How Monasticism Built Europe
Timothy Verdon

St. Benedict planted the seeds for social, cultural, and economic transformation

Normally the great churches are universal expressions of the life of the people of God, accessible to all. But Christianity also valued a form of religious life to which not everyone is called. From the 3rd-4th centuries, the way was opened for those who wished to live a more austere Christian life. First in Egypt, then in Italy and the south of France, individual hermits, groups of hermits and communities united around an “abba” — a spiritual father — defined a style of life focused only on God. Its principal components were prayer, study and work. Christian monasticism was born and with it, a new type of ecclesiastic construction: the monastery.

The contribution of Italy was of fundamental importance — the man whom the Church consider the patron of Europe, St. Benedict of Norcia, was born around 480. Author of the Regula monachorum, still used today, Benedict not only founded numerous monasteries, but established the foundations of a socio-cultural system destined to shape the Christian identity of entire populations.

The devastation of the war between two invaders: the Byzantines and the Goths (540-568), as well as the violence of the Lombard invaders (568-650) and the predatory Saracens along the southern and western coasts (9th-10th centuries), left behind the memory, but not the reality, of Roman Italy. The centuries old thoroughfares were changed: coming down from the North, the Lombards created new roads connected to their centers of power in Lombardy. In the service of these new roads, the Lombard kings founded monasteries along them. After the conversion to the Catholic faith of Queen Theodolinda in the 7th century, the new roads were oriented towards Rome and formed a nucleus of what would later be called the Via Romea or Via Francigena.

Charlemagne’s conquest of the Lombard kingdom reinforced monastic religious development in the 9th-12th centuries in southern and central Italy, as in the rest of the Empire entrusted to the King of the Franks by Pope Leo III in the year 800. With the diffusion of one monastic “rule”, the influence of monks on the spiritual life of Europe became decisive.

The community nature of Benedictine monasticism favored the development of precise human and social characteristics in the population. Fraternal help, hospitality for travelers, attention to the poor are among the elements of the Rule of St. Benedict which in Italy, like elsewhere, also became part of popular culture.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 July 2011, page 1

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