On the occasion of the dedication of the rebuilt monastery of Monte Cassino in 1964, Pope Paul VI proclaimed St. Benedict the Principle heavenly Patron of Europe. The title in many respects is true. In fact the monasteries that later followed the Holy Rule of St. Benedict were places where learning and manuscripts were preserved. For some six centuries or more the Christian culture of medieval Europe was nearly identical with Benedictine Monastic centres of piety and learning.
Tradition teaches that St. Benedict lived from 480-547 AD. He was born to a distinguished family from Norcia, Central Italy. He was sent to Rome for his early education but when still young embarked upon the monastic life. For Benedict this flight was to a completely different way of life, to another set of values, to a whole new conception of what was involved in living the life at its best. Eventually accompanied by some monks on the summit of Monte Cassino, probably about 525 AD he founded his famous monastery, which today stands as the Mother House of the whole Benedictine Confederation. There he wrote the Rule by which his influence has been diffused far more than fifteen centuries. Thanks to the Rule’s remarkable flexibility monarchism was not frozen into one invariable type. The Rule adapted itself to places, to times, to civilizations, to the spiritual aspirations of generations of disciples among whom it nevertheless maintained the strong Benedictine bond of kinship.
To Benedictines St. Benedict is not so much founder as lawgiver, master and teacher of spiritual doctrine. It is in this capacity that he is Father and Founder to them. The monasteries of St. Benedict became places where Roman and Western culture was preserved and where the Gospel was spread. Under St. Gregory the Great, the first Benedictine Pope, the Benedictines became a great missionary force. St. Augustine and his companions were sent to convert England. Great monks like St. Wilford, St. Willibald, St. Willibrord, St. Ansgar and many other Benedictines established the monastic life in the still pagan countries. St. Boniface, another Benedictine, sowed his foundation in the barbaric regions of Germany before finding there the crown of martyrdom. To quote author Alfred Lapple: “The achievements of the Benedictine monks can be summarized by three symbols; the Cross (they were messengers of Christian faith), the Book (pioneers and preservers of Western culture), and the Plow (promoters of civilization and new settlements). According to English Historian Edward Gibbon, a single Benedictine monastery may have done more for the cause of knowledge than Oxford and Cambridge combined.
At a time when unsteady conditions and ever changing circumstances were most detrimental to the Church, when the Church was infected with heresies of Arius, Nestorius and Entyches and amidst the invasions of barbarous hordes, St. Benedict through the organization of his Order of monks in the west was instrumental in bringing about an enormous work of conversion and re-conquering the world for Christ: “It is wonderful”, says a historian, “how Divine Providence has manifested its care for the Church by calling St. Benedict for his great work because at the very time when all Italy, France, Spain and the Nothern Coast of Africa were in the possession of Goths and Vandals, and almost the entire East was infected with heresy, in this frightful darkness, so bright a light shone forth from St. Benedict and his Order, that the whole world was thereby illumined”.
The Benedictine family is one of the oldest orders in the Church, which between male and female members still are more than 20,000 scattered all over the world. Gregory I was the first of 50 Benedictines who have occupied the papal throne. The Order numbers about 60,000 saints recognized by the Church, all of whom are indebted to the Holy Rule of Benedict for their place upon it’s alters. It had included 20 emperors, 10 empresses, 47 kings, 50 queens and many other Royal and noble persons.
St. Sylvester and the Sylvestro-Benedictine Monks
The Sylvestrine Congregation was founded by St. Sylvester Guzzolini. St. Sylvester Guzzolini was born of rich parentage at Osimo, Italy in 1177. Retiring by nature, he was brilliant in studies and a bright career awaited him when his father enrolled him in the famous university of Bologna to pursue the study of law. But there was another corpus of laws and logic that captivated his heart: “If anyone would come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”. So abandoning the pursuit of jurisprudence enrolled himself in the theological curriculum. He was appointed to the chapter of cannons in the cathedral of Osimo. Though he spent his best years in ministry all through these years he cherished a fond desire to follow the Master in a more radical way. Once he happened to go to assist at a funeral service of one of his young relatives. He was shocked to see the horridly disfigured face of his kinsman which once had been so comely. Back in his cell a challenging thought haunted him: “what he was I am and what he is I shall be”. And this was the beginning of his spiritual journey to perfection. Leaving for woods and betaking himself to the silence of the jungles he prayed for light. By divine direction he accepted the Rule of St. Benedict and embraced the monastic life. Disciples soon began to flock to him and thus sprang up a monastic Congregation which s now designated as “Congregatio Silvestrina Ordinis Sancti Benedicti” (Sylvestro Benedictine Congregation of the Order of St. Benedict). He later built the first monastery in Monte Fano, in Fabriano in 1231 and it up to date it is known as the “hermitage of Montefano”. This Institute was approved by Pope Innocent IV in 1248 with the Bull “Religiosam Vitam” and at that time it was known as the “Order of St. Benedict of Montefano”. Having lived a long life in a short span the man of God was “gathered to his people” on 26th November 1267 and he was canonized in 1598 by Pope Clement VIII.
The seven hundred year old history of the Congregation makes us wonder to see the marvellous works of God. Monks through centuries pursued learning sacred and secular sciences with renewed enthusiasm; untiring work was expanded on libraries and schools. Beside the apostolate of the parish they energized themselves in preaching the Word of God. In art and culture they won renown with their paper mill in Fabriano one of the oldest in Europe. Far Bevignate, sculptor and architect, designed the great fountain in Perugia and developed the first plan for the Cathedral in Orvieto and even composed the “Magnum et Perutile dictionarium” the first printed Greek lexicon.
Sylvestro Benedictine Monks first came to Sri Lanka in 1948 under the leadership of Msgr. Joseph Maria Bravi OSB. Over the past 160 years of the OSB presence in the Island they have not only given seven bishops to the local Church but also have given a new orientation to the mission fields of the dioceses of Colombo, Kandy, Badulla and Galle. Maintaining the monastic identity of community life and prayer they still render a yeoman service in the Lord’s vineyard.