Benedict of Nursia was a monk and abbot who lived in the 5th and 6th century AD. He founded several monasteries and wrote a rule for monasteries which became fundamental for Western Monasticism. The Catholic Church venerates him as Patron of Europe.
The principal source for Benedict’s life are the Four Books of Dialogues which Pope Gregory the Great wrote in 593/594 AD. Book Two is entirely devoted to Benedict, showing his personal spiritual journey and portraying him as a great ascetic, a prophetic leader of monks and founder of monasteries, as author of a rule and miracle-worker. The text stands in a tradition of hagiographic writings and is more interested in spiritual facts than in in biographical detail. A special emphasis is placed on scenes which echo those of great biblical figures, especially of the prophets Elija and Elisha.
The general outline of Benedict’s life as given by Pope Gregory has later been enhanced with details taken from local traditions and with educated guesses on dates which have become part of an accepted traditional chronology: Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica were born into a Christian noble family in Nursia (modern day Norcia), in 480 AD. Benedict went to Rome for his studies. He grew weary of life in Rome, having found his companions’ lives dissolute and immoral, and his teachers unchristian and corrupt. This led him to abandon his studies in Rome to pursue a spiritual life. He left the city with his faithful family nurse Cirilla accompanying him as far as Enfide (modern Affile). Benedict spent time living as a hermit, in spiritual isolation in a cave later identified as the Sacro Speco at Subiaco. The monks of a nearby monastery asked Benedict, who was by then a well known holy man, to become their new abbot. His insistence on proper monastic discipline, however, brought him into conflict with the community who attempted to poison him. Benedict miraculously escaped harm and returned to his cave. Later he established 12 monasteries near Subiaco and resided in the 13th as abbot. Around the year 529 AD he left Subiaco with his most devoted disciples for Cassino and founded a monastery in the ancient pagan acropolis on the hill overlooking the town. Here he wrote the supremely influential Rule of Monasteries and served as the new monastery’s first abbot until his death on a 21st March, traditionally thought to have been in 547. He was followed soon afterwards by his sister Scholastica who, unusually, was buried in the same tomb.
Pope Gregory’s Dialogues made Benedict one of the most popular saints of the Italian peninsula. Thousands of monasteries which eventually came to follow his Rule also spread the veneration of this saint.
According to a well attested tradition, the relics of St Benedict were transferred to the monastery of Fleury (France) in 672. This transfer is liturgically celebrated on the 11th of July. The transfer of the relics is disputed at Montecassino however, where, after the bombardment of the monastery during World War II, the joint tomb of Benedict and his sister was uncovered, apparently confirming the account of their burials by Pope Gregory.
In 1947 Pope Pius XII recognized St Benedict as the “Father of Europe”. In 1964 Pope Paul VI declared him “Patron of Europe”. Pope John Paul II enlarged the group of Patrons of Europe, adding Cyril and Methodius in 1980, and Catherine of Siena, Bridget of Sweden and Edith Stein in 2000.
The feast of St Benedict is now generally held on 11 July, but Benedictine monasteries also maintain a celebration on 21 March.