The father of Europe was born in current day Norcia. Outside, chaos, violence, and the dissolution of the political order. And in his own monastery, Benedict’s monks poisoned his cup. Until he then wrote his own rule.
By: Barbara Wenz
Translated by Scott G. Hefelfinger
(Article printed in the Vatican Magazine,
German Edition for Aug-Sept 2011, pp. 61-64)
In the dark crypt lying within the Basilica San Benedetto, itself located in the Umbrian town of Norcia, there is a shrine of immeasurable importance, for the Catholic Church and for the entire Christian occident. A small apse in the left aisle of the nave marks the place where St. Benedict and his twin sister, St. Scholastica, first glimpsed the light of day, some 1500 years ago. In this world, it had grown dark: with the radiance of the Roman empire snuffed out, all around reigned chaos, violence, and barbarism—thus, the complete collapse of political, juridical, and social assurances. But the gleaming charisma of the authentically-lived Gospel found itself already on the way to bringing spiritual first aid to the shaken-up continent: long before Columbanus and his Irish-Scottish brothers set out to missionize the European mainland, a handful of desert fathers sailed for Italy from the coast of Syria and pushed forward into the middle of the country right up until contemporary Umbria.
Under the leadership of St. Spes, who died in the year 510, one of these communities settled not far from Norcia. It is highly probable that Benedict, who was born around 480, knew these originally Syrian cenobites, who were joined by more and more local inhabitants. Rather than join this community, the young Benedict was first of all sent to Rome for studies. Who knows how the history of the Church and the western world would have developed if he had not been confronted there with the excesses of outright political, moral, and spiritual decline. Firstly, he sought refuge with ascetics in the Sabine Mountains; then he withdrew for several years as a cave dweller; all this, before the call of the monks of Vicovaro befell him, where they wanted him installed as Abbot—and showed themselves to be extremely ungrateful. Because his prescriptions appeared to them to be too strict, they attempted to poison the newly installed Abbot—but the poison, in the form of a snake, escaped from his cup before Benedict was able to drink from it.
Something similar also happened to him with another community in Subiaco, where he led his brother monks on the basis of the strict rule of Pachomius. Perhaps it was these experiences that led him finally to compose his own, balanced “Regula Benedicti”—and in so doing founded Western monasticism and the Benedictine monastic culture. These monasteries were “focal points of the highest culture, of spiritual zeal, of the art of living, of readiness for social action—in a word, a network of centers of highly developed civilization that stood out from the agitated floods of barbarism surrounding them on all sides. St. Benedict is without any doubt the father of Europe. The Benedictines, his sons, are the fathers of European civilization.” (quoted from Grégoire, Moulin, Oursel: Die Kultur der Klöster [The Culture of Monasteries])
The tradition of the Church has always testified to the veneration of this shrine in Norcia. Anyone who has walked across the picturesque Piazza di San Benedetto; then marveled at the door of the basilica from the 14th century with its engraved, almost white rosette and its lunette with Madonna and child, flanked by two adoring angels; and finally greeted the statues of Benedict and Scholastica, located above the entrance—such a one steps down into that place with the small apse, to which reaches the tap root of the once-Christian tree of Europe. Since the year 2000, these deep-seated roots have drawn fresh spiritual water—in the form of a small community which has committed itself to the “regula” of its founding father with ardent hearts and full of spiritual fervor.
For the first time since 1810, when the Celestines were expelled by the Napoleonic laws, the divine office is sung here once again—seven times a day, in Latin, and according to the old form, which is also the form in which Holy Mass is celebrated. The Benedictines of Norcia have received from the Holy See the apostolate of fostering both forms [in utruque usu] although the local bishop of Spoleto-Norcia prescribed a year ago that in religious houses only one holy Mass should be celebrated on Sundays. Thus, the Mass in the extraordinary form became the conventual Mass; nevertheless, the ordinary form continues to be fostered when the four priests of the community ascend to the surrounding mountain villages to celebrate parish Masses there.
Founded in Rome—with only three members at first, an apartment as “convent,” and a portable private chapel—today the community consists of nineteen monks, of which four are priests and two, novices. The Prior, Fr. Cassian Folsom, estimates that the average age of his confreres is approximately twenty-eight years. Impressive.
Five years after Fr. Cassian and his brother monks were called to Norcia by the bishop, a German became Pope, one who calls himself Benedict XVI and places his pontificate under the patronage of the same man whose influence pushed the Christian occident into full bloom. Thus, here in Norcia are once again Benedictines, who are enkindling anew the spirit of their founder in a time characterized by a great loss of faith in Europe. There, in the Eternal City, once abandoned by a disgusted St. Benedict, a white-haired man in his late seventies, in the autumn of his life, stands before the successors of a great civilization, but who have gone wildly astray, and never stops reminding them, though they want to know nothing of it, of who they are, whence they have come, and whither the journey must go if they wish to avoid repeating the brutal, ideological experiments of the 20th century. On the occasion of his first general audience (April 27th, 2005), the Pope already made it a point to speak about St. Benedict of Nursia, explaining in accord with the Benedictine rule that nothing is to be preferred to the love of Christ. He then invoked the Saint’s intercession, for himself in his Petrine ministry and for us all, that we would cherish the central place that Christ occupies in our lives. The recently elected Pope had in mind not only an explication of his chosen name; he also wanted to make sure—to set both feet solidly on the ground, so to speak—to hold unshakably in sight the one in whose name he would continually coax Europe, his patient lying in a spiritual coma, in the days to come.
Seldom does it come to pass that this meek and humble pope reaches for drastic images and fiery words—if he does, then it has to do with matters of profound concern for him, which fill him with ardent concern. In this category, we can include the spiritual condition of modern Europe, externally united in a political way, but threatened by interior corrosion. In his message for World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid, he recently gave a warning once more concerning the menacing eclipse of God in the West, as well as a powerful, laicistic stream of thought that wishes to marginalize God from the lives of individuals and society. However, as experience teaches us, this leads not to a paradise on earth but to a hell of division, egoism, and hatred.
Born in 1927, Joseph Ratzinger himself experienced this very situation. He knows that he will not reap the harvest of the seeds he brings to the sowing. He can only do what St. Benedict did in his own time. The Saint, too, was treated with hostility, even undergoing attempts on his life. But just like St. Benedict, our Pope is not alone.
And at the birthplace of his patron, an extraordinary community prays and sings, a brotherhood able to draw young men from every corner of the globe—from Europe and overseas. The attendance at Sunday Mass in the extraordinary form is definitely not bad, though at the same time the nave of the Church is not exactly filled. For the portions of the divine office where the public is invited to pray and sing along—such as Vespers and Compline—usually only a handful of faithful gather in the crypt of the Church, though the group is mostly quite young. In contrast, the hustle and bustle of life can be found outside, on the steps of the basilica. They form a popular meeting spot for tourists, retirees, students. Sometimes, an unexpected shower of rain forces an excited and frolicking group into the nave of the Church. If, at that moment, the monks are praying None just below in the crypt, the loudspeakers gently diffuse through the basilica a song in tune with the heavenly spheres and delicate as a wafting breeze. The young monks sing ancient, Latin psalms, filling the nave of the Church with an inkling of the heavenly Jerusalem. Once upon a time, this music formed the “soundtrack” for the building up of a tremendous culture, which now appears to be taking the fastest route to losing not only its heart, but also its soul—in a time where, for many, a sudden rain shower is the only occasion for seeking refuge in a Church.
Still, something is happening here: all of a sudden, the tourists chattering excitedly or the students joking around with exuberance all become tranquil. The noisy slumber of the world falls away from them—one can observe it as it happens. With slow, nearly reverential movements, they take a seat in the church. The new Europe is not yet awakened—but just now it had a moment of remembrance as fleeting as it is precious.