00 6/1/2009 4:25 AM

Towards a fully-aware faith:
Benedict XVI returns to Montecassino

by Carlo Di Cicco
Translated from
the 5/24/09 issue of

The last time Joseph Ratzinger was in Montecassino was for five days in February 2000.

It was an occasion for the future Pope to mature some of his thoughts - as he later wrote, recalling the long interview he gave German writer Peter Seewald there, which then became the book God and the World.

It is about being Christian in the new millennium - 'a small attempt to introduce the faith to the man of today'.

And Benedict XVI's return to Montecassino today is part of that design which remains the one true secret for reading his pontificate in its true light.

He is returning to one of the oldest sources of Benedictine spirituality that is at the root of his Christian formation and explains his insistence on exhorting Christians to a faith that is fully aware, if they wish to reawaken the cultural capacity of European society that is in a phase of great change as a result of so many unforeseen factors.

As in the time of St. Benedict - father of Western monasticism - when the society inherited from the Roman Empire was put to the test by the new peoples that had come from the outside world, and not always in a friendly way, so today, Europe must deal with the tens of thousands of immigrants that have arrived on the continent, driven out of their native countries by necessity.

The recomposition of the human fabric, which must result in time from mass migrations, finds in the Benedictine example a paradigm which can still be effective.

From their infancy, children in the lands influenced by St. Benedict were strongly imprinted with the figure of Totila, King of the Goths, who laid down his sword at the feet of the patriarch Benedict.

What reason could there be - we may well ask - for a king, at his moment of triumph, to kneel before a powerless man in a land that had been so trampled by opposing combatants?

St. Benedict was credited for his wise perspective of reconstructing the social and religious fabric that had been torn apart in the successive invasions.

And the reconstruction was according to his own Christian life spent entirely for others - in the light of his famous exhortation "Do not place anything ahead of the love of Christ" which he imposed as rule of life for all his new monks.

Benedict XVI is closely linked to the Benedictine style and the Christian vision of the sainted founder of Montecassino.

He chose to bear his name, he committed himself right away towards mutual understanding among peoples and religions, he has called the Church and the faithful to be sincerely converted to a lived faith in which nothing comes ahead of God.

And the simple motivation is love. To convert for love to a God who loves and who must be perceived as a God of love even in the 21st century.

The Pope who advocates harmony between faith and reason, prayer and work - in order for man to be able to carry on the search for the Absolute even outside religious precincts - hopes to be able to convert Christians first of all to the primacy of God's love.

In fact, he points out that social activism by believers - when it is not spiritually animated - remains sterile.

The power of Christian witness - which at one time was left to monasticism at the time of its flowering - is diminished by the shrunken dimensions of consecrated life today.

In line with the Church of Vatican-II, the Pope asks of every Christian to take on the responsibility of the Gospel in his daily life. The meeting today (Sunday) with the faithful of Montecassino and all Cassinate is inspired by this vision.

Because he is impelled by the spirit of colloquium with everyone in order to consolidate the peace, Benedict XVI can be counted among those unarmed prophets in a world that is more fraternal and solid, a goal towards which so many persons have dedicated their lives.

The Abbot of Montecassino recalls
his first meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger

Interview with Abbot Pietro Vittorelli
Translated from

May 23, 2009

The Holy Father is coming here a few days after his trip to the Holy Land.

He arrives at a special moment in his Pontificate, after a most important trip during which he preached the importance of peace, diplomacy, dialog.

I am happy to think that at Montecassino he may be able to find a bit of restoration as well as that festive welcome for someone who is coming home.

What do you remember of the last visit of then Cardinal Ratzinger to Montecassino?

I was most impressed with his monastic attitude, his full insertion into the rhythm adn life at the monastery, his ability to concentrate for hours on a task that is not always easy.

He devoted a week here to the interview that would become the book God and the world, and I had the assignment and the honor to be of assistance to him. He was enraptured by the atmosphere here.

Then there was the kindliness of his nature, almost timid, respectful of everyone, from the abbot down to the porters and the sacristans.

What will you ask of the Pope?

On occasions like this, one thinks more of what one should give him. He already carries a lot on his shoulders.

The central event of the visit will be the inauguration of the House of Charity.

That, too, is a dream for me. When we were putting together our efforts for solidarity in the parish, I never imagined that the fruit of those efforts would be blessed by the Pope himself. If one thinks back now, one sees it as a sign of God's blessing.

But this is only the beginning. We have to sustain it so that it has a future, and can provide a future for those who will find hospitality there.

How was the idea born?

Shortly after I was elected abbot, the local Caritas had to lodge an African mother with her baby in a minibus because the hotels did not want to accept her, and there was no other solution.

I was indignant - it was Christmas - and so I thought of the old regional hospital that was abandoned, and I spoke to the president of the region so that we could renovate part of the complex into a hospitality center for foreigners who are in need, and also people leaving jail who do not have a place to go to.

The question of immigrants has been much discussed in our country lately.

It is an emergency about which the Church is called to give a credible response, even in the face of some rather xenophobic trends, of positions that are not always cordial towards those who are in difficult circumstances and who are forced to leave their own countries.

It is a delicate question, as every time one holds out a hand to someone who is needy, there is the risk that he will refuse or take offense, but as a Christian, as a man and citizen, we cannot fail to show the world how far we have come along in a civilization marked by the evangelical message.

We must show the fruits of cultural growth, which does not mean closing up but welcoming, with an ability to be patient even with those who do not yet know how to follow the rules of human coexistence.

What will the Casa della Carita mean for Cassino?

I would like all our diocesan entities to collaborate in a single project. And charity is one of the virtues that each Christian is called upon to practise.

You have called particularly on young people to take part in this project.

In order to give substance to their youth, so they don'taste their free time simply on play stations and watching TV, which certainly are normal activities for their age, but cannot be the most significant part of their life. I have asked them to come and see what it is to live and work with the marginalized, the poor, the strangers.

And how have they responded?

There has been some response - not as great as I would have wanted. But it is just as important that some do commit themselves and set an example. But my dream is that this house of charity will not only help the poor and disadvantaged but provide an opportunity for growth to our young people and to our educators.

What message will come from Montecassino tomorrow, where all the Benedictine abbots and abbesses from around the world will be gathered together with the Pope?

That there can be unity out of diversity. All the abbots and abbesses do not necessarily live the Rule [of St. Benedict] in the same way, but that is the strength of the Rule - that it is adaptable to any population in any part of the world, because it is firm on one point: that the truth comes from Jesus, for whoever lives the Rule here or in Africa, in Colombia or Argentina.

It makes possible peaceful coexistence and unity around universal values that are acceptable to believers as well as non0believers - values like respect for life, civil coexistence, the right to education and to health. Any race and people can unite around these values.

Will anything change in the Abbey after this visit?

That's difficult to say for an abbey that has 1500 years of history and which has seen a whole series of Popes come and go. Of course, the visit of a Pope who took the name of St. Benedict will make us more committed to express our monastic life according to the directions for the Church coming from the Pope. We will listen to what he will tell us and we shall be carry it out humbly.

And on Monday?

We will return to the centuries-long quiet of the Abbey and resume our monastic life of silence, prayer, work, and hospitality.

From the Sunday OR, here's another interview with Abbot Vittorelli:

The Pope at the heart
of Christian Europe

An inrerview
Translated from
the 5/24/09 issue of

The expectation, the hope, the joy at the arrival of Benedict XVI on a visit to the abbey and dicoese of Montecassino this Sunday, are echoed in the interview given by Abbot Pietro Vittorelli to this newspaper.

Benedict XVI comes to Montecassino bearing his strong links with St. Benedict. How have these links emerged so far in his Petrine ministry?

Benedict XVI has underscored many times, from the start of his Pontificate, a rootedness in Benedictine spirituality, re-proposing it in his discourses and catecheses, which show a remarkable synthes of 'nihil amore Christi praeponere' [Do not place anything ahead of Christe) that St. Benedict has in the fourth chapter of his Rule "On the instruments of good works) (4,21), and which the Holy Father has cited many times. almost as a leitmotiv of his theological narratives.

When on the evening of April 19, 2005, from the Loggia of Benedictions, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez announced to the world that Cardinal Ratzinger had been elected Pope and that he had chosen to be called Benedict, besides the uncontainable joy of the entire monastic world - which in Montecassino was all caught up in the sound of pealing bells and peak usage of the telephone and e-mail, - some monks did not miss the immediate reference to the Rule of St. Benedict in the new Pope's first words declaring himself to be 'a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord'.

Although the Gospel reference was clear, the expression of humility so typical of St. Benedict was equally unmistakable, along with the expression in the Prolog to his Rule 'Et quaerens Dominus, in moltitudine populi cui haec clamat, operarium suum' (And the Lord, seeking his laborer in the multitude to whom He cries out)...

In the tireless Petrine service of Benedict XVI, there has never been any lack of reference to the importance of Europe's Christian roots and the service rendered to the Churcc in this regard by the monks and nuns of St. Benedict. But the Pope does not just have an 'archeological' regard for Benedictine monasticism: he grasps it in all its vitality and the prospects it has for the future.

When he received the World Congress of Benedictine abbots in September 2008, he said: "To construct a new Europe, one must begin with the new generations", before widening the perspective to the entire human family to underscore that "in many parts of the world, especially in Asia and Africa, there is a great need for vital spaces that enable an encounter with the Lord, in which, through prayer and meditation, man can recover serenity and peace within himself as well as with others".

But the text which, to my mind, will remain the 'Benedictine manifesto' of his Pontificate was the magnificent lecture he delivered at the College des Bernardins in Paris, in his encounter the world of French culture.

He introduced it by saying "I wish to speak to you this evening of the origins of Western theology and the roots of European culture", and with that theological mastery which is typical of him, and with a monk's heart, he wove the most beautiful song about 'quarere Deum', searching for God.

The Pope's references to St. Benedict necessarily validate his reflections on Europe. Do you think Benedict XVI's visit will have a meaning for the entire continent in its search for its Christian roots?

The visit of a Pope named Benedict to the cradle of Western monasticism, in the place which has reflected the eyes of St. Beenedict, from which came the impulse for a new evangelization of the European continent, cannot fail to have an echo in contemporary Europe.

The Pope willl reaffirm the importance for contemporary man to re-appropriate a kind of workday mentality, the normality of the Benedictine day-to-day routinr of 'ora et labora et lege' (pray and work and read) which can continually shape man.

"In your monasteries, you primarily renew and deepen daily your encounter with the person of Christ, whom you always have with you as guest, friend and companion. That is why your convents are places where men and women, even in our time, go to expressly to look for God, to learn to recognize the signs of the presence of Christ, of his love, of his mercy". That is what he said at the last audience that he gave to Benedictine abbots who were meeting in an international congress.

The diocese of Montecassino is historically dependent on the abbots of the Abbey. Does this bring any difficulty in carrying out the diocesan pastoral work that this requires?

The diocese of Montecassion is Montecassino, and Montecassino is its diocese. The indissolunle link which has united our parishes and our population at the monastery and its abbot have 15 centuries of history, which began with the arrival of St. Benedict himself in the sixth century.

In the following centuries, it underwent modifications the demands of changing times and which the wisdom of my predecessors aa abbots were able to harmonize.

Today our diocese, after a long path by Synod, has executed all the recommendations of Vatican-II.

Difficulties arose when for a long time, we suffered indecision over the future of the abbatial territory itself. That period created such uneasiness among the clergy about their future, and above all, among the faithful who had become so embedded in the Benedictine matrix.

Now that the Holy See has confirmed a new stability with the nomination of a new abbot and diocesan bishop, the life of this small but significant diocesan Church has resumed its centuries-long path, conserving the prayerful force of a monastic community, amd among them, the passionate testimonies of so many priests who were raised in the school of St. Benedict.

The pastoral plan which we unveiled last year for the diocesan Church provides for a five-year period dedicated to reflecting on the Word of God.

The Abbey of Montecassino is undoubtedly a reference point for Western monasticism. What does it represent today for teh Order and for contemplative life?

Montecassino remains the mother house for all Benedictines. From the world, there is a constant passage of monks asnd nuns paying homage at the tomb of St. Benedict, and certainly, Montecassino represents for everyone the heart of St. Benedict's experience.

The Holy Father himself, when he presented the figure of St. Benedict in the general audience of April 9, 2008, said: "Monastic life in its hidenness has a reason for being, but a monastery also has a public purpose in the life of the Church and of society - it should give visibility to the faith as a force of life".

Thus he justified authoritatively the passage of St. Benedict from Subiaco - which remains the other great Benedictine center - to Montecassino, which, from the experince of St. Benedict, is precisely the visibility of faith as a force of life.

Does Benedictine spirituality have any influence on the religious life of the diocesan faithful?

Yes, they are totally immersed in Benedictine spirituality. Many of our outstanding priests were educated by the monks when the seminary was in the monastery. The attention to liturgy, the love for choral singing, the ringing of the bells at Angelus three times a day in all our parishes, the appetite for the Word of God, the nocturnal pilgrimage to the abbey for Pntecost vigil, are just examples.

Imagine that a small diocese like ours has 28 parish choirs who we listen to every year in a much-awaited general concert, with a continuous rediscovery of Gregorian chant and traditional polyphony ehich had admirable promoters from our monks in the 20th century: Dom Mariano Taccarino and Dom Luigi De Berio were master teachers for many.

Every year for the Feast of St. benedict, on March 22, we celebrate a true and proper Day for Europe, and to rediscover Benedictine roots specifically, the historical pageant Terra Sancti Benedicti was instituted 15 years ago. Every year, this involves some 500 persons, mostly young people, who evoke the times of the Abbot Bernardo Ayglerio between the 13th and 14th centuries, with costumes and episodes based on historical research.

Then we have the St. Benedict Catholic School in the city which is run by our monks along with the Sisters of Charity of St. Giovanna Antida Thouret, which has 500 pupils from kindergarten to classical lyceum (high school).

Do St. Benedict and St. Scholastica (his twin sister) attract pilgrims from other faiths?

We often have Buddhist monks as guests who want to be acquainted with our form of life. We have had visits from Muslims, including ranking personages like King Abdullah of Jordan, whose grandfather had fought here in Montecassino during World War II; also, Mr. Khatamee of Iran when he was president. And so many Jewish guests as well, especially from the Jewish community in Rome.

Montecassino is also a place which recalls the horrors of war. What is the commitment of your monks and the diocese to the cause uf peace?

Several decades ago, the death and destruction that befell the abbey and its territory devastated thousands of human lives here around us. This land has resonated with the cries of sorrow and the weeping of families and individuals. All this has led both abbey and diocese to continuously work in order to build the peace.

This commitment is solemnly renewed every year on the anniversary of the bombardments over Montecassino and the city, to which surviving veteans come in order to reaffirm their commitment to peace.