Benedict XVI - General Audiences
On St. Benedict of Norcia
"The Great Monk Is Still a True Teacher"
H.H. Benedict XVI
April 9, 2008
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to talk about St. Benedict, the father of Western
monasticism, and also the patron saint of my papacy. I will begin with a
few words from Pope St. Gregory the Great who wrote the following about
St. Benedict: “The man of God who shone on this earth with so many
miracles does not shine any less for the eloquence with which he knew
how to present his teaching” (Dial. II, 36).
The Great Pope wrote these words in the year 592: The holy monk had died
barely 50 years earlier and was still alive in the memories of the
people and above all in the blossoming religious order he founded. St.
Benedict, through his life and work, had a fundamental influence on the
development of European civilization and culture.
The most important source of information on his life is the second book
of the Dialogues by Pope St. Gregory the Great. It is not a biography as
such. According to the ideas of the time, he wanted to demonstrate by
using a real person -- St. Benedict -- how someone who abandons himself
to God can reach the heights of contemplation. He offers us a model of
human life characterized as an ascent toward the peak of perfection.
Pope St. Gregory the Great tells us in the book of the Dialogues about
the many miracles performed by the saint. Here too he did not want to
simply recount a strange event, but rather demonstrate how God, by
warning, helping and even punishing, intervenes in real situations in
the life of man. He wanted to show that God is not a distant hypothesis
situated at the beginning of the world, but rather that he is present in
the life of man, of all men.
This perspective of the "biography" is also explained in the light of
the general context of the times: Between the fifth and sixth centuries
the world suffered a terrible crisis in values and institutions, caused
by the collapse of the Roman Empire, the invasion of new people and the
decline of customs. By presenting St. Benedict as a "shining light,"
Gregory wanted to show the way out of “this dark night of history” (cfr.
John Paul II, Teachings, II/1, 1979, p. 1158), the terrible situation
here in the city of Rome.
In fact, the work of St. Benedict and his Rule in particular are bearers
of a genuine spiritual turmoil, which changed the face of Europe over
the centuries and whose effects were felt way beyond his time and the
borders of his own country. Following the collapse of the political
unity created by the Roman Empire, it revived a new spiritual and
cultural unity -- that of Christian faith, shared among the people of
the Continent. This is how the Europe we know today was born.
The birth of St. Benedict is dated around the year 480. He was born,
according to Pope St. Gregory, “ex provincia Nursiae” -- in the region
of Norcia. His parents were well off and sent him to be educated in
Rome. He did not stay long in the eternal city however. Pope St. Gregory
offers a very likely explanation for this. He points out that the young
Benedict was disgusted by the way of life of many of his fellow students
who led unprincipled lives and he did not want to fall into the same
trap. He wanted only to please God “soli Deo placere desiderans” (II
Dial., Prol 1).
Therefore, even before he completed his studies, Benedict left Rome and
withdrew to the solitude of the mountains east of Rome. Initially he
stayed in the village of Effide (now: Affile), where for some time he
affiliated himself with a "religious community" of monks, and then
became a hermit living in Subiaco, which was close by. For three years
he lived completely alone in a cave there. In the High Middle Ages, this
cave became the "heart" of a Benedictine monastery called "Sacro Speco."
His time in Subiaco was a period of solitude spent with God and was for
Benedict a time in which he matured.
Here he endured and overcame the three fundamental human temptations:
the temptation of self-assertion and the desire to place oneself at the
center of things; the temptation of the senses; and finally, the
temptation of anger and revenge.
Benedict firmly believed that only after conquering these temptations
would he be able to say anything useful to others in need. And so,
having pacified his soul, he was fully able to control the drive to put
oneself first, and so became a creator of peace. Only then did he decide
to found his first monasteries in the valley of Anio, near Subiaco.
In the year 529 he left Subiaco to establish himself in Montecassino.
Some have explained this move as a flight from the interference of a
jealous local clergyman, but this is not likely, as the priest's sudden
death did not lead Benedict to move back again (II Dial. 8). In truth,
he took this decision because he had entered into a new phase of
monastic experience and personal maturity.
According to Gregory the Great his exodus from the remote valley of Anio
to Mount Cassio -- which dominates the vast planes around it -- is
symbolic of his character. A monastic life of isolation has it's place,
but a monastery also has a public aim in the life of the Church and
society as a whole. It must serve to make faith visible as a force of
life. In fact, when Benedict died on March 21, 547, through his Rule and
the Benedictine order that he founded, he left us a legacy that bore
fruit all over the world in the subsequent centuries, and continues to
do so today.
In the whole of the second book of the Dialogues, Gregory shows us how
the life of St. Benedict was immersed in an atmosphere of prayer, the
foundation of his existence. Without prayer you cannot experience God.
Benedict's spirituality was not cut off from reality. In the turmoil and
confusion of the times, Benedict lived under the gaze of God. He never
lost sight of the duties of everyday life and of man and his
necessities. In seeing God he understood the reality of man and his
mission. In his Rule he explains monastic life as “a school at the
service of the Lord” (Prol. 45), and he asks his monks "not to place
anything ahead of the work of God" (that is, the Divine Office and the
Liturgy of the Hours)(43,3). He underlines, however, that the act of
prayer is in the first instance the act of listening (Prol. 9-11), which
is then translated into concrete action. “Every day the Lord expects us
to respond to his holy teaching with action” (Prol. 35).
The life of a monk therefore becomes a fruitful symbiosis of action and
contemplation, “so that God is glorified in everything” (57,9). In
contrast to an egocentric and easy self-fulfillment, often extolled
today, the first and irrefutable duty of a disciple of St. Benedict is a
sincere search for God (58,7) on the road traced by a humble and
obedient Christ (5,13), the love of whom nothing should be allowed to
stand in the way (4,21; 72,11).
It is in this way, in serving others, that Benedict becomes a man of
service and peace. By showing obedience through his actions with a faith
driven by love (5,2), the monk acquires humility (5,1), to which the
Rule dedicates a whole chapter (7). In this way man becomes more like
Christ and attains true self-fulfillment as a creature in God's own
The obedience of the disciple must be matched by the wisdom of the
Abbot, who “takes the place of Christ” (2,2; 63,13) in a monastery. His
role, outlined mainly in the second chapter of the Rule, with a
description of spiritual beauty and demanding commitment, can be
considered a self-portrait of Benedict, since, as Gregory the Great
writes, “the Saint could not teach what he himself had not lived” (Dial.
II, 36). The Abbot must be both a loving father and a strict teacher
(2,24), a true educator.
Inflexible when it comes to vices, he is called upon to imitate the
tenderness of the Good Shepherd (27,8) to “assist rather than dominate”
(64,8), to “point out more with actions than words all that is good and
holy,” and to “ illustrate the divine commandments by setting an
In order to be capable of making responsible decisions, the Abbot must
also be someone who listens to “the advice of his brothers” (3,2),
because “God often reveals the most apt solution to the youngest person”
(3,3). This attitude makes the Rule, written almost 15 centuries ago
very current! A man with public responsibility, even in small circles,
must always be a man who knows how to listen and to learn from what he
Benedict describes the Rule as “minimal, just an initial outline”
(73,8); in reality, however, it offers useful advice not only to monks,
but to anyone looking for guidance on the path to God. Through his
capacity, his humanity, and his sober ability to discern between what is
essential and what is secondary in the spiritual life, he is still a
guiding light today.
Paul VI, by proclaiming St. Benedict the patron saint of Europe on
October 24, 1964, recognized the wonderful work accomplished by the
saint through the Rule toward creating the civilization and culture of
Today, Europe -- deeply wounded during the last century by two world
wars and the collapse of great ideologies now revealed as tragic utopias
-- is searching for it's own identity. A strong political, economic and
legal framework is undoubtedly important in creating a new, unified and
lasting state, but we also need to renew ethical and spiritual values
that draw on the Christian roots of the Continent, otherwise we cannot
construct a new Europe.
Without this vital lifeblood, man remains exposed to the ancient
temptation of self-redemption -- a utopia, which caused in various ways
in 20th-century Europe, as pointed out by Pope John Paul II, “an
unprecedented regression in the tormented history of humanity”
(Teachings, XIII/1, 1990, p. 58).
In the search for true progress, let us listen to the Rule of St.
Benedict and see it as a guiding light for our journey. The great monk
is still a true teacher in whose school we can learn the art of living a
[Translation by Giustina Montaque]
[After praying the Angelus, the Holy Father greeted pilgrims in six
languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Our catechesis today is concerned with Saint Benedict, the Father of
Western monasticism. The most important source of information on his
life is the Second Book of the Dialogues of Pope Saint Gregory the
Great. Writing in a time of turmoil and moral decadence following the
fall of the Roman Empire, Pope Gregory believed that the life and Rule
of Benedict could be a light leading the people of Europe out of
Benedict was born in 480 in the region of Nursia. He came to Rome to
study but soon left the city so as to live in silence and to please God
alone. He spent some time in a religious community before becoming a
hermit in a cave. After struggling victoriously against the fundamental
human temptations of pride, sensuality and anger, he decided to found a
monastery at Subiaco. Years later he established a new community on a
mountain, Montecassino, to symbolize the public role of a monastery
called to be a light shining for the good of the Church and society.
Indeed, when he died in 547 Saint Benedict left behind a thriving
spiritual family and a Rule, which invites us to search for God in
prayer, obedience and humility while attending faithfully to daily
duties and to those in need.
In 1964 Pope Paul VI proclaimed Saint Benedict Patron of Europe
recognizing the role that his teaching and his disciples had played in
shaping Europe’s spiritual life and culture. Let us continue to pray
that Europe’s new unity may be enlightened and nourished by a religious
and moral renewal drawn from its Christian roots.
I am happy to greet the English-speaking visitors present at today’s
Audience, including the pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Manila, and the
many groups from England and the United States. May your lives, after
the example of Saint Benedict, be lived in humility, prayer, obedience
to God and faithful service to your neighbour. May the Lord bless you
and your families!
(c) Copyright 2008 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana
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