Commemorating the Feast of St. Benedict of Nursia

Interview With the Archabbot of Monte Cassino

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By Father Thomas Rosica, CSB



TORONTO, JULY 10, 2009 (Zenit.org).- To commemorate the memorial of St. Benedict of Nursia on Saturday, we present this interview by Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, the chief executive officer of Salt and Light Catholic Television Network in Canada, with the Archabbot of Monte Cassino, Benedictine Father Pietro Vittorelli.

The interview took place during the abbot's recent visit to Canada and aired on the Salt and Light Catholic Television Network in Canada

Father Rosica: Abbot Pietro Vitorelli, you are Father Abbot of an abbey that is famous around the world -- Monte Cassino. When one thinks of Monte Cassino, one think of the Great War, of the battle of Monte Cassino and the long, rich history of this abbey. You are a very young Father Abbot, how is this possible?

Archabbot Pietro: Well, when the need arises to elect a new abbot, the Holy Spirit is invoked and the brothers decide, autonomously, according to what the what needs of community are at that time. Then there is the need to respond to another vocation. Saying "yes" after an election is a vocation within a vocation.

I was born in Rome. I met the Benedictines because my family comes from the land of St. Benedict, which is the area around the Abbey of Monte Cassino. This little town is called San Vittorio del Lazio. That's where my grandparents were born and in the summers I would often go visit them in the town. My great-grandmother spoke to me often about the Abbey of Monte Cassino because in southern Italy there's a saying that goes, "Whoever doesn't see Monte Cassino, doesn't believe in Paradise." I never would have thought that one day I'd be in that paradise that is Monte Cassino

Father Rosica: You saw and you also believed! Let's go back to rediscover the appeal of St. Benedict. Ever since April 19, 2005, Benedict is a well-known name. The Holy Father explained the influence that St. Benedict had on his life. Who was Benedict of Nursia?

Archabbot: In his Second Book of Dialogues, St. Gregory the Great tells us about Benedict of Nursia who knew even as a young man, the attraction of a calling. After completing his studies in Rome as was common in the sixth century, Benedict moves towards answering his calling as a hermit. First he goes to the grotto of Subiaco, close to Rome, then wanting to bring to fruition his vision of a monastic life that still needed to be fleshed out, he moves to Cassino and at Monte Cassino. There he finds an ancient Roman building that became the first monastery. There he gives life to a great adventure, the Benedictine Family, writing a short rule for novices that consists of 73 chapters and he calls it the "Regula Monacorum" or the Rule for Monks.

Father Rosica: Benedict constructed the first monastery in 529, if I've read my history correctly, and from that moment to the present day that monastery has had several reincarnations. It's had a very interesting history. Talk to us a little bit about the principle of "Ora et Labora" (Prayer and Work), in the Benedictine life. Talk to us about this motto of Benedictine life.

Archabbot: It's a winning motto, I would say, especially in these times. The younger generations tend to underline whatever is extraordinary, exceptional, outside the normal experience. In the sixth century Benedict was already saying, and continues to say, that what's important is the ordinary, the daily, the normal.

Today, whatever is normal is an exception. And we, in the normality of a life lived in prayer and work, reaffirm that Christ died and rose again to save humanity. This is, I think, what Benedict wanted to pass on to his monks as a unique way of living the Gospel, to give it flesh day after day. Monte Cassino is, in a way, the icon of all of this. It's an abbey with almost 1,500 years of history, the essence of its strength is summarized in a motto that reads "Succisa virecit;" that is, the plant that is cut is reborn again, like a great oak. Since 1529, Monte Cassino has been destroyed four times, but has always been rebuilt. The last time was in 1944 when it seemed impossible to rebuild.

Father Rosica: We could say that God truly wanted the existence of this nucleus of culture and religious life!

Archabbot: I think I can say yes. Today especially, with such a rich history behind it, especially because even today I see how an energy radiates from this place not just through the Italian territory, but around the world. Also because today the Benedictine confederation is present in all corners of the world with almost 370 monasteries around the world.

Father Rosica: Where in the Benedictine world are you seeing growth and where are you seeing, perhaps, a drop in vocations?

Archabbot: Well, just like the rest of the church, there is a drop in vocations in Europe and the West, while there's a great effervescence in the East and in South America where we're seeing many vocations, just like in Africa where we're seeing a new season of the Holy Spirit. There are some monasteries in old Europe, the big monasteries, are suffering from a lack of vocations, while in the Philippines and South America I can think of some monasteries that are not big enough for all the monks they have and we need to build new monasteries.

Father Rosica: What about at Monte Cassino? Are there vocations?

Archabbot: At this time we have vocations following the crisis of vocations that happened right after the Second Vatican Council when there was that great transformation in the way of thinking about and living the Church. Today, following a trend that started about ten years ago, there is a slow resurgence in our community at Monte Cassino and we have six young men in formation -- all Italians!

Their backgrounds are quite varied. Because Monte Cassino is known internationally, we attract vocations from all of Italy, but we also have a constantly growing cultural life and of these six young men four of them have university degrees from different parts of Italy, each with a different background. We have an engineer, an architect, one with a degree in literature, an accountant and a land surveyor.

Father Rosica: Another important component of your monastic life is the liturgy. You give great dignity to liturgy in the Benedictine world. Why is the liturgy and the care given to it so important?

Archabbot: Because the Benedictines treat the Lord as Lord. There is a place of honor given to the "opus Dei," as St. Benedict called it in his rule, the work of God, the first work of God is prayer. Benedictine monks have always given much attention to this primary aspect of their lives, which feeds everything else. The "labora" the work gets it strength and energy from the "ora," prayer and one cannot be separated from the other. This way even work becomes prayer itself, because it becomes part of that praying without ceasing, as St. Benedict says in the rule, that unceasing prayer of the heart that is so dear especially in the Eastern tradition and which St. Benedict proposed to his monks in the sixth century.

Father Rosica: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is not a stranger to your life or to your monastery because he has a special place in his life for the Benedictine rule. Tell me about your friendship with Cardinal Ratzinger.

Archabbot: I had the honor of assisting him during one of his longer visits to the monastery, when he stayed for about eight days while writing one of his books. That time he stayed quite awhile and I was able to be close to him for an extended period of time.

On April 19, 2005, Father Abbot gave us permission to watch the television -- we don't normally watch television -- and we were all gathered around the television when it was announced that Cardinal Ratzinger had been elected Pope and had chosen the name Benedict, there was an explosion of joy that the austerity of monasticism had never seen before: bells rang, people were making phone calls to get more details about the event. The joy was great. Very soon after we asked Pope Benedict XVI to come in pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Benedict, this time as Pope.

Father Rosica: Benedict XVI, has allowed the life and teachings of Benedict to permeate his life, his though, his theology.

Archabbot: I have been most impressed by Pope Ratzinger's ability to enter deeply into the Benedictine spirituality, even though he is not a Benedictine himself, and interpret it with modern eyes. This can be seen in an extraordinary way during his last apostolic voyage to France, at the Collège des Bernardins, where the Pope addressed the world of culture and gave a splendid speech on monastic spirituality.

Father Rosica: Father Abbot, you live at Monte Cassino, and in addition to being the Father Abbot you're also in a certain sense a bishop of the place. You’re not a bishop, but it is a territorial abbey, a diocese itself. You're dressed like a bishop, with the pectoral cross which is also used by a Father Abbot, you wear the mitre just like a bishop. What does it mean to be Father Abbot and pastor of this flock that is around you?

Archabbot: St. Benedict has always suggested that we proceed with evangelization of the territory. The Benedictines would found a small house, but around this house, which would slowly become a nucleus of interest because they would teach how to work the land, or they would teach plumbing techniques, or they would teach prayer, or how to read and write. All of this created a nucleus of interest that was filtered through the Gospel message, the message of Jesus Christ, and also the message of St. Benedict. This slowly created clusters; this is why many European cities have names that recall their monastic roots, like Monaco, but also many of the great cities in England, France, and even Italy.

Father Rosica: The territory of Monte Cassino includes Cassino.

Archabbot: Yes, there are 53 parishes, it's a small diocese that's all around the Abbey of Monte Cassino, and all the towns have a saint's name because they are all founded by monks, so we have San Vittore, Sant'Andrea, Sant'Elia, are all towns of our diocese.

Father Rosica: So the influence of the monastery extends into these towns and parishes, we can say it's a diocese with a Benedictine spirit. The monastic life today has many different forms and takes on many different incarnations, but it is still important to the heart of this world. The world is in difficulty in many regions and the monastic life, as is said in the theme of the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse, "the world turns and the cross remains." How do you see the world from inside the monastery? There are many difficulties in Italy when it comes to the practice of the faith, the crises in the Church, instead your life is prayer and work, and there is a calm and peace.

Archabbot: I think, just like Paul VI said in his famous speech for the reconsecration of the Basilica on Oct. 24, 1964, that modern man needs to stand before the Benedictine cloister once again to experience peace, silence and prayer. I always think of the monk as a missionary in reverse, in the sense that his mission is to give witness through a life lived in silence, in prayer, in calm and peace, so that whoever arrives at the monastery -- they generally arrive full of stress and tiredness, spiritual or psychological confusion -- can find an environment that lends itself to healing, to rest for the soul, and can return to the world recharged but also calm and above all full of God.

Father Rosica: You touched on something very important, because another part of Benedictine life is hospitality. Wherever I've been in the world, in France, in Italy, in South America, in many countries, I've always visited Benedictine Monasteries and I've enjoyed this hospitality. What type of person comes to do spiritual exercises, to spend a weekend, a few days? Where do these people come from and why are they coming to the monastery?

Archabbot: It's people from various backgrounds who are coming for many different reasons. Sometimes they're, obviously many are priests or religious who come to make retreat, to pray, but atheists come to us too, or people who don't believe in God or in religion but are curious about monastic life. Monasticism has an easy relationship with other Christian denominations but also with other religions, and we get visits from representatives of various levels from other Christian denominations or even other religions. For example, it's been three years in a row that Lutheran pastors from Sweden have come to spend Holy Week with us, and I see that there is a very profound spiritual participation. I think monasticism offers great possibilities in this area.

Father Rosica: Is there such a thing as a profile of monk? When a young man presents himself at the door of the monastery, what are you, as Father Abbott looking for in that young man?

Archabbot: I can easily answer with the words of St. Benedict to the master of novices; he says that one must see if the candidate si revera deum querit is truly seeking God. I think this is the only thing asked of the monk. There are no specific human characteristics he must have, but if his heart truly seeks God it will be evident in his desire to explore this life and renew himself through the Gospel, through the way of life taught by St. Benedict. Today even monasticism is called to challenge our times, because the young people who knock on our door don't come from the moon, they don't come fully formed as Christians or as monks. They bring with them all the contradictions, difficulties and wounds of our times, and we are called to rise to this challenge and say that God's call was true 1500 years ago it is true today, and monk -- like the rest of the Church -- are asked to understand the language of the young generation in order to respond to them in that same language.

Father Rosica: The tomb of St. Benedict is with you, his mortal remains are in your church if I remember correctly from when I visited as a student. What does it mean to be that close to this great founder of this movement that has been so important in the history of the Church?

Archbbot: It's a very big commitment and responsibility. Every day after the singing of Vespers, in Gregorian chant, the community goes to the tomb of St. Benedict and his sister Scholastica, and we sing a beautiful hymn- every day- called Signifer Invictissime, that is O Strongest Flag-Bearer, a reference to the person who, in battle, carried the flag. And we feel that like St. Benedict we are called to carry high our one and only standard -- the cross. Paul VI said, in the Apostolic Brief in which he proclaimed St. Benedict patron of Europe, “He and his monks Christianized Europe with the book, the cross and the plow. The book is a symbol of prayer, the cross the symbol of the Christian faith which was being spread throughout Europe, and the plow was the symbol of manual labour with which the monks sanctify their day.”

Father Rosica: We have only a few minutes left, I'd like to conclude with that marvelous scene of Benedict and his sister, Scholastica. What is the significance of this last scene between Benedict and Scholastica?

Archbbot: In the foothills of the mountains of Monte Cassino still stands the place where, according to tradition, St. Benedict and St. Scholastica met. And on the seventh of February, three days before the feast of St. Scholastica -- that's what St. Gregory the Great tells us -- everyone at the Abbey of Monte Cassino comes down to that place to celebrate a mass, with many other people. The significance I give to this profound event in the lives of Benedict and Scholastica is that it's all linked to the freedom of female genius. Because Scholastica, according to tradition, observed the rule that Benedict had given to his monks. At a certain point she asks her brother to stay with her to talk, because she felt that she was going to die. But her brother, we men are a little more tied to the firmness of rules, said "no, I have to go back because I've written in the rule that monks must return to the monastery." Scholastica asks God to do something. A great downpour begins and St. Benedict is forced to stay and he asks, "Sister of mine, what have you done?" she says, "I prayed to God and he listened to me, you didn’t listen to me." St. Gregory the Great writes that Scholastica could do more because she loved more. This, in my view, is a lesson that beyond the written rule there is a higher rule, that of love, because sometimes even the laws of man can be unfair and unjust, but the law of God is never unjust.

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Full interview: http://www.saltandlighttv.org/prog_slprog_witness_popup_0905_vittorelli.html