Order of Saint Benedict
Recognised as being one of the largest and oldest monastic orders in the Church, the Order of Saint Benedict is comprised of both men and women religious who follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. Almost fifteen centuries old, the order was formally established in the sixth century in an effort to continue the highly influential example for monastic life that was set by Saint Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c. 550).
As Saint Benedict did not actually found an order, the early history of what is referred to as the Benedictine Order was the simple gathering together of various communities under the Benedictine Rule. Although they all operated independently and practiced autonomy, as a whole, they made a great contribution to the development of monasticism throughout Europe. One major supporter of this movement was Pope Saint Gregory I the Great (who was pope from 590-604), himself a Benedictine. In order to help the spread of monasticism and the faith, he sent missionaries to various lands. One of these missionaries was the famed Saint Augustine of Canterbury. Augustine brought the Benedictine rule to England, where it gradually replaced the more austere Rule of Saint Columba.
Before long, monasteries began appearing all over Western Europe—in France, England, Spain, Italy, and so on. However, in 817, due to their terrible disorganization, Emperor Louis decreed that some kind of uniformity be implemented, commanding that all monastic communities within the empire adopt the Benedictine Rule. While such a reform proved difficult to enforce owing to the independence practiced by the houses, most of the communities began calling themselves Benedictines.
In the ninth century, further reforms were enacted which attempted a return to greater austerity and asceticism in the monasteries. One of the chief proponents of this cause was Saint Benedict of Aniane (d. 750-821). In the following century, even further reforms took place, primarily due to the Abbey of Cluny. These reforms, particularly those set by Cluny, triggered the rise in the eleventh century of much stricter orders with more centralized monastic governments. Among these new orders were the Carthusians, Cistercians, and Camaldolese. This brought a general revival of monasticism in the West.
The Benedictines, however, remained steadfast in their opposition to institutional centralization, despite the efforts of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the bull Benedictina (1336) of Pope Benedict XII. They did, however, adopt the system of congregations as a means of reform and revitalization. These national and international unions of houses brought improved organization while still permitting their retention of self-determination and identity. Among the most memorable foundations resulting from this was the Congregation of St. Maur (the Maurists), which began in 1621.
However, in subsequent years, monasticism began to witness a decline. Even though this was due to a number of different factors, much of it resulted from the devastation of the Reformation and the Renaissance period. Throughout the medieval era, however, the Benedictines played a major role in the preservation and advancement of learning in Christian Europe, working almost single-handedly to preserve a flicker of culture and civilization in the West during the Dark Ages. For centuries, they were virtually the sole guardians of learning and classical thought.
The Reformation, however, nearly caused the downfall of the Benedictines, as well as many other monastic orders. In England, not only did King Henry VIII (reigned from 1509-1547) ruthlessly suppress the monasteries, he also destroyed and looted many of them. Monasteries in Germany and Scandinavia suffered much the same fate. In the years that followed, the Benedictines again suffered a great deal due to their oppression during the time of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1796 and 1815).
Fortunately, in the nineteenth century, they witnessed a revival, thanks primarily to a young monk by the name of Dom Prosper Gueranger. Not only did he establish new monasteries throughout France (including the mother house at Solesmes), but he brought a revival of Gregorian chant to the liturgy.
During the past two centuries, the Benedictines have continued to grow throughout the world. In 1846, the first Benedictine house was founded in the United States (Latrobe, Pennsylvania). Today, there are approximately ten thousand Benedictines worldwide who are organized into a number of congregations, including the American, Cassinese, South American, and English Benedictines, as well as the Camaldolese, Sylvestrine, Subiaco, and Olivetan. The Benedictine nuns, founded in 529 by Saint Benedict’s sister (Saint Scholastica), are organized into three federations: Saint Scholastica, Saint Gertrude the Great, and Saint Benedict. During the course of their history, the Benedictines have given us twenty-three popes and a number of saints.