Sylvester Guzzolini, the Founder of the Sylvestro-Benedictine Congregation. was born in 1177 in Osimo, Italy. He was a canon of the Cathedral of Osimo, when he was attracted to the eremitical life, having experienced the vain pursuits of the ecclesiastics of his day. His peaceful life in the wilderness had to be abandoned, as many others wanted to follow him. Accepting the Rule of St. Benedict and adopting a monastic robe of blue, he began a community with his followers by the brook of Vembercilli on the outskirts of Fabriano. In 1231 he established a monastery at the same place which is now known as Monte Fano. The congregation was approved by His Holiness Pope Innocent IV, in 1284.
Arrival in Sri Lanka
The gradual development of this new monastic congregation led to the establishment of monasteries in the Marches, in Umbria and in Rome. It was only after 600 years, that the Sylvesto-Benedictine Monks stepped out of Italy. In 1845 Fr. Joseph Maria Bravi, a young promising priest-monk offered his services to Propaganda Fide to be sent to the missions. He was assigned to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and arrived in the Island on 14th August 1845.
Mission in Colombo
In 1849 Bravi was nominated Coadjutor Vicar Apostolic of the Southern Vicariate of Colombo which at that time comprised the present dioceses of Colombo, Kandy, Galle, Ratnapura and Badulla and in the same year, he was ordained Bishop. He succeeded in getting the Sylvestro-Benedictine Congregation to accept and adopt the mission of Sri Lanka; as a result, other monks joined the mission. Mgr. Bravi had an uphill task in the development of the mission. Preaching the Good News to the people of the land, settling disputes between the Oratorians of Goa and the European missionaries not only took his time but also impaired his health. After labouring for 15 years in Sri Lanka, Mgr. Bravi died on 15th August 1860 at the Red Sea on his way to Rome. Propaganda Fide appointed Dom Hilarion Silani, another Sylvestro-Benedictine monk to succeed Mgr Bravi in 1863. His tenure of office can be rightly called the golden era of the Southern Vicariate. Frequent visits to his faithful, the building of new churches, getting the teaching orders of Religious for the education of the youth helped Mgr. Sillani develop the Vicariate. The first Catholic Journal in English in the Island “The Catholic Messenger” was started by him. He died in Rome in 1879.
Division of Vicariate
The third Sylvestro-Benedictine Vicar Apostolic of Colombo, Mgr. Clement Pagnani, was a zealous missionary. He longed to be among his people and sought to eschew bureaucratic triumphalism which did not appeal to him. During his frequent and extended mission visits a press correspondent accompanied him to send the progress reports to the Catholic Press, for regular publication. Pagnani was a zealous missionary but an inexperienced administrator. The suppression of the Religious orders in Italy prevented more missionary monks from coming to Sri Lanka.
Mission in Kandy
Mgr. Pagnani celebrated his farewell Mass in St. Lucia’s Cathedral on the 15th of August 1883 amidst tears of the faithful, and left for Kandy, the newly established diocese. The few missionary monks who were not in favour of the division of the Vicariate, went back to Italy on the same day. With poor resources and a handful of missionaries, Bishop Pagnani began his apostolic work in Kandy. At the time of his death, he had a presbyterium of local O.S.B clergy and a well-established diocese. During his long episcopate of 28 years, he built many churches and saw a great increase in the number of Catholics, in the diocese of Kandy. Following his demise in 1911 the Delegate Apostolic, Mgr. Zaleski was keen in getting the first Sri Lankan priest, ordained Bishop for the diocese. His choice fell on the young parish priest of Kandy Cathedral Dom Bede Beekmeyer OSB who was named “Prince of the Diocese” and who certainly strove to keep up his dignity. During his tenure of office, he made Catholicism come alive and change the face of the diocese. Dom Bernard Regno OSB a saintly missionary monk, was chosen to fill the vacancy created by the death of Bishop Beekmeyer in 1936. Bishop Bernard Regno governed the diocese for another quarter century, in a St. Sylvester Guzzolini spirit of selfless service to the poor. He is called the “Coolie Bishop” on account of his commitment to the evangelization of the poor plantation workers with whom he delighted to dwell.
Vatican II Implemented
After a fairly long reign, with age catching up on him and weak constitution, Bishop Regno resigned from his duties and Dom Leo Nanayakkara OSB was appointed Bishop of Kandy in 1959. Having participated in the Second Vatican Council. Bishop Leo tried to bring in a new trend in the Church. He took his stand In favour of the marginalized, both in the society and in the Church. In order to implement better the directives of the Council, he requested Rome to divide the diocese of Kandy and the more underdeveloped part, the diocese of Badulla. was administered by him. He died in 1982. Bishop Leo was the sixth Sylvestro-Benedictine Bishop in our land and the universal Church. With the transfer of Bishop Leo to the new Diocese of Badulla, the Congregation in Sri Lanka entered a new phase. The onus of the ordinary care of the diocese was handed over to the Diocesan Clergy and the freedom to live and work in accordance with our specific identity as monks, dawned. The Congregation was free to organize its life and work. Now we are trying to live our monastic identity in the missionary context of Sri Lanka.
Monastic Life Today
Today the Priest Monks of our priory serve in the parishes in the dioceses of Colombo, Badulla, Batticaloa and Kandy; education of youth, care of the orphans, teaching in the Seminary and preaching retreats, promotion of liturgical music are other apostolic activities our monks are engaged in. All the monks live in communities, even though small, and try to maintain their monastic identity. As we live and serve the people in a multi-religious context, we maintain good relationship with our non-Christian neighbours. Some efforts are being made to enter into dialogue with our counterparts in other religious persuasions. “May God be Glorified in all things”