Odilo of Cluny

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Saint Odilo of Cluny
Troyes (10) Basilique Saint-Urbain Statue de Saint-Odilon.jpg
Statue of St. Odilo of Cluny in Basilica of St. Urban, Troyes, France.
Born c. 962 AD
Died 1 January 1049 AD
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Feast 11 May; 19 January (Cluny); in Switzerland on 6 February.

Saint Odilo of Cluny (ca. 962 – 1 January 1049) was the fifth[1] Benedictine Abbot of Cluny, holding the post for around 54 years.

Early life[edit]

Odilo was descended from the nobility of Auvergne (central France). His father was named Berald, his grandfather was named Hicterius. His mother became a nun at the convent of St. John in Autun after his father died. He had eight brothers and two sisters. One of his sisters married and the other became an abbess.[2]

When he was a child, he was partly paralyzed and he had to be carried by his family servants on a stretcher. One day while the family was travelling, they came to a church and they left Odilo with the luggage at the church door. The door was open, and little Odilo felt God was calling him to crawl to the altar. He got to the altar and tried to stand up, but failed. He tried again and finally succeeded: he was able to walk around the altar. The servants were terrified when they came back and found the boy wasn't there, but then they looked inside the church and saw him running around, completely cured.[3]

He developed a great devotion to the Virgin Mary as a child and also to the church. While still a child, he joined the seminary of St. Julian in Brioude. This was not a monastic seminary, however, but it was a home of secular canon priests. He stayed here many years but he felt a calling to the monastic life. One day Majolus of Cluny, the abbot of the monastery of Cluny, was visited Auvergne and by chance he met the boy. Majolus was very impressed with him and Odilo decided to join him as a monk at Cluny.

In 990, it is recorded that his family gave a gift of property to the monastery of Cluny, which was a common practice at that time, as many people gave their wealth to monasteries, thus making the monastery grow wealthy, in order to get the monasteries to pray for them.[4]

In 991 he entered Cluny and before the end of his year of probation, he was made coadjutor (deputy) to Abbot Mayeul. Abbot Majolus felt like his death was coming near and named him as his successor, because he loved this monk so much. The other monks unanimously ratified this and elected him as Abbot. He received Holy Orders.

Role in politics[edit]

In this time period it was very common for secular lords and local rulers to try to either take control of monasteries or to seize their property. Not only this, but local bishops often also tried to impose their own authority on monasteries or to seize monastery property. It was precisely for this reason that from the earliest days of Cluny’s history, Cluny did not affiliate itself with the authority of any diocese except Rome and received its charter directly from the Pope. Several Popes decreed an automatic excommunication to any bishop or secular ruler who tried to interfere or seize Cluniac property (including both the monastery and all the monasteries and properties that were owned by Cluny). However, many times the monks needed this order of excommunication renewed and repeated by the Popes because each new generation would bring a new round of figures who would go after Cluniac property. All of the abbots of Cluny in this period had to deal with this problem, and Odilo was no exception. He attended the Synod of Ansa in 994 for this reason and successfully got the bishops present at the synod to make a statement excommunicating anyone who attacked Cluniac property. In 999, Pope Gregory V granted Cluny a new charter to renew papal protection over the monastery and all of its dependent lands. Another such charter during Odilo’s abbacy was given in 1027 by John XIX.[5] Both the Popes and Holy Roman Emperors were great supporters of Cluny. The Holy Roman Emperors intervened on the side of Cluny in disputes involving people who had seized Cluniac property.

Pope Benedict VIII ordered in 1016 several French bishops to excommunicate the individuals who had seized properties belonging to Cluny. Gauzlin, bishop of Mâcon, in 1025 attacked Odilo and the archbishop of Vienne at that council of Ansa, because Gauzlin claimed that the archbishop needed his approval to give ordination to monks in Cluny. In answer to this Odilo produced the papal documents granting Cluny freedom from local diocesan control. The council nevertheless condemned Odilo’s position because it claimed that the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (in 451) had decreed that the ordination of monks had to occur with diocesan consent. In answer to this, the Pope then wrote letters to various parties involved with the dispute and condemned Gauzlin’s position. The Pope further decreed that any bishop who tried to enter a Cluniac monastery to even celebrate a mass would suffer automatic excommunication, unless he had been invited by the abbot.[6]

Another dispute arose on the basis of Cluniac monks under Odilo who took over the monastery of Vézelay without the bishop’s permission. The bishop excommunicated these monks and forced them to leave; after they left the excommunication was lifted.[7]

Pope John XIX offered Odilo the archbishopric of Lyons, but Odilo refused and this made the pope furious. The Pope then chastised Odilo for disobedience to Rome and treated Odilo’s refusal as an insult. John XIX died shortly after and his successor (Benedict IX) did not press the matter any further.[8]

For the most Odilo maintained good relations with both the Popes and the Holy Roman Emperors of his day. Emperor Saint Henry II had a very good relationship with Odilo. Henry and his successor Conrad II frequently praised Odilo for his holiness. From 998 he gained influence with the Emperor Otto III. He was on terms of intimacy with Emperor Henry II when the latter, on political grounds, sought to impair the spiritual independence of the German monasteries. In Germany the Cluny policy had no permanent success, as the monks there were more inclined to individualism. Between 1027 and 1046 the relations between the Cluniac monks and the emperor remained unchanged. In 1046 Odilo was present at the coronation of Henry III in Rome. King Robert II of France allied himself with the Reform party.

Odilo visited Henry II on several occasions and because of his closeness to him, he was able to intercede on several occasions for people who had disputes with him. When Henry II was crowned King of Italy in 1004, Odilo attended the ceremony. The following day there was a revolt against Henry in Pavia which was quickly crushed and the defeated party went to find Odilo so that he could ask Henry on their behalf for mercy. Odilo agreed and was able to persuade Henry, who respected his holiness so greatly, to hold back his hand and give mercy to the rebels.[9] When Henry was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor in Rome in 1014, Odilo also was present. He arrived in Rome before Christmas and spent several months together with Henry up to his coronation in February of 1014. The Pope presented Henry with the gift of a golden apple ('orb') with a cross on it, representing his empire. Henry later sent this gift to Cluny.[10] When Henry died, Cluny’s houses said many prayers and masses for him. He also attended the coronation of Conrad II who succeeded Henry and had a similarly good relationship with him, and thus got the Emperor to give favour to Cluny. When there was a failed revolt against Conrad in Pavia in 1026, Odilo again interceded for mercy from the Emperor for the defeated rebels.[11]

Odilo’s abbacy[edit]

During this time in European history, monastic prayers were an institutionalized part of society. Many people in society gave gifts to monasteries of lands, money or other kinds of property, and in exchange the monks would offer their prayers for them. Many people looked upon the monasteries as so important that they thought that prayers of monasteries were what held the world together.

The rapid development of the monastery under him was due chiefly to his gentleness and charity, his activity and talent for organizing. He was a man of prayer and penance, zealous for the observance of the Divine Office, and the monastic spirit. He encouraged learning in his monasteries, and had the monk Radolphus Glaber write a history of the time. He erected a magnificent monastery building, and furthered the reform of the Benedictine monasteries. Under Alfonso VI it spread into Spain. The Rule of St. Benedict was substituted in Cluny for the domestic Rule of Isidore. By bringing the reformed or newly founded monasteries of Spain into permanent dependence on the mother-house, Odilo prepared the way for the union of monasteries, which Hugo established for maintaining order and discipline. The number of monasteries increased from thirty-seven to sixty-five, of which five were newly established and twenty-three had followed the reform movement. Some of the monasteries reformed by Cluny, reformed abbey; thus the Abbey of St. Vannes in Lorraine reformed many on the Franco-German borderland. On account of his services in the reform Odilo was called by Fulbert of Chartres the "Archangel of the Monks", and through his relations with the popes, rulers, and prominent bishops of the time Cluny monasticism was promoted. He journeyed nine times to Italy and took part in several synods there. Pope John XIX and Benedict IX both offered him the Archbishopric of Lyon but he declined. As Cluny’s dependent monasteries increased in number, this gave rise to many conflicts, such as those mentioned above, between local authorities and Cluny as a result of disputes over rights. The greatest attacks against Cluny during Odilo’s abbacy were the one from the Council of Ansa mentioned above, and a public satire launched by Aldabero of Rheims. Aldabero gave voice to many people who held the Cluniac monks in little respect and he wrote a satire about Cluny and Odilo that was addressed to King Robert of France. Odilo and his confreres interested themselves in the church reform which began about that time. They followed no definite ecclesiastico-political programme, but directed their attacks principally against individual offences such as simony, marriage of the clergy, and the uncanonical marriage of the laity. The Holy See could depend above all on the religious of Cluny when it sought to raise itself from its humiliating position and undertook the reform of the Church.

During the great famines of that time (particularly 1028–33), he also exercised his active charity and saved thousands from death.

Peace movement[edit]

From the fall of the western Roman empire onwards, the church took up an administrative role in society and frequently had to intervene to get local fighting between various figures to cease. By the eve of the turn of the millennium, this had culminated in the creation of a large-scale movement backed by the church to erase all private warfare held between different feudal lords and families. Like the pro-life movement created at the eve of 2nd millennium, this movement against warfare had a huge backing from institutions within the Catholic Church which saw warfare as a grave sin against God’s plan. The monastery of Cluny, headed by Odilo and headed by other abbots, played its own role in this movement. The Peace of God (Treuga Dei), which was a particular movement within this larger movement had Odilo as a major figure. It required all private warfare to cease for a certain period of time each week, originally it was from Saturday until Monday morning, but this was later extended from sunset Wednesday to sunrise Monday. Warfare and the killing of each other could continue on other days, but it had to stop each week for that period of time. Anyone who was caught violating this and fighting was to be driven away by everyone and forced to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem to make penance for his sins. Odilo was said by the bishop of Autun to have been the originator behind this.[12]

All Souls’ Day[edit]

It is not known for certain how it was that Cluny came up with the idea of All Souls' Day, but it was during Odilo’s time that all Cluniac monasteries were made to keep November 2 as All Soul’s day and the rest of the western church adopted it from Cluny. One story holds that there was a monk from Rodez, a native of Aquitaine, who went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and when he returned, his boat was blown astray and he landed on a mysterious island between Greece and Sicily that had great bonfires lit on it. There was a hermit on the island who met this monk on the ship that went astray and told him that there was a message he needed to bring back to Cluny. He said that in these bonfires there were the souls of dead sinners being tortured continuously by demons and that the prayers of people, especially Odilo and his monks, was succeeding in freeing these souls from the fires so that they could go to heaven. He then said that Odilo and his monks needed to increase their prayers so that more souls could escape. When the monk then left the island and came back to France, he told this to Cluny and the monks who heard it increased their prayers so much and Odilo decided that a special day needed to be set aside for it in the calendar, and he chose November 2 as the day after All Saints’ day and commanded all Cluniac monks to then keep it.[13]

He established All Souls' Day (on 2 November) in Cluny and its monasteries (probably not in 998 but after 1030,[14] and it was soon adopted in the whole Western church.

Pope Benedict VI had been a close friend of Cluny and he died. Some time after this he supposedly appeared to John, bishop of Porto, along with two of his friends. The Pope claimed that he remained in purgatory and he asked that Odilo be informed so that he could pray for him. A message was given to Odilo, who then proceeded to call on all Cluniac houses to offer up prayers, masses and alms for the soul of the dead Pope. Not long after this, there was said to be a figure of light followed by a host of others in white garments that entered the cloister and knelt to Odilo, the figure informed him that he was the Pope and that he had now been freed from purgatory.

Miracles and anecdotes[edit]

During the great famines, he had many of the precious ornaments and metals in the church melted down and used for relief of the starving poor. He was known for showing mercy indiscriminately even to those who people said did not deserve it. He would say in response, ‘I would rather be mercifully judged for having shown mercy, than be cruelly damned for having shown cruelty’. He once received the murderer of a bishop who fled to Cluny and wanted to take vows. Odilo accepted him as a monk and he wrote to the pope about whether it was acceptable to ordain him to the priesthood, but the pope replied back that such a person could never be ordained a priest and that he should not even receive the sacraments; Odilo then did not give him communion until his deathbed. Although he was an abbot, he would kiss the feet of monks of lower rank than him. He wore a hairshit under his garments. Thieves who stole his property, he forgave and did not have them punished.[15]

Many miracles were attributed to him. Many of the miracles he did related to miracles things, like increases in food or wine. One time as Lent was coming to a close, Odo was staying at a monastery near St Denis. The feast of Easter was coming near, the monks did not have any fish to eat to mark the feast. The rivers did not yield fish, however, and the monks were distraught by this. And one day they called the most skilled fishers among them and told them to go down to the Seine and throw their nets in while calling on the name of Christ while invoking the merits of Odilo. They did so, and they caught a huge fish of a kind that had never been seen there before.[16] He changed water into wine, he made empty bottles of wine miraculously fill up again, he miraculously divided a fish to feed more than it could normally feed. He walked on water and ordered his servants to follow him, and they did without falling in. He healed the sick with touch and making the sign of the cross.[17] After his death, miracles were also reported from his tomb, including healings.


Many times in his life he had visited Rome. In his last visit around the time of a papal election and an imperial coronation, he spent all of his time praying in different churches and in giving alms to the poor. He wished he could die there in Rome, but he then started on his journey back to Cluny. Along the way back, and not far from Rome, he had an accident with his horse that injured him. He had to be taken back to the city where so much grief was poured out for his sake that masses were offered for his recovery and the Pope visited his bedside. He stayed in the city until Easter and then left again to go back to Cluny. He continued to do his fasts and ascetic practices despite his old age and weakness. He decided to visit all the houses that Cluny had reformed, but when he visited Souvigny Priory he had to stop and remain there. At Christmas he had become so weak that he needed to be carried around the monastery. He was in St Mary’s chapel when he died; he was praying for the souls in purgatory when he died.[18]

He died while on a visitation to in late 1048 or early 1049.

On the night of Odilo’s funeral, a monk named Gregorinius saw him. This monk had come a long distance to come to Odilo’s funeral. When the monk saw the dead abbot’s spirit, he said to him, ‘how goes it with thee, master?‘ to which the spirit of Odilo replied, ‘Very well, oh brother, Christ Himself deigned to come and meet His servant. In the hour of my death He pointed out to me a fierce and terrible figure which, standing in a corner, would have terrified me by its huge monstrosity had not its malignancy been annulled by His presence.’ [19]


Of his writings we have but a few short and unimportant ones:

  • a life of the holy Empress St. Adelaide to whom he was closely related
  • a short biography of his predecessor, abbot Mayeul
  • sermons on feasts of the ecclesiastical year
  • some hymns and prayers
  • a few letters from his extensive correspondence.


He was buried in Souvigny Priory, where he died, and was soon venerated as a saint.

In 1063 Peter Damien undertook the process of his canonization, and wrote a short life, an abstract from the work of Jotsald, one of Odilo's monks who accompanied him on his travels.

In 1793, his relics, together with those of the previous Abbot Mayeul, were burned by French revolutionaries "on the altar of the fatherland".

The feast of St. Odilo was formerly 2 January, in Cluny, now it is celebrated on 19 January, and in Switzerland on 6 February. Elsewhere it is on 11 May.



  1. ^ Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism, (1994), states that Odilo was the third abbot of Cluny.
  2. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  3. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  4. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  5. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  6. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  7. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920
  8. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920
  9. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  10. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  11. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  12. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  13. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  14. ^ http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11207c.htm
  15. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  16. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  17. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  18. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.
  19. ^ Lucy Margaret Smith. The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny. Oxford University Press, 1920.

External links[edit]

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Abbot of Cluny
Succeeded by
Hugh I