The Order of the Benedictines
The oldest order of the Catholic Church was founded in Italy at the beginning of the sixth century. Benedict of Nursia (ca 480 – 547) built a monastery at Montecassino. He also wrote a rule for his monks (Regula Benedicti, Rule of Saint Benedict).
The sources of this rule lie in Benedict’s own experience as a monk and abbot, in the Bible and in other older monastic rules. Prayer, work, and reading should be the essential elements of monastic life. When a monk “is to be received, he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience.” (Rule of Saint Benedict 58, 17)
Montecassino was destroyed in 577. The monks went to Rome. The rule of Saint Benedict was taken on by nearly all European monasteries from the ninth century onwards. Though the monastic life was centred on the abbey, the monks have had an enormous influence on the history of the church and on European culture. They sent missionaries to large parts of the continent. Monasteries became cultural centres, since the monks were able to both read and write. They owned books and they ran schools.
Many monasteries were founded by members of the nobility. As a result, nobility often had too much influence in the communities. The monks of Cluny in Burgundy asked for more freedom. The Cluniac houses depended on the Holy See and on the abbot of Cluny. Cluny developed a very solemn way of celebrating the liturgy. Other aspects of the monastic life, for example work, seemed less important.
Some monasteries tried to return to a more simple way of life. The Cistercian monks wanted to follow the rule of Saint Benedict more closely. During this time, new orders were founded, which followed their own rules. Franciscans and Dominicans could respond with greater flexibility to the new problems of society. They offered an excellent formation to their members and situated their monasteries in the cities.
Nonetheless Benedictine monasticism still flourished. Pope Benedict XII (1334 – 1342) modernized the order in 1336, when he asked the Benedictine monasteries to form regional federations. This was the origin of the Benedictine congregations. In Germany the Congregation of Bursfelde, founded in the 15th century, was especially successful. Unfortunately, many of its monasteries fell victim to the Reformation in the 16th century. When German monks were free to decide their own future, they usually remained Catholic.
The Age of Enlightment in the 18th century questioned the meaning of monastic life. As a result, nearly all monasteries in Germany were suppressed at the beginning of the 19th century. The state expelled monks and nuns. Their books and manuscripts ended up in public libraries. But monastic life survived this crisis as well.
The Romantic movement newly appreciated religious life. In 1830, monks returned to the Bavarian monastery Metten. Beuron became a Benedictine monastery in 1863 and later on the centre of a flourishing congregation. In vain the “Kulturkampf” (1871 – 1887) and the Nazi-regime (1933 – 1945) tried to impeach religious orders. Today, in Germany there are about 50 monasteries of Benedictine nuns and monks.
In 1893 Pope Leo XIII united the Benedictine congregations of the whole world in the Benedictine Confederation. The abbot-primate represents the order. He resides in the Roman abbey, S. Anselmo. The former abbot of St. Ottilien, Notker Wolf OSB, has been Abbot-primate since 2000. In Rome, the Benedictine Confederation sponsors an international university, the “Pontificio Ateneo S. Anselmo”. The German-speaking monasteries founded a house of studies (Kolleg Sankt Benedikt) at Salzburg in 1926.