The Order of Saint Benedict
Benedictines are members of the Order of Saint Benedict (O.S.B.), a group of confederated congregations who follow the Rule of St. Benedict and who are descendants of the traditional monasticism of the early medieval centuries in Italy and Gaul. The Benedictines, strictly speaking, do not constitute a single religious order because each monastery is autonomous.
St. Benedict wrote his rule with his own abbey of Montecassino in mind. The rule, which spread slowly in Italy and Gaul, provided a complete directory for both the government and the spiritual and material well-being of a monastery by carefully integrating prayer, manual labour, and study into a well-rounded daily routine. By the 7th century the rule had been applied to women, as nuns, whose patroness was deemed Scholastica, sister of St. Benedict.
By the time of Charlemagne at the beginning of the 9th century, the Benedictine Rule had supplanted most other observances in northern and western Europe. During the five centuries following the death of Benedict, the monasteries multiplied both in size and in wealth. They were the chief repositories of learning and literature in western Europe and were also the principal educators.
Each community within the order maintains its own autonomy, while the order itself represents their mutual interests. Internationally, the order is governed by the Benedictine Confederation, a body, established in 1883 by Pope Leo XIII’s Brief Summum semper, whose head is known as the Abbot Primate. Most Benedictine houses are loosely affiliated in 20 national or supra-national congregations. Each of these congregations elects its own Abbot President. These presidents meet annually in the Synod of Presidents. Additionally, there is a meeting every four years of the Congress of Abbots, which is made up of all abbots and conventual priors, both of monasteries that are members of congregations, as well as of those unaffiliated with any particular congregation. The Congress of Abbots elects the Abbot Primate, who serves a four-year term as the Confederation’s representative and administrative head, although without direct jurisdiction over the individual Congregations.
The Confederation has its headquarters at Sant’Anselmo in Rome, which is the seat of the Abbot Primate and hosts the quadrennial Congress of Abbots. Sant’Anselmo is also home to the Benedictine Pontifical Athenaeum. Communities of Benedictine nuns and Religious Sisters are joined in 61 congregations and federations that are associated with the Confederation, although they do not have full membership. In November 2001 after a consultation process with all monasteries of Benedictine women around the world, it was decided to use the name Communio Internationalis Benedictinarum (CIB) to designate all communities of Benedictine women recognized by the Abbot Primate as such and listed in the Catalogus Monasteriorum O.S.B.
Benedictine monasticism is fundamentally different from other Western religious orders insofar as its individual communities are not part of a religious order with Generalates and Superiors General. Rather, in modern times, the various autonomous houses have formed themselves loosely into congregations that in turn are represented in the Benedictine Confederation. Throughout the Benedictine confederation and its subdivisions, independence and autonomy among communities are uniquely valued. The basic unit has always been the individual abbey, rather than the Congregation. This explains why some houses (e.g. Monte Cassino, Subiaco, Saint Paul-outside-the-Walls (Rome), Montserrat and Pannonhalma) have unbroken histories of more than a thousand years while the Congregations to which they belong are more recent.
Section 17 in chapter 58 of the Rule of Saint Benedict states the solemn promise candidates for reception into a Benedictine community are required to make: a promise of stability, conversion of life, and obedience. Much scholarship over the last fifty years has been dedicated to the translation and interpretation of conversion of life. The older translation of conversatio morum has generally been replaced with phrases such as “[conversion to] a monastic manner of life”, drawing from the Vulgate’s use of conversatio as a translation of “citizenship” or “homeland” in Philippians 3:20. Some scholars have claimed that the vow formula of the Rule is best translated as “to live in this place as a monk, in obedience to its rule and abbot.”
A Benedictine abbey is a “religious institute” and its members are therefore members of the consecrated life. While Canon Law 588 §1 explains that Benedictine monks are “neither clerical nor lay”, they can, however, be ordained. Benedictine Oblates endeavor to embrace the spirit of the Benedictine vow in their own life in the world.
Benedictines, in addition to their monastic life of contemplation and celebration of the liturgy, are engaged in various activities, including education, scholarship, and parochial and missionary work.