The Benedictines: An Introduction
Benedictines carry on a monastic tradition that stems from the origins of the Christian monastic movement in the late third century. They regard Saint Benedict as their founder and guide even though he did not establish a Benedictine Order as such. He wrote a Rule for his monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy and he foresaw that it could be used elsewhere. Monte Cassino was destroyed by the Lombards about A.D. 577 and was not reestablished until the middle of the eighth century. Meanwhile the Rule found its way to monasteries in England, Gaul, and elsewhere. At first it was one of a number of rules accepted by a particular monastery 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 Benedict with local adaptations needed in different climes and cultures. They continued, however, the tradition of community life with its common prayer, reading, and work. Some of the monasteries were founded as centers of evangelization of peoples; others carried on a program of education, art and architecture, and the making of manuscripts. Many monasteries were centers of liturgy and learning in the midst of chaotic times and shifting kingdoms.
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, 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 they were called, 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.
The Benedictine monasteries waned at the end of the twelfth century, about the time the Church witnessed the rise of the "modern" orders of Franciscans and Dominicans. The Benedictines, though in decline in members and discipline, continued their round of monastic life but at times without their properly constituted head. 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.
In the Middle Ages and 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.
The Reformers and Decline
Many Benedictine monasteries were closed at the time of the Protestant Reformation both because the reformers preached against monastic vows as unevangelical 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 great precision and splendor.
Other congregations; e.g., the St. 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 has declined once again, at least in the First and Second World, 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, etc.
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 who 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 much 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 who endeavor to seek God in a common life of prayer, reading, and service.
This article in Portuguese.
Bibliography for Students of the Rule of Benedict by S. Aquinata Böckmann OSB.
Books of Benedictine Interest (Liturgical Press).