On the Feast of St. Bartholomew, August 24, at 3:36 AM Italian time, an earthquake shook southern Umbria, damaging much of the region, including Norcia, the birthplace of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. Norcia, or Nursia, to use its Latin name, has been home to the Benedictine Monks of Norcia since 2000. No monk was seriously injured during the earthquake and its aftershocks, but the basilica of San Benedetto and the abbey suffered severe structural damage. Advised by officials to evacuate, most of the monks took refuge in Benedictine headquarters in Rome while two camped in their garden at “Fuori Le Mura”, a ruined abbey once owned by Capuchins, 1.5 miles from Norcia’s center.
Earthquakes both physical and metaphorical have shaken the town for centuries. Norcia, originally founded in the 5th century BC by the Sabines, was annexed by the Romans in 290 BC. These new rulers were the first to build the town’s distinctive walls, which now date from the 13th century. Saint Feliciano brought Christianity to Norcia before his arrest in nearby Foligno and death under torture during the Decian persecutions. Saints Benedict and Scholastica were born in Norcia in 480 AD, and in the eighth century an oratory was built over their birthplace. (Today this site forms the crypt of the basilica and was unhurt in the 2016 quake.) Saint Benedict left Norcia at the age of 14, and only in the 10th century did his spiritual sons return to make a Benedictine home in his birthplace. In the 14th century, earthquakes devastated Norcia, and the basilica had to be entirely rebuilt. Monastic life of various communities continued there until 1810 when the Napoleonic Code forced the Celestine Benedictines to flee.
There had been no Benedictines in Norcia for almost two hundred years when the mayor of the town, armed with a petition of 4,000 signatures, petitioned the abbot primate of the Benediction Order for their return. As there were only 5,000 citizens of Norcia, the petition must have impressed. The Benedictines applied to Father Cassian Folsom, whose three-man order then lived in Rome, and on December 2, 2000, these monks moved to Norcia. They were charged with the care of the basilica of San Benedetto and to assist the secular clergy of the town.
There are now over a dozen monks of Norcia, their median age 36. Most of them are young Americans. Dom Cassian, a Massachusetts native in his early sixties, is the eldest. The monks’ charism is “the return to the spirit of the founder,” and so they embrace the traditional Benedict life of prayer, community, asceticism, stability and self-sustaining work.
The monks pray the traditional offices in Latin, singing nine times a day—beginning at either 4 or 3:45 AM–which adds up to five hours of song daily. Within the monastery, the monks celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, but their priests also celebrate the Ordinary Form on behalf of the townspeople. From September through Easter they subsist on one vegetarian meal a day.
Heroes of the traditionalist new liturgical movement, the monks have attracted the attention of the wider world through their CD Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia and, of course, their beer. After training by Belgian Trappists, the Benedictines of Norcia began production of their pale and dark ales on August 15, 2012. Both are available for sale in restaurants and hotels in Norcia and now also in the USA. Interestingly, Norcia was already a mecca for foodies: the town is famous throughout Italy for its pork products, black truffles and lentils, and it gourmet shops also stock Umbria’s famous wines. The monks’ “Birra Nursia” has both filled a niche and contributed to the town’s tourist economy.
Unfortunately, the recent earthquake has laid waste to that economy. August is Italy’s great holiday month, when city-dwellers flee the heat to the seaside or such mountain towns as Norcia. Norcia depends on its August income to get through the rest of the year, so the disaster came at a particularly bad time. Meanwhile, many Nursini, as the townsfolk are called, have been left homeless and are currently living in a tent city.
Happily, they have not been left to cope on their own. The Tipiloschi family, a lay fraternity from the nearby town of San Benedetto di Tronto, appeared on August 27 to help the monks and the Nursini rebuild. A makeshift chapel—called the Chapel of Saint Bartholomew—and a tent-monastery were completed. On August 30, the monks who had taken refuge in Rome returned and the reunited community celebrated Vespers together at Fuori Le Mura.
The life of the Monks of Norcia has returned to some semblance of normality. As they wait for the aftershocks to end and for the inspectors to assess the final damage to their buildings, the monks are assisting and consoling their neighbors when not at their primary work of prayer. Growth continues, too. On August 31st, a new postulant arrived from the USA, and on September 1, two postulants began the five day retreat prior to taking the novice’s habit. Meanwhile, the brewery and the monastery shop are undamaged.