, Pope Leo XIII united the then existing Congregations into the Benedictine Confederation. At the head of this is the Abbot Primate who is based in the Abbey of Saint Anselm (Sant’Anselmo) on the Aventine Hill in Rome. This monastery also houses a Benedictine university and serves as a centre of unity for men and women Benedictines from all over the world. Sant’Anselmo is the property of the Benedictine Confederation and the superiors of the monasteries and Congregations that make up the Confederation meet every four years to discuss and decide matters relating to Sant’Anselmo itself and to Benedictine life in general. It is this congress that elects the Abbot Primate. Like an Abbot President he has limited jurisdiction and is regarded as the first among equals. His main roles are to represent Benedictines to the Holy See and to civil authorities in Italy and abroad and to foster the unity of Benedctines. Along with the Abbey of Sant’Anselmo and its university, unity is fostered by the presence, on invitation, of the Abbot Primate at Benedictine gatherings, local, regional and international, all over the world. Four monasteries that belong to no Congregation are under the direct jurisdiciton of the Abbot Primate.
Women Benedictines, both enclosed nuns and sisters involved in apostolic or other work, are grouped in the Communio Internationalis Benedictinarum (C.I.B.) which is under the aegis of the Abbot Primate but is responsible for the conduct of its own business.