A Brief History of the Benedictines

icon-saint-benedict.jpgBenedictines carry on a monastic tradition that stems from the origins of the Christian monastic movement in the late third century. While the Order of Saint Benedict takes its name from the saint, as well as regard him as the founder of the Order, Saint Benedict did not establish an Order as such. Called from his hermitage to spiritual leadership, he wrote a Rule for his monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy, and he foresaw that it could be used elsewhere. In time, the Rule of Saint Benedict found its way to monasteries in England, Gaul, and elsewhere. At first it was one of a number of rules accepted by various monasteries, but later, especially through the promotional efforts of Charlemagne and his son Louis, it became the rule of choice for monasteries of Europe from the ninth century onwards.

The early medieval monasteries of Europe, those for men and women, followed the Rule of Saint Benedict with local adaptations needed due to different climates and cultures. They continued, however, the tradition of community life with its common prayer, reading, and work. In the midst of chaotic times and shifting kingdoms many monasteries became centers of liturgy and learning. Some of these monasteries were founded as centers of evangelization and ministry of peoples; others carried on programs of education, art and architecture, and the making of manuscripts. .

Benedictine monasteries are often characterized as local institutions with a great deal of autonomy. In the Middle Ages, they were often founded by the nobility as centers of prayer, and as communities that would pray for the people, especially the nobles themselves. The monasteries had little contact with each other, though eventually some of them began to relate to each other for the sake of protection from bishops and nobles, and for common discipline. The most famous association was that of Cluny, named for the abbey in Burgundy; this monastery was founded in 909/910 and grew to include numerous dependencies. Cluny reformed congregations of "black monks," (as Benedictines were called due to the black habit), in practically all parts of Europe. The abbot of Cluny was in effect the superior of all the dependent monasteries though he administered the multitude of abbeys through appointed priors. Cluny excelled in the splendor and length of its liturgy, so much so that its monks had little time for manual labor or reading.

benedict_medal_3.jpgBenedictine monasteries began to wane at the end of the twelfth century, about the time the Church witnessed the birth of the "modern" orders of Franciscans and Dominicans. The Benedictines, though declining in members and discipline, continued their commitment to, and rhythm of monastic life, but at times without a properly constituted abbot or prior. Not a few monasteries were burdened by a commendatory abbot, a person who was appointed by the pope or a nobleman to oversee and to protect the goods of the monastery. Often, however, he appropriated the wealth of monastic lands without involvement in the actual life of the community.

Beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing up to modern times, Benedictine monasteries for men and women often formed various associations or unions in order to promote discipline and mutual assistance. This was in fact mandated by the Council of Trent (1545-1563; Sess. xxv, cap. 8). Monasteries slowly and with much hesitation followed the directives of Pope Innocent III and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) to establish visitations of monasteries and regular general chapters for the enactment of legislation.

At the time of the Protestant Reformation many Benedictine monasteries were closed, both because the reformers preached against monastic vows as un-evangelical, and because secular rulers coveted and seized the abundance of properties owned by the monastics. Congregations of Benedictines continued in the centuries after the Reformation, but most monasteries were closed and expropriated during the Napoleonic era. As a result, their numbers were very few at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

During the course of the 1800s, however, Benedictines experienced a revival. Some congregations, e.g., the Solesmes and Beuronese Congregations, restored a kind of Benedictine monasticism that stressed the enclosed life with its round of liturgical prayer, performed with renewed precision and splendor.

Other congregations; e.g., the Saint Ottilien Congregation and groupings of American Benedictine women, stressed the missionary endeavors of evangelizing, teaching, and health care. Men and women Benedictines continued to establish new houses in many countries right up to the time of Vatican Council II (1962-1965). Since then the number of Benedictines in the Americas and Europe has declined once again, , but it has increased in other regions, e.g., East Africa and South Korea.

Today Benedictines, both men and women, are still characterized as people who take root in a particular place and who are related to the culture and needs of a specific location. Most are associated together in congregations for purposes of mutual assistance and common discipline. At the same time they vary widely in the type of monastic life they lead. Some pursue an enclosed life with little involvement in the local Church and society; others insist on various degrees of involvement such as education, parochial ministry, evangelization, publication, health care, and more.

In 1887 Pope Leo XIII, who was enamored of the Benedictines, reestablished the College of Saint Anselm in Rome. It continues today as an institute for Benedictine students and others who wish to obtain graduate degrees in philosophy, theology, liturgy, and monastic studies. In 1893 the same pope provided the "order" with an Abbot Primate to oversee the college, and to provide spiritual leadership for the Confederation of Benedictine monasteries. The Abbot Primate does not have direct jurisdiction in the monasteries of the order, though he is still charged with a general concern for the well-being of Benedictines around the world. Thus Benedictines differ from most modern religious orders that have a superior general in Rome.

Benedictines of today continue to group themselves in congregations of monasteries; some, however, especially many communities of nuns, are positioned outside congregations and relate directly to the local bishop and to the abbot primate in Rome. The followers of Saint Benedict vary significantly in the way they carry out the thrust of the sixth-century Rule, but in general they retain essential features of their origins—local gatherings of monastics endeavoring to seek God in a common life of prayer, reading, and service.

-- From The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia (A Michael Glazier Book), Liturgical Press (1995) 79-80. Edited for online use.