Monastery of St. Benedict (Norcia)
The Monastery of St. Benedict on the Mountain (Italian: Monastero di San Bendetto in Monte) is a male Benedictine community located in southeastern Umbria, just outside the city of Norcia, Italy. The monks live according to the Rule of Saint Benedict and exclusively use the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite as well as the traditional form of the Divine Office. They have become well known for their production of beer, the sale of which provides income for the monastery, as well as a best-selling album of Gregorian Chant.
The monks originally occupied the Basilica of San Bendetto in the center of Norcia, built above the birthplace of Saint Benedict of Nursia and Saint Scholastica. The Basilica and Monastery were destroyed in October 2016 in an earthquake which damaged much of Norcia and the surrounding area. As a result, the monks relocated to the abandoned church of Santa Maria delle Grazie located on a hillside 1.6 miles (2.6 km) west of the center of Norcia, where they have constructed temporary accommodations, and plan to construct a larger, permanent monastery in the near future.
In the 8th century an oratory was built in Norcia so pilgrims could pray at the place of St. Benedict’s birth. Monks came to Norcia in the 10th century, and remained in one form or another until 1810, when the Napoleonic Code forced the closure of the monastery. The current Benedictine community was founded in September 1998 by Fr. Cassian Folsom, an American monk from St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, who served as its first prior. He and two other monks began the community in Rome, before moving to Norcia in December 2000 at the invitation of the Archbishop of Spoleto-Norcia. They were charged to care for the Basilica of San Benedetto and for the many visiting pilgrims, and the community grew steadily over the years. In February 2012 the Monastery was canonically established as a priory under the supervision of the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation.
In October 2016 a 6.6 magnitude earthquake destroyed the 14th century basilica as well as most of the monastery. Although none of the monks were harmed, they, like thousands of others throughout Umbria, were left homeless. As a result, the monks moved outside the city to the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The 15th century church was once part of a Capuchin friary, and later was used as the seminary of the Diocese of Norcia. It was abandoned in the mid 20th century after the Diocese of Norcia was merged with that of nearby Spoleto. The monks had originally purchased the badly dilapidated church with the hopes of turning it into a summer retreat. In November 2016, Fr. Cassian announced that he was stepping down as prior, saying that he lacked the energy necessary to head the community in the process of rebuilding. Fr. Benedict Nivakoff, an American who had previously served as sup-prior and novice master, became the new prior. Since 2016 the monks have constructed several temporary structures on their new site, including a chapel, cells, refectory and library, and plan to construct a larger permanent structure. As of 2018, there are 14 monks in the community.
The façade, the side portal and the lower bell tower dated from the late 14th century. In 1570 a portico (Portico delle Misure) was added to the right side, by will of the commune and the ecclesiastical authorities, to act as covered cereals market. On the side, near the transept, was a spur with a niche housing a Madonna with Child from a local, late-Gothic painter.
The basilica had a Latin cross plan, with a single nave. The apse and the internal dome at the transept dated from the 18th century reconstruction only the 14th-century triumphal arch, restored in the 1950s, remained from the original Gothic nave.
Charism and Daily Life
The monks of Norcia seek to live in accordance with the Rule of Saint Benedict, spending their lives in ora et labora, "prayer and labor". The monks seek to recover a traditional understanding of monastic life. As such, they have decided to exclusively use the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Like all Benedictines, they chant the Divine Office in common. However, for this, as with the Mass, they use the 1962 edition of the monastic breviary, the last regular edition issued before the liturgical reforms of the 1960s. In 2018, they, along with several other traditional communities, were granted special permission to use the pre-1955 rites of Holy Week by the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei.
The monks follow a typical horarium, rising at 3:30 in the morning for Vigils. Then follows a period set aside for Lectio Divina, followed by Lauds at 6:00 AM. Following their daily conventual Mass, they devote their time to various labors needed for the upkeep of the monastery, including preparing meals, producing and bottling their beer and construction work. During work they maintain practical silence, limiting conversation to only what is necessary for completing the task at hand. They end their day at 7:45 PM with Compline, after which they observe "Grand Silence". Once a month, the monks take a "Hermit Day", in which they are dispensed of their obligations and spend the day in solitude an prayer. The monks have built several hermitages on the mountain behind them for this purpose.
They eat their meals in common, of which there are two: pranzo, taken after Mass (~11:00 AM), and cena, taken after vespers (~6:00 PM). In Lent they maintain a strict fast, eating only once a day after vespers, with an exception on Sundays, which are never days of fasting. There is no conversation during the meals. Rather, one of the monks reads aloud a selection from various works. The readings alternate between Italian and English on a weekly basis. At the conclusion of the meal, the Gospel for the following day's Mass is read. Beer and wine are served with certain meals, except during periods of fasting. The monks maintain a vegetarian diet, and eat fish only on Sundays and feast days.
In accordance with Benedictine tradition, the monks regularly host visitors, who come either for a retreat or to discern a potential vocation. The guests are welcome to join the monks in all their prayers, and may, if they so wish, work with the monks during the day.
Coat of arms
The coat of arms of the monastery is divided into two sections. On the left hand side is the symbol of the Celestine monks who were present in Norcia before being suppressed by the Napoleonic laws of 1810, representing the continuity with the past. The Celestines were an ascetic branch of the Benedictines that became defunct at around the time of the Napoleonic code.
The right side of the seal represents the present: a stump with new shoots of life growing from it. The stump represents monastic life violently cut off in 1810. The new shoots of life represent the present community, and the three leaves represents the three original monks who arrived in Norcia in 2000. As the prophet Isaiah says: "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots" (Isaiah 11:1). This image has always been a sign of hope.
Early in 2012 the Monks of Norcia established a brewery in a renovated warehouse. They hosted a grand opening celebration on August 15, 2012 - the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The name of the beer is “Birra Nursia”, using the Latin name for the city of Norcia and the motto of the brewery “ut laetificet cor” (that the heart might be gladdened). The monks explain this motto as follows:
In complete harmony with the centuries old tradition, the monks of Norcia have sought to share with the world a product which came about in the very heart of the monastic life, one which reminds us of the goodness of creation and the potential that it contains. For the monks of Norcia, beer has always been a beverage reserved for special occasions, such as Sunday and Feast days. The project of the monastic brewery was conceived with the hope of sharing with others the joy arising from the labor of our own hands, so that in all things the Lord and Creator of all my be sanctified. In one word, "ut laetificet cor."
In keeping with the strict enclosure required by the Rule of St Benedict, the public has very limited access to the brewery. Tours are offered once a year, on the anniversary of the brewery opening, August 15, and includes a tasting session of recent brews. No reservation is required for the yearly tour.His Eminence George Cardinal Pell blessed the brewery equipment in 2014, and called the Birra Nursia Brewery an “example of the new evangelization.” The monks themselves have noted that the beer has served as a tool of evangelization and outreach, attracting people to the monastery who would otherwise have no interest. . Fr. Cassian writes that the monks chose to name the beer after the city for two reasons:
First, it is where St. Benedict himself was born and to whom we owe our gratitude and veneration as the founder. Secondly, it is the city of Norcia which opened its arms widely to us in the year 2000 when the monastery was given to us. The beer is made by monks, yes; but it is a thanks to the townspeople and so many of you that we have been able to sustain ourselves in these initial pioneer years. We hope to give back to you with our beer, what we have so generously received from your open hands. May God continue to bless you and your families... As is customary for monastic breweries, the name of the beer is connected to the city. For instance, Chimay and Orval are both towns in Belgium which have monastic breweries. Therefore, our monastery will do something similar, using the Latin word: “Nursia”, and calling it “Birra Nursia”. "
As of 2018, the monks produce 2 varieties of beer: Extra, a Belgian style dark ale, and Bionda, a blonde ale. Norcia is famous for many food products, including truffles, wild boar, salumi, and cheeses. The monks designed their beer to pair with such local delicacies. Many of the shops, hotels, and restaurants in town have begun selling Birra Nursia to their customers. As of March 2016, Birra Nursia is also available for purchase in the United States via their website.
Birra Nursia even participated in the election of Pope Francis. Several cases of beer were given to the cardinals before the start of the conclave. The fact that the Pope chose “Francis” as a name, and our master brewer is our own Br. Francis Davoren (from Texas!) does not seem to us a coincidence! Perhaps those initial smiles from the Loggia of St. Peter’s were the fruit not just of the Holy Spirit, but of our very own motto, Ut Laetificet Cor!"
Thus it is speculated that the Monks of Norcia were responsible for the naming of the last two popes; Cardinal Ratzinger visited the monastery for the Feast of St. Benedict in 2003, shortly before becoming pope and choosing the name Benedict XVI. This name was chosen in part because of his experience at Norcia and other Benedictine monastic communities.
- Birra Nursia Website .
- Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner's Guide to a Holy Happy Hour, p.61-62
- Birra Nursia: “An Example of the New Evangelization” .
- "Brew Evangelization: The Ongoing Renaissance of Monastic Beer" ["http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/3651/brew_evangelization_the_ongoing_renaissance_of_monastic_beer.aspx]
- The Monks of Norcia Summer 2012 Newsletter .
- Birra Nursia Website .
- Monks in the News .
- Blog post: Do you know what helps select a Good Pope? A good beer..
- The Monks of Norcia Summer 2013 Newsletter .
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