A Brief History of the Benedictine Order (2024)

A Brief History of the Benedictine OrderSant'Anselmo2018-08-08T17:36:51+02:00

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 Confederationwith 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 sistersalso 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.

A Brief History of the Benedictine Order (2024)


A Brief History of the Benedictine Order? ›

They were founded in 529 by Benedict of Nursia

Benedict of Nursia
Benedict is a masculine given name of Latin origin, meaning "blessed". Etymologically, it is derived from the Latin words bene ('good') and dicte ('speak'), i.e. "well spoken". The name was borne by Saint Benedict of Nursia (480–547), often called the founder of Western Christian monasticism. Benedict.
https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Benedict_(given_name)
, a 6th-century Italian monk who laid the foundations of Benedictine monasticism through the formulation of his Rule. Benedict's sister, Scholastica, possibly his twin, also became a religious from an early age, but chose to live as a hermit.

What is the history of the Benedictine Order? ›

The Benedictine Order is named after its founder, St Benedict, who was born in Nursia, near Spoleto, in Italy, around 480 AD. While in his late teens he was sent to study in Rome, but dissatisfied by the life he found there, he decided to turn away from a worldly existence to seek and serve God.

What are the Benedictines known for? ›

Benedictine monks live a monastic life with the purpose of glorifying God in all things. For centuries, Benedictine monks have embraced Benedict's Rule as their guide to monastic life. The Rule is comprised of 73 short chapters, containing two kinds of wisdom: spiritual and administrative.

What is the Benedictine Rule summary? ›

According to Benedict, all things—eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, working, and praying—should be done in moderation. In Wisdom Distilled from the Daily , Sister Joan Chittister writes that in Benedict's Rule, “All must be given its due, but only its due.

What is the mission of the Benedictine Order? ›

Our mission is to be a Community of Benedictine Monks, consecrated by monastic vows to God and united as a family to each other. Relying on Jesus in the Eucharist, Slavery to Our Lady, and fraternal charity, we seek to become saints by a life of prayer and work.

What was Benedictine 3 rules? ›

St Benedict writes in his Rule (58:17–28a): “When he is to be received, he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. This is done in the presence of God and His saints.” So these are the three vows.

What are the three Benedictine rules? ›

Benedictines take three vows: stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life, and obedience. Though promises of poverty and chastity are implied in the Benedictine way, stability, fidelity, and obedience receive primary attention in the Rule-perhaps because of their close relationship with community life.

What are the 5 rules of St Benedict? ›

The Rule revolves around five practices: ​Prayer, Work, Study, Hospitality and Renewal. ​Prayer is the foundation to the monastic life and calling, and can be a constant part of the life of non-monastics as well.

What Bible do Benedictines use? ›

Benedictine references – each scripture passage referred to by St. Benedict in the Rule is marked with a special cross in The Saint John's Bible, connecting this Bible to the Benedictines in Minnesota.

What are the 12 Benedictine values? ›

Ten core values can be distilled from the Rule of Benedict: love, prayer, stability, conversatio, obedience, discipline, humility, stewardship, hospitality and community. Individual monastics steep themselves in these values, striving as best they can to embody them as wholeheartedly as possible.

What miracles did St Benedict perform? ›

During his life, Saint Benedict performed many miracles. He found water on a desolate mountaintop to quench the thirst of his monks. He retrieved a bill hook's iron from the bottom of a lake and rejoined its handle. He prevented a monk from leading a dissolute life through intervention.

What is the motto of Benedictine Rule? ›

The essence of Saint Benedict's Rule is summed up in the motto of the Benedictine Confederation: PAX ("peace") and the traditional ora et labora ("pray and work").

What was the daily routine of the Benedictine monks? ›

They had to do cooking, serving, and washing up; wash the clothes; run errands; be nice to people; farming; look after the sick, and a lot of reading and writing. Religious services – there were several a day that they had to attend.

What makes the Benedictine Order unique? ›

One of the distinguishing features of the Benedictine Order is the idea of living for God as a community. Each monastic community is autonomous, with its superior – who takes the place of Christ as leader of the community – applying the Rule of Saint Benedict in the manner that they see fit.

Who is the head of the Benedictine Order? ›

The Abbot Primate is the head of the Benedictine Confederation. He is elected by the Congress of Abbots.

Who reformed the Benedictine Order? ›

The leaders of the English Benedictine reform were Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury (959–988), Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester (963–984), and Oswald, Archbishop of York (971–992).

What was the Benedictine Rule and why was it created? ›

Benedict was a devout Italian Christian who became a monk at the age of 20, wishing to withdraw from the world after he visited Rome and was shocked by how immoral life in the Holy City had become. He founded his own monastery in 529. The Benedictine Rule is strict—its main theme being absolute obedience to the Abbot.

When did the Benedictines start? ›

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.

What is the oldest Catholic monastic order? ›

Catholic religious orders began as early as the 500s. Order of Saint Benedict. In particular the earliest orders include the Norbertine Order of Premonstratensians (1120), the Poor Ladies (later called the Poor Clares), founded by St.

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