The Ark of the West

A glimpse at the 11 archabbeys of the Benedictine Order

In 1998, Pope John Paul II designated the Abbey of Sao Sebastiao (St. Sebastian) in Salvador, Brazil an “archabbey” in recognition of its more than 400 years of service to the Church. St. Sebastian is one of 11 recipients of this designation since the founding of the Benedictine Order nearly 1,500 years ago. The title is given to honor these institutions for their important contributions to the life of faith, or because of their antiquity. Why have popes exclusively honored Benedictine abbeys with this designation? The answers lay in the order’s primacy, governance, and spirituality.

In his 1997 book-length interview, Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger states that St. Benedict is the model for the New Evangelization, the second worldwide Christian renewal as conceived by Pope John Paul II. Ratzinger remarks that in the sixth century, just as the Roman Empire was collapsing, St. Benedict laid the foundation of Western monasticism, which transformed Western Europe and built “the ark on which the West survived.” Disillusioned with the decadent culture in which he lived, the young nobleman abandoned Rome to find a new way to live out his Christian faith. There is no evidence that he intended to found a religious order. Nevertheless, he attracted disciples to his hermitage in the mountains near Subiaco. In 529 he founded a monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy, which is now an archabbey. There he wrote his Rule, in which he proposed to establish a “school for the Lord’s service” that would require “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome” as a “way to salvation.” In fact, the Rule proved to be the definitive monastic legislative code that would influence the spirituality and governance of all Western monastic orders.

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the archabbey at Monte Cassino in May 2009, he proclaimed St. Benedict a great “teacher of civilization” whose success was largely due to a “balanced… vision of the divine requirements and ultimate destiny of the human being” that also kept in mind “the needs and reasons of the heart.”

That vision broke with the austere traditions of Eastern monasticism. Much of St. Benedict’s Rule is concerned with the relationships of human beings living in a monastery. It describes the monastery as a family of monks cooperating in charity, humility, and obedience under the direction of an abbot (father). They are to live out vows of fidelity, which includes poverty and chastity; stability, remaining in a particular community with brother monks for the rest of their lives; and obedience. Holiness is attained not by means of isolation and extreme penances, but rather through the daily practice of “ora et labora” (prayer and work).

Culture is key when considering the work of evangelization. In St. Benedict’s philosophy, it refers not only to the culture inside the cloister, but also to the culture outside its walls. From the very beginning, the order established small, monastic communities as centers of faith and learning in which common folk were welcomed. The attitude of mutual respect created through this dialogue spurred Christian conversions. So effective was this method of spreading the Gospel that towns developed around monasteries and became their loyal supporters. By the 14th century, 37,000 Benedictine monasteries had spread throughout most of Western Europe, Iceland, and Greenland. Although devastated by the Reformation, the French Revolution, and two world wars, the order has survived and continues to grow and evangelize in many parts of the world.

Pope Benedict views this approach to Christian evangelization—the founding of small communities that blossom and propagate faith and culture to the surrounding community—as the reason for the Benedictine Order’s past success. And he views this as the most effective method for the New Evangelization as well.

Congregations in the Benedictine Order function like “mini” religious orders, in that they are autonomous. Since the 13th century, each congregation has had its own set of constitutions in which the principles of the Rule are adapted to its particular work. Unlike other religious orders that are organized into one complete family subject to a common superior or general, in the Benedictine Order there is no common superior other than the pope himself.

To strengthen the spiritual bond between these independent congregations, Pope Leo XIII created the office of Abbot Primate, the nominal head of the whole confederation. Every four years, abbots from each congregation gather in conference at St. Anselm’s Abbey, the seat of the Abbot Primate, in Rome. This loose confederation allows each abbey to retain its autonomy while providing a forum for mutual problemsolving and planning.

Over the centuries, each congregation’s work has taken many forms, including mere survival in the midst of wars, religious persecution, and natural disasters. One recent challenge has been the lack of religious vocations since the Second Vatican Council. But the numbers are increasing, and Benedictines are persevering in their call to prayer and evangelization. Here is a glimpse of the history and work of the order, as represented by its 11 archabbeys.

• Monte Cassino (Cassino, Italy— Cassinese Congregation) is the cradle of the Benedictine Order. St. Benedict founded the original abbey near Rome around 529 AD. Once the abbey was established, he wrote his famous Rule. His remains and those of his sister, St. Scholastica, rest beneath the high altar of the basilica. The archabbey was destroyed four times, the last time by Allied bombers in 1944. In 1964, Pope Paul VI consecrated its newly erected basilica and proclaimed St. Benedict as the main patron saint of Europe.

Monte Cassino’s museum of Roman antiquities, as well as its library, are of great historical value. But Archabbot Pietro Vittorelli believes that Monte Cassino’s primary role is to be a haven for pilgrimage and prayer. He says that the monk is a “missionary in reverse,” giving witness through a life lived in prayer and peace, so that whoever arrives at the monastery can return to the world recharged but also calm and “full of God.”

• St. Andrew the Apostle (Arpino, Italy—congregation of Benedictine nuns) is believed to have been founded by St. Benedict’s sister, St. Scholastica, in the sixth century. It is now undergoing restoration work to recover its ancient architecture and art. It is the only archabbey to house a community of cloistered nuns. Under the direction of Archabbess Maria Cristina Pirro, OSB, St. Andrew offers retreats, religious conferences, and vocations counseling. In 2007, the archabbey established the first Roman Catholic monastery, Mater Unitatis (Mother of Unity), in Romania, set among three Orthodox monasteries. At the outset, Pope John Paul II predicted that this convent would become a “central force of spiritual liveliness, according to the spirit of St. Benedict.” Mother Cristina hopes that the presence of this new community will help to bring about “union…between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.”

• St. Peter (Salzburg, Austria— Austrian Congregation) is the oldest monastery in the Germanspeaking world. St. Rupert, bishop of Worms, founded it in 696 as a mission in the southeastern Alps. Pope Pius XI designated it an archabbey in 1927. During the Second World War, the Nazis expelled the monks, but the monastery survived, and the monks were able to return after the war. The archabbey operates several institutions, including the College of St. Benedict, which supported the reestablishment of the University of Salzburg; the Institute for Benedictine Studies, which advances research on the Rule of St. Benedict; the Austrian Liturgical Institute, one of the earliest programs for liturgical revival in Austria; an archive of musical works by Mozart and Haydn; significant collections of artworks, musical instruments, and church treasures; and a library of 100,000 volumes and 800 manuscripts dating back to the eighth century. Rt. Rev. Bruno Becker, OSB is the current archabbot.

• Brevnov (Prague, Czech Republic— Slavonic Congregation) is the oldest monastery in the Czech Republic, founded in 993 by Prince Boleslav II and St. Adelbert, bishop of Prague. The monastery suffered heavy damage during the Hussite Wars and the Thirty Years War but was eventually restored in the baroque style. In 1950, the communist regime confiscated it, arresting Abbot Anastaz Belt, who spent years in prison and died in 1999. After the fall of communism, the Czech government and foreign monasteries contributed to its restoration. Pope John Paul II raised Brevnov to the status of archabbey on its 1,000th anniversary in 1993. Siostrzonek Prokop became the community’s Prior-Administrator in 1999.

• Pannonhalma (Pannonhalma, Hungary—Hungarian Congregation) was the first Benedictine monastery to open in Hungary, founded in 996 by Prince Geza and supported by his son, St. Stephen, first king of Hungary. Pope Paul III designated the monastery an archabbey in 1541. It withstood both Ottoman raids and 150 years of Turkish occupation. In 1802, it began organizing schools for secondary- level education. Although the communist regime confiscated all the order’s properties after 1945, it permitted the secondary schools in Pannonhalma and Gyor to reopen.

Today, the archabbey’s secondary-level boarding school is considered one of the finest in the nation. It also maintains one of Europe’s largest ecclesiastical libraries (360,000 volumes) and impressive collections of artworks and antiquities. It has been engaged in liturgical renewal and translation of the monastic Liturgy of Hours. Rt. Rev. Asztrik VÁrszegi, OSB is the current archabbot.

• Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Ascieno, Italy— Olivetan Congregation) was founded in 1319 by St. Bernard Tolomei, the son of a Sienese nobleman. The monks of this congregation wear white habits as a sign of their devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Bernard and 80 of his brother monks died in 1348 ministering to victims of the plague. The congregation survived suppression imposed by revolutionary regimes from the 17th through 19th centuries. Today the Olivetan Congregation includes Bec Abbey in France, as well as other houses in England, the United States, Italy, Brazil, Guatemala, Israel, and South Korea.

Monte Oliveto is renowned for its magnificent frescoes and other artworks adorning its church and cloisters, which are some of the most important of the Renaissance period. The monastery also houses a library and sacred arts museum. Rt. Rev. Diego Gualtiero Rosa, OSB is the current archabbot.

• St. Sebastian (Salvador, Brazil— Brazilian Congregation) was founded in 1582 by Portuguese monks of the Lusitana Congregation as the first Benedictine monastery in the New World. Two years later the community was raised to the status of abbey. At the request of Salvador’s citizenry, St. Sebastian established additional monasteries in neighboring cities, and in 1596 it became the leader of the Brazilian Province of the Lusitana Congregation. Through the centuries, St. Sebastian has served as an infirmary in times of war and plague, worked for the abolition of slavery, and opposed political oppression and religious persecution. Today St. Sebastian operates the College of St. Benedict, an academic library, a museum holding more than 2,000 works of art, a publishing house, an oblate program, and a youth chorale.

• St. Vincent (Latrobe, Pennsylvania, United States—American Cassinese Congregation), the oldest Benedictine monastery in the United States, was founded in 1846 by Father Boniface Wimmer, OSB, of the Priory of St. Michael at Metten, Bavaria, to provide pastoral assistance to German-speaking immigrants in Pennsylvania. Five years after its establishment in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, St. Vincent Seminary had nearly 100 members, its college had developed three departments, and its monastery had founded three dependent priories. Father Boniface also introduced the first Benedictine Sisters to the United States. In 1883, Pope Leo XIII designated St. Vincent an archabbey. Today, about 100 monks live at the archabbey, 73 students are enrolled in its seminary, and about 1,700 students are enrolled in its college. Rt. Rev. Douglas R. Nowicki, OSB is the current archabbot.

• St. Meinrad (St. Meinrad, Indiana, United States—Swiss American Congregation) was founded in 1854 by Father Martin Marty, OSB, from the Swiss Abbey of Einsiedeln. Benedictine monks came to southern Indiana to offer pastoral ministry to the growing German-speaking Roman Catholic population and to prepare local men to become priests. While providing these services and opening monasteries in several states, the monks also began teaching high school and college courses in philosophy and theology. The high school and undergraduate college have closed, but today the seminary and graduate-level School of Theology are offering a variety of programs to those contemplating the priesthood or lay ministry. In fact, an expansion program is underway, because in 2010 the school experienced its highest enrollment in 25 years. St. Meinrad was designated an archabbey in 1954 by Pope Pius XII. Rt. Rev. Justin Duvall, OSB is the current archabbot.

• Beuron (Beuron, Germany—Beuronese Congregation) was founded in 1863 by Benedictine monks and brothers Maurus and Placidus Wolter. Maurus became the first abbot of Beuron and superior of the new congregation. In 1875, the Prussian government banned the community. But during its exile, it founded three new monasteries. When the community returned to Beuron in 1887, it expanded the original monastery to accommodate the increasing numbers of vocations and established new houses in Germany, Belgium, and Portugal. Maurus died in 1900 and Placidus succeeded him as archabbot of Beuron. From the late 19th to early 20th century, the Beuron Art School had significant influence on the religious art of the period, producing paintings, frescoes, and statuary for the archabbey. Today, the archabbey runs an arts and religious literature publishing house; the largest monastic library in Germany (more than 400,000 volumes); and the Vetus Latina Institut (Ancient Latin Institute) which collects and publishes all extant old Latin translations of the Bible. Rt. Rev. Theodor Hogg, OSB is the current archabbot.

• St. Ottilien (St. Ottilien, Germany— Congregation of St. Ottilien) was opened in 1884 by Father Andrew Amrhein, OSB, from Beuron, Germany, in order to found foreign missions. Under the leadership of Abbot Norbert Weber, the abbey grew rapidly, opening missions in South Africa, Korea, and China. Pope Pius X designated it an archabbey in 1914. The Nazi regime expelled the monks from their monastery in 1941, but they were able to return after the war. Today the Missionary Benedictines are a worldwide congregation of 19 independent monasteries with 50 branches. The 1,030 monks live and work in Africa, America, Asia, and Europe. In 2008, the missionaries opened a new Benedictine monastery in Havana, Cuba. The monks provide pastoral ministry and evangelization, education, health care, and humanitarian aid. Rt. Rev. Jeremias Schrőder, OSB is the current archabbot.

The reconversion of the West as told in the stories of these 11 archabbeys is St. Benedict’s legacy. His concept of founding autonomous, adaptable Christian communities that humanize the culture through prayer, education, and works of charity is as relevant today as it was 1,500 years ago. Thus the Holy Father has proclaimed him the model for the New Evangelization.

In the words of Father Denis Robinson, OSB, rector and president of St. Meinrad School of Theology: “Our job is to help the Church…and that has looked different at different times in history. We try to respond eagerly.”


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