A Brief History of the Benedictine Order
Traditionally, AD 529 is considered to be the year in which St Benedict founded the monastery at Montecassino. He died and was buried there around 547. Some decades later, the monastery was destroyed and not rebuilt for a long time. The monastic community and the living tradition of Benedict seemed to have disappeared.
The Spreading of the Rule
However, copies of his Rule survived in Roman libraries. Around 594 Pope St Gregory the Great praised this Rule and its author, increasing the popularity of both. Next, the Rule is found in some monasteries in Southern Gaul (modern France) and elsewhere, normally used by the abbot together with rules written by other monastic fathers to help him to guide the community. In the early 8th century, monks from England proudly proclaim that they follow only the Rule of Benedict – the first genuine „Benedictines“. They popularize this rule further through their mission in continental Europe and eventually in 816/17 an important synod declares Benedict’s Rule binding for all monks. Throughout the Carolingian empire which covers modern France, Belgium, Holland Switzerland, Germany, parts of Italy and Austria, hundreds of monasteries of monks and nuns come now under the Rule of Benedict. Simultaneously, the observance of these monasteries is unified, even in areas where the Rule left details to the discretion of the abbot. In the Latin West, religious life is now mostly Benedictine. The monasteries become important centers of religious life, but also of political administration, of economic development and of learning, both theological and secular. Books are written and copied in the scriptoria (writing rooms) of the monasteries, and abbey schools train the clergy and the ruling elite. The monks dedicate themselves mainly to liturgical prayer, whose amount gradually increases. The monasteries own farms and sometimes whole villages, whose peasants sustain the monks with part of their produce. In the ninth century the papacy starts to protect some monasteries from the interference of noblemen and local bishops. Cluny in Burgundy, founded in 910, eventually establishes a huge family of monasteries under one abbot. In the 12th century several hundred houses belonged to it.
Decays and Reforms
The wealth and social role of the monasteries attracts also criticism, and several reform movements try to return to simpler ways of life and a more original understanding of Benedict’s rule. The Cistercians have the greatest impact. Within a short period several hundred monasteries of „white monks“ are founded, established as a clearly defined order with an efficient organization that balances unifying elements like the general chapter of all abbots and clear common principles with local autonomy and supervision through visitations.
In 1215 and in 1336 the papacy attempts to give a similar structure to the remaining „black“ Benedictines, initially with little success. Meanwhile, life in Europe has shifted from the countryside to cities. Newer orders like the Franciscans and the Dominicans respond to the spiritual and intellectual desires of city dwellers. While Benedictines continue to be found all over Europe, they are no longer the main protagonists of religious life.
From the 15th century onwards, monasteries try to protect themselves from the interference of secular or ecclesiastical lords by forming congregations. The most influential of these is the Congregation of Saint Justina in Italy, later called the Cassinese Congregation. It remains for many centuries a model which other Congregations copy. New forms of personal prayer and meditation are now introduced to the life of the monks, to complement the divine office and lectio. A new emphasis on the personal needs of the individual monk also leads to the introduction of cells, replacing the dormitories in use until then.
Turbulences and Rebirth
The so-called reformation in the 16th century turns against religious and monastic life of any kind. Protestant sovereigns use theological justifications to suppress the monasteries and confiscate their property. Some abbots and monks are killed, others simply retire from monastic life, return to their families or accept parishes. In England, Northern Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia monastic life disappears.
In Catholic countries, however, Benedictine monasticism begins to flourish again. Benedictine abbeys are being rebuilt in the splendid baroque style, and many monasteries become centres of scholarship, culture and education. And for the first time Benedictine life goes beyond Europe when the first abbeys of the New World are established in Brazil.
In the 18th century, new philosophical and political trends threaten monasticism. Faith comes under attack, and monasteries are seen as useless places of superstition and backwardness. In the decades after 1760, more than 95% of the monasteries in Europe are suppressed by governments or destroyed in the course of revolutions and wars. Churches are turned into factories, buildings are used as quarries, land and treasures or confiscated, books destroyed or sent to new national libraries.
But monasticism refuses to die. In the mid-19th century, a romantic rediscovery of medieval Christianity and monastic life takes place. In several countries old monasteries are re-founded or new communities created. Monastic life changes: the communities can no longer depend on rich endowments. The monks now work for their upkeep. The abbots have ceased to be lords and live much closer with their brothers. These monasteries fulfil important roles in the church, running major seminaries and schools, sometimes parishes or foreign missions. Because the Benedictines are still without any central organization, Pope Leo XIII establishes a study house in Rome, and in 1893 creates the Benedictine Confederation with an Abbot Primate at its head. Benedictine scholars rediscover the liturgical life of the early church. They influence the Liturgical Movement which prepares the reforms of the Second Vatican Council:
Most communities start singing in the vernacular, no longer in Latin. And the distinction between priests and brothers disappears. Most monasteries continue to attract Christians who want to spend a quiet time in prayer, who seek spiritual advice or who simply want to live alongside the monks for a few days.
A Worldwide Family
In 2018 the Benedictine Confederation numbers around 7500 monks in 400 monasteries, belonging to 19 different Congregations, with regional differences, particular missions or specific spiritual traditions. Some 13000 nuns and sisters also belong to the order. The Benedictines work closely with the Cistercians and the Trappists, orders which also follow St Benedict’s Rule. This rule has proved to be a guide for countless souls during 15 centuries.