|St. Benedict of Nursia, Abbot: His Biography and Rule
Father of Western Monasticism
by Marcellino D'Ambrosio, Ph.D.
Little is known of this humble man who became the Patriarch of Western Monasticism. Born in Nursia around 480AD, St. Benedict was educated in Rome. The decadence of Roman society of that time led Saint Benedict to withdraw to a quiet, mountainous area South of Rome called Subiaco where he lived in a cave, as a hermit. A community of hermits grew up around him and coalesced into twelve monasteries of twelve monks each, with abbots appointed by St. Benedict. Local jealousy led to an attempt on Saint Benedict's life. And so, around 525 AD, St. Benedict moved with a small band of monks to Monte Cassino, between Rome and Naples, where Benedict remained till his death around 550AD. He was buried at Monte Cassino in the same grave as his sister, St. Scholastica. A generation or two after his death, a Benedictine monk ascended the throne of St. Peter and took the name Pope Gregory I, otherwise known as St. Gregory the Great. Pope St. Gregory wrote the only biography of St. Benedict from this period, and it forms part of St. Gregory's Dialogues.
It was at Monte Cassino that St. Benedict wrote his Rule or way of life, which brought order, stability, and moderation to the practice of monastic life. Because his Rule was so eminently reasonable and practical, it became the standard for nearly all monastic life in the Western Church until the time of Sts. Francis and Dominic. Monks following the rule of Benedict founded monasteries all over Europe from England to Germany and from Italy to Spain. The Crusaders even brought Benedictine life to the Holy Land. It was largely Benedictine monasteries that served as the exclusive centers of evangelization and Christian education throughout Europe for at least five centuries. And today it is not just Benedictine Monasteries that follow St. Benedict's rule, but Cistercian and Trappist monasteries as well. Because of the role of his rule in Christianizing the entire West, he was named co-Patron of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
The irony in this, of course, was that Saint Benedict apparently had no idea of this future impact. He was a simple man, leading other men to a simple life of prayer and work (Ora et Labora) which was their chosen path to holiness.
It is perhaps is the worldwide, evangelizing impact of St. Benedict's humble holiness that inspired Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to choose to be known as Pope Benedict XVI.
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