Saturday, May 10, 2008

Monte Cassino - The Cradle of Modern Europe

Roman and I were discussing the other day about how Christianity created modern Europe particularly through the civilising efforts of the Benedictine monks. They not only preserved classical knowledge, but the monastic system provided "incubators" for local economies to re-establish themsleves. The Abbey at Cluny in Burgundy is the most spectacular example. Such an enterprise, unusual for its time - founded on peace and the Gospel and not war, required heaps of service industries (vestment making, goldsmithing, construction, candle making just to name a few). Protection of the Abbey and its support industries by charter provided by Kings and Popes provided conditions in which industries could flourish and lead to the European renaissance.
One of my teenage ambitions was to visit Monte Cassino and I eventually achieved it recently. You can read about the whole history of the monastery from St Benedict to about 1910 here. Of course it does not mention about the Abbeys total destruction in 1944 and the Battle of Monte Cassino. As I stood on top of the Sacred Mountain I thought "this is the place where modern Europe started". Here are the pics of my visit.
We arrived at the abbey gate at 12.00 to find that the abbey closes to tourists at 12.30. Obviously the monks need lunch and some quiet time. So the visit was a hurried one.
This is the main cloister which is open to the public. The statue in the middle of the cloister is of St Benedict at the moment of expiring after receiving Holy Communion in the church. The chronicles record that he was so weak that he had to be supported by two monk
The statue was donated by the German Chancellor Konrad Adenhauer after WWII. Incidently Adenhauer was sheltered by the Benedictines of Maria Laach when Hilter came to power. The Abbey was totally destroyed by the Allies in 1944, but thankfully the Germans had moved the monks out prior to this. What you see here is a reconstruction of the 18th century abbey. The West German Government under Adenhauer, a very devout Catholic, contributed financially to the rebuilding of the abbey.

This is another view of the cloister and you can see fragments of classical statues on the grass. Prior to St Benedict arriving here, it was the site of an abandoned village, and a temple to Apollo which was still in use. St Benedict converted the locals to Christianity and the shrine to Apollo was no more. The monks then took up residence in the ruins. Presumably the old temple was purified, consecrated and served as the first monastic chapel.

This photograph looks out onto the Polish War Cemetery (biretta tip to Roman). There are other major war cemeteries in the area. The Abbey itself sits out on a spur of the mountain range overlooking the Rome-Naples Road (now the autostrada) which made its position quite vulnerable to armies wanting to control the area. St Benedict himself predicted that the Abbey was going to be destroyed - a prophecy which came true in 580AD less than 40 years after the saint's death when the Lombards sacked the abbey. In 1944 the same thing happened.

Another interesting thing is that on the plains to the left of the photograph is situated the town of Aquino where St Thomas Aquinas was born. St Thomas was sent to the abbey for his education as a Benedictine oblate. btw the crane is a restoration project going on.

Here we are climbing up the stairs to the basilica.

On the left on the stairs is St Benedict and the on the right is his sister is St Scholastica.

Here is the inside of the basilica. I was happy to see that all public Masses in the basilica are celebrated ad-orientem on the High Altar. I would assume that these are all in the Ordinary Form in Italian with sung propers in Latin.

Looking from the High Altar itself, you can see the sedilia for the "presiding" priest and on the other side the Throne for the Abbot who is also Bishop of Monte Cassino. The Catholic Encyclopedia makes mention that as the diocese of Monte Cassino was created through the merger of seven smaller dioceses, it was the practice for the Abbot to wear seven precious mitres in succession when he sang a Pontifical High Mass!

On the far wall above the main door to the basilica you will see a brightly coloured fresco which is quite different to the rest of the decor. I wished that I had got a picture of it. It is a modern work only completed in the late 1970s, and shows Pope Paul VI ascending in glory to heaven. Around it are themes from his pontificate including him presiding over the Second Vatican Council and his tours around the world. Its good to see that glorious Christian art is not dead.

At the back of the high Altar are contained the relics of St Benedict and St Scholastica. Due to the upheavals and successive destruction of the abbey over the last 1428 years, apprarently relics of these two saints are extremely rare. The relics must be powerful as the High Altar and the shrine were the part of the church that was least damaged during the intensive aerial bombing of the Abbey in 1944.

Our vitual pilgrimage finishes in the crypt which is in the remnants of the village and the temple of Apollo. You can see the ancient Roman stonework as you go down the stairs. This more modern chapel is where the monks on a normal day gather for Mass and the Office.

After this a security guard was walking around telling everyone to leave as he was closing up the church. It was then a race down the staircase that you saw earlier and run into the souvenir shop to buy Roman's rosary beads then back to the carpark. A total pilgramage of half hour duration.


Terra said...

Lovely photos and reflectin, thanks.

Joshua said...

Did you say there is a fresco of Paul VI ascending in glory to heaven?!

One can hardly imagine him, the Hamlet-Pope, responsible for wringing his hands and letting so much of the patrimony of the Church be abandoned, responsible for teaching the truths of the Faith, yet not enforcing obedience, being carried up in triumph to the pearly gates...

I would have thought that he has a stay in Purgatory: his penance is to catechize the bishops as they arrive there...