Benedictines Come Home; Behind the "Kidnapper Pope" Legend

An Ancient Order Returns to Norcia

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 7, 2005 (Zenit.org).- On June 29, while pilgrims were thronging to Rome to join Benedict XVI as he celebrated the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, another Benedictine ceremony was taking place in the little Italian village of Norcia, home of St. Benedict and his sister, St. Scholastica.

It was a single priestly ordination, that of a Benedictine, but to the several hundred present it seemed like the replanting of a foundation stone. It was the first Benedictine ordination to take place in the Basilica of Norcia in 200 years.

It may seem strange that the church built over the house of the man who founded Western monasticism would be devoid of Benedictines, but that was indeed the case. When Napoleon conquered Italy in the first decade of the 19th century, he outlawed monasteries and expelled the Benedictines from Norcia. The church was given over to the diocese and the monastery remained empty.

Then, during the great Jubilee of 2000, the year of conversions and miracles, the tide turned. A tiny group of American Benedictines led by Father Cassian Folsom came to Rome looking to return to their monastic roots. Their paths crossed with the archbishop of Spoleto and Norcia, Riccardo Fontana, who invited the little group to return to the home of their founder. Norcia is about an hour-and-a-half drive north of Rome.

Dec. 2, 2000, saw the Benedictines welcomed joyously back to Norcia by the whole town. The inhabitants, decked out in medieval costumes, arranged a great pageant culminating in fireworks.

This same felicitous model of church-state harmony was present during the ordination itself. The mayor of Norcia, wearing his green, red and white sash of office, sat proudly in the front row. Shortly before the beginning of the ceremony, two local police officers brought in the town standard which stood in the left transept for the duration of the Mass.

They also brought in a large reliquary containing a relic of St. Benedict. Surprisingly for those of us who come from a society leaning toward strict separation, the relic is kept in the town hall and brought to the church for major celebrations.

As the procession began, I was struck by the different faces walking by. The North American, South American, European and African visages testified to the universal fruitfulness of St. Benedict's "ora et labora." The priest being ordained, Father Anselmo Taborda from Colombia, made for an eloquent vision of the New World coming to revive the Old World.

The red robes of the archbishop and 26 concelebrants brought color and vibrancy to the ancient stone walls of the church, mirroring the new life and energy the return of this order brought to this town.

As Archbishop Fontana said during the homily, "Ancient walls can be restored by material means, but ancient spirituality can only be restored by supernatural means."

After the ordination, I went down to visit the crypt with Benedictine Father Andrew Koch and two friends from the United States, professor Russell Hittinger and Father Matthew Lamb. As we stood within in the walls of the house where St. Benedict was born in 480, we reflected on what the return of the Benedictines as well as the election of Pope Benedict XVI meant to the Church.

Father Andrew spoke about what drew these American Benedictines to this remote mountain village. "It was the place and the liturgy," he answered, "and the desire for orthodoxy, liturgically and ecclesiastically."

The use of Latin chant also draws followers. Father Lamb, who is director of the graduate school of theology at Ave Maria University in Florida, mentioned that when the monks sang their prayers in the crypt, "it seems as if the stones are singing back."

Father Andrew talked about renewal within the order "to rediscover the beauty of the liturgy and the Eucharist."

At this point, the conversation ignited. Professor Hittinger, who holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, noted that "St. Benedict went back to the basics, he taught about getting it right with the Father. Jesus allowed man to go back to the Father. It's all about liturgy and the Eucharist."

Father Lamb added, "The mendicant orders were founded during the flourishing city life of the 13th century. Benedict left the city for the countryside to be closer to God without distractions."

"The Franciscans and the Dominicans call each other 'brother' because they are about getting it right with your fellow man," observed Hittinger, "the Benedictines call everyone 'son' while the abbott is father."

"To renew the Church we must start from the beginning again like the Benedictines," Hittinger continued. "They took a vow of the reform of manners -- a conversion of morals. It's starting from scratch, with the
building blocks of the Church."

Father Lamb added that "the new evangelization of Pope Benedict XVI will bring us back to the starting point as really informed by the Catholic faith."

Hittinger interjected: "When I first heard that Cardinal Ratzinger had taken the name Benedict, I thought 'Small is beautiful. That's how it begins.'"

As we walked out of the crypt through the excavation of Benedict's house, Father Lamb indicated the ancient walls laid bare around us. "This is what Pope Benedict will do -- uncover the foundations on which to build."

Standing on the ancient stones of Norcia on the feast day of the Rock upon which the Church was built, it felt like a new beginning.

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Saga of Edgardo Levi Montara

In the Jubilee Year of 2000, when Pope John Paul II beatified Pope Pius IX, there was much outcry from many sides over raising the "kidnapper" to the altars. They referred to the "Montara case" in 1858, when a young Jewish boy was taken from his family to be raised in a Catholic institute.

The case was mentioned again by critics in conjunction with the opening of the cause for beatification of John Paul II as one of his "errors." One voice that has rarely, if ever, been heard is that of the "victim" himself, Edgardo Montara, otherwise known as Father Pio Maria Montara, canon regular of the Lateran.

Last month, Italian journalist/author Vittorio Messori published for the first time Montara's own account of his life, written by the priest when he was 37 years old. Messori found this document in the archives of the Lateran Canons, where it had been overlooked by all the other "scholars" who took an interest in this case with an eye to vilifying Pius IX, and translated it from Spanish to Italian.

It is a fascinating account, filled with love and gratitude for "Divine Providence" which brought him into the Church and the "protector and father" who kept him in.

Edgardo Levi Montara was born in Bologna (then part of the Papal States) to Jewish parents in 1851. The family hired a Catholic nanny for the child, which was explicitly against the civil laws of the country. When Edgardo was 1 year old, he fell deathly ill and was declared by doctors to be on the point of death. When the parents had given up all hope, the nanny baptized the baby she had grown to love.

To everyone's great surprise, Edgardo recovered. Eventually the situation was brought to the attention of the authorities in Bologna and eventually the Pope. Investigations were made regarding the validity and legitimacy of the baptism and once ascertained, both civil and canon law held that the child must be raised as a Catholic. Edgardo was 7 years old at the time.

Originally Pius IX had wanted Edgardo to remain in Bologna where he could continue to see his family, but the storm that grew up around the event made it necessary for the boy to be transferred to Rome. There, at the age of 17, Edgardo would be able to decide which faith to follow. He not only remained Catholic, he became a priest, choosing the name of the Pope toward whom his "gratitude had no limits."

The first part of the book presents Messori's own investigation of the story. He uncovers the complex political world of 1858 as the Unification of Italy began its quest to wrest away the Papal States. Messori traces the involvement of politician Camillo Cavour, the brains behind the Unification as well as that of James Rothschild, the Jewish banker who held Europe in the palm of his hand.

Messori also deals with the complicated situation of the laws of the Papal States. The response of Pius IX -- "Non possumus" (We cannot) -- to demands to return the child was true. As king of the Papal States, he could not break the law. But more importantly, as the successor of St. Peter, entrusted with Church, he could not treat the sacrament of baptism lightly.

Messori cites the journalist Veuillot who wrote at the time that Pius IX was reminding Catholics "who had rendered banal the truth of faith, of the importance of baptism. Pius IX is willing to lose all that remains of his state, but not to allow the loss of a single soul, not even that of an obscure child."

The story of an "obscure child" fills the second half of the book. Montara talks about the extraordinary grace that came into his life.

His version of being separated from his family is not one of violence and anger. He talks about the sadness being dissipated as he learned his first Our Father and Hail Mary. He remembers his first blessing from Pius IX which "never abandoned Edgardo," and allowed him to "not give in during the terrible battle which Hell was preparing for him, using his own family."

Edgardo's parents arrived in Rome and visited beseeching him every day for a month to rebel against the Pope and insist on returning home. He refused. Then his father tried to take him away by force, and Edgardo resisted. It is the only time Edgardo uses the word "kidnap" regarding his circumstances.

This remarkable child, torn between "the love for his family and the power of grace," held firm and soon began to dream of becoming a priest. He was overjoyed to become one of the canon regulars, yet he always remained disappointed that he was unable to convince his family "to accept the Gospel."

What provoked Father Montara to write these pages was the way the press manipulated the case to create an uproar around Pope Pius IX. He was astounded to hear that his "case" had earned his beloved mentor the nickname of "the kidnapper pope."

He had no sympathy with the cause of the Unification of Italy and when the Italian forces entered the city and went to San Pietro in Vincoli to "liberate" the boy "kidnapped" by the Pope, Father Montara fled Rome.

The joy of his vocation and the love and affection for the Pope who defended his right to heaven emerges in every page of the book.

Montara looks beyond his own troubled time to a day when people will cease "to listen to the calumnies," and "will accept the poor words of the Montara child, to tie them to scented garlands and immortal flowers that will adorn the altar over which Catholics will enthusiastically hail Pius IX a saint."

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Rome campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.