St. Benedict and St. Scholastica were twins, born in the Italian city of Norcia more than 1,500 years ago, in the year 480. They changed the world. Benedict is the father of western monasticism: he was a hermit who developed a rule for monastic life that transformed the Church, transformed Europe, and transformed the world.
The Rule of St. Benedict established the principles that are at the heart of nearly all of the Church’s monastic traditions. When Benedict founded a community of monks in the sixth century, he developed a pattern for labor and prayer that millions of people around the world still follow, in one form or another. And when the Benedictine Order spread across Europe, it brought peace and tranquility to warring and lawless territories, and, more importantly, it brought the light of Jesus Christ to untold numbers of souls.
We cannot overestimate the significance of St. Benedict in the spread of the Gospel, the development of western culture, or the sanctification of the world. Pope Benedict XVI called St. Benedict “the father of many nations;” he often said that one can hardly understand Europe, the Church, or Christian civilization without understanding St. Benedict.
Benedict’s sister, St. Scholastica, is no less significant. Scholastica began the Benedictine Order for women, which also spread in extraordinary ways around the world. And Scholastica was the most trusted confidant, advisor, and collaborator of her brother St. Benedict. Their spiritual friendship influenced every part of the development of Benedictine spirituality and monasticism.
Since the deaths of Benedict and Scholastica, pilgrims have visited their birthplace to pray for their intercession, and to pray for the salvation of the world. The Basilica of St. Benedict, built over their birthplace, grew up over hundreds of years, little by little, through painstaking labor, until its completion in the sixteenth century.
On Sunday, Oct. 30, a basilica that took hundreds of years to build was flattened in a matter of minutes. Around 7:40 a.m., Norcia and the surrounding mountains were shaken by Italy’s strongest earthquake in decades. This, in fact, was the second major earthquake in Norcia in recent months. The basilica crumbled. All the other churches in this picturesque Umbrian town did too. Miraculously, though more than 3,000 people were evacuated from their homes, there were only 20 injuries, and no deaths.
The Benedictine Monks of Norcia emailed their friends just a few hours after the earthquake. They were all safe, and they had begun helping with the rescue efforts. The priests of Norcia’s monastery were especially looking for those who might need anointing of the sick or spiritual support. The monks gathered, as soon as they could, at their mountain monastery to pray for the people of Norcia before they continued helping with the rescue effort.
The prior, or superior, at the monastery in Norcia, has been my friend for nearly 20 years. The monks of Norcia began their community in Rome in the mid-90s. They were a small community of three, though they have grown exponentially since then. I would visit Father Cassian Folsom, the prior, and his monks in a small upstairs chapel near the Roman Forum. We would often pray vespers together, or share a meal.
The monks of Norcia are witnessing to the world an important reminder. Their home has crumbled around them. But they are undeterred in hope. Christ is the source of their hope, and the center of their lives. They are able to carry on in the ruins of their home because they have fortitude, and hope, and charity. They know the Lord has called them to continue to pray, and continue to work. They know that God calls them to be a source of grace in the middle of tragedy.
I often speak with friends these days who feel that our culture is crumbling around us. That things built over centuries have collapsed very quickly. I know how easy it is to become discouraged. But the monks of Norcia are a shining witness to the call of every Christian. If Christ is our hope, we will carry on, with fortitude, no matter what happens around us. In every season and circumstance, God calls us to pray and to work – ora et labora. And when culture crumbles, God calls us to be a source of grace in the middle of tragedy.
The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that the world is “waiting for another St. Benedict.” The monks of Norcia, following their holy founder, will spread the Gospel, and worship the Lord, and bring hope, peace, and freedom in the midst of their crumbled city. May each one of us have the courage to do the same.
The Monks of Norcia are raising funds to aid relief efforts and rebuild the churches of Norcia. To support them, visit: https://en.nursia.org/donations/