In another posting, called “Impressions of Italy: A Visit to Umbria,” I wrote about my weekend in Foligno with the Little Brothers of Jesus Caritas. Their Order and most of its members are based at the ancient Benedictine monastery, called “Abbazia di Santa Croce in Sassovivo,” in the Umbrian hills not far from Assisi.
More now about this “jewel of Foligno,” as the abbey is called in that region of Umbria. You can Google Images, “Abbazia di Sassosvivo,” to see pictures of the small but beautiful cloister and other buildings that comprise the monastery. Withstanding earthquakes over the centuries since it was built, the abbey remains a place of prayer and pilgrimage to this day.
Recent earthquakes have done some amount of harm at Sassovivo and the church is at present closed to the public. It is in need of more professional study and bolstering in order to be considered safe to open again. Fortunately the Jesus Caritas brothers have an alternative chapel they are able to use for the Divine Office and daily Mass.
The origins of the monastic habitation at what is now Sassovivo (literally, “living rock), date back to the 11th century. In the last part of that century an extant document mentions the presence of a monk named Mainardo who dwelled in the proximity to the present abbey. Mainardo is considered the founder of Sassovivo, which initially was a hermitage and later an extensive monastic congregation.
Beginning in 1082 the site is indicated in documents as being a monastery in the usual sense of the word, that is, a group of monks living a common life. The original hermits occupied a grotto near the present abbey and eventually abandoned the grotto and began to build more permanent structures where the current abbey is located. At some point too, the monks adopted the Rule of Saint Benedict as their guide.
The abbey became well known and received numerous benefactors, among them the pope, and by the year 1138 some thirty-four churches and five chapels were attached to the Umbrian abbey of Sassovivo. The affiliated churches were spread from Rome to Spoletto and from Perugia to Camerino. Suffice it to say, that is a widespread region, so the abbey must have enjoyed considerable influence. By the 13th century, part of the “Benedictine ages,” the abbey had ninety-two affiliated monasteries, forty-one churches and seven hospitals.
By the 15th century the abbey was waning in influence and observance and ultimately became part of the Benedictine Congregation of Monte Oliveto, at that time a separate Order from the wider Benedictine family, though today it is part of the international Benedictine Confederation. The Olivetan connection for Sassovivo Abbey occurred in 1484.
During the Napoleonic era of invasions at the end of the 1700’s, the abbey was suppressed and never really recovered. There was a little revival in the early 1800’s, but by 1860 the government had taken over the property, as occurred all over Italy, and the abbey remained abandoned for nearly a century. Eventually the Abbey of Sassovivo, still government property, was figuratively divided up and partly occupied by laity and part of it became a summer residence for diocesan priestly seminarians of Foligno.
Around the same time, from 1951to 1957, a small group of Benedictine monks in exile from what is now the Czech Republic occupied part of Sassovivo. Ironically, soon after the group was finally able to return to their homeland after the fall of Communism, the leader of the group died.
Today the only occupants at Sassovivo are the Piccoli Fratelli di Jesus Caritas. The part that belongs technically to laity is unused, so the brothers have a blessedly quiet haven in the hills above Foligno. It’s a little bit of heaven on earth in my humble opinion! I like going there and you will need to plan on doing so eventually also.
Some special patron saints venerated at Sassovivo include the founder, Blessed Mainardo, who was superior from 1077 to 1096. Another, Blessed Alberto, was abbot from 1102 until 1123. Blessed Alan (Alano in Italian) of Vienna, also a one-time resident of the abbey, died on July 18, 1313. In the famous Sassovivo cloister there is a fresco from the later 14th century depicting Blessed Alan.
The little monastic cloister at Sassovivo, finished in 1229, is the jewel of the abbey complex. The work was commissioned by Abbot Angelo, built under the direction of the master, Pietro de Maria. The fine marble work, mostly of pillars, was executed in Rome, at the school of marble work at the church and monastery of the “Santi Quattro Coronati,” near the Coliseum.
The “Four Crowned Martyr-Saints” (Santi Quattro Coronati) church, at one time a dependent monastery of Sassovivo abbey, is today a monastery of Augustinian nuns, and contains a fine cloister similar to that at Sassovivo. If you can’t get to Sassovivo, you must at least see the cloister at Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome, open to the public at certain times of the day. The Augustinian nuns there chant in the church and it is worth seeing and hearing also.
In the year 1314 Abbot Philip of Sassovivo had additional work done on the Umbrian abbey cloister, including some ceramic decorating. The well in the central of the cloister was completed in 1340 and restored in 1623, when the present ornate iron well-covering was added.
The present church of Sassovivo, not particularly beautiful, located right next to the cloister, was completed in 1851, after the 1832 earthquake had destroyed the previous edifice. As already mentioned, the abbey church at Sassovivo remains closed to the public following the earthquakes of recent times. It needs to be studied and likely further reinforcement against earthquakes before it can be reopened to the public.
In 1979 the use of the Abbey of Sassovivo, though still government property, was extended to the brothers of the Piccoli Fratelli di Jesus Caritas, who remain based at the monastery. They are a branch of the wider “Family of Blessed Charles de Foucauld,” the hermit and missionary of the Sahara Desert, who died in 1916 and beatified in 2005.
The Piccoli Fratelli (Little Brothers) of Jesus Caritas are present in Italy and in the Holy Land, at Nazareth. Their life includes the daily celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours and Holy Mass, some time for solitude and work, as well as some pastoral assistance in the dioceses where they reside.
The brothers also produce a spiritual review, called “Jesus Caritas” and engage in other publishing works to spread the message and spirituality of Blessed Charles de Foucauld. They also maintain the archives of Brother Carlo Carretto, who lived from 1910 to 1988. He was a Little Brother of the Gospel, another branch of the “Spiritual Family of Charles de Foucauld,” and instrumental in the founding of the Little Brothers of Jesus Caritas.
Carlo Carretto’s writings, including his now famous best seller, “Letters from the Desert,” are well-known to many readers. I began reading Carretto in the late 1960’s. It was in part inspiration for me to return to the full practice of my faith and even to becoming a monk.
As they are able, the Brothers of Jesus Caritas offer hospitality for private retreatants who wish to share in their life of silence and prayer and the search for God. Visit their website: www.jesuscaritas for more details.
At Sassovivo the brothers have a lovely crypt chapel that is now their principle place of worship. It came into being during restoration work after the earthquake of 1997, created from an ancient part of the abbey. To honor their contacts with Eastern Christian monasticism, and especially with the Maronite Catholic Church, the crypt chapel at Sassovivo is dedicated to Saint Maron, the famous Lebanese monk, whose life spanned parts of the 4th and 5th centuries.
After Saint Maron’s death, his monk-followers constructed a monastery over his tomb and this became the place where the Maronite Catholic Church was formed, always in communion with Rome, and so to this day. (The actual founder of the Maronite Church is John Maron, who lived in the 8th century, and not to be confused with Saint Maron, the Lebonese monk previously mentioned).
A relic of Saint Maron the Great, given to the monks of Sassovivo, was venerated for centuries at the abbey, especially by Catholic pilgrims coming from the Middle East to the holy sites of Rome. At some point the relic became the property of the diocese of Foligno (in which Sassovivo is located). In the great Jubilee Year of 2000, the diocese returned the relic to the Maronite Catholics.
The Saint Maron crypt chapel at Sassovivo was consecrated in 2001 by Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, along with the bishop of Foligno, Arduino Bertoldo and Bishop Paul-Emile Saade of Batroun, Lebanon.
Since 1996 the Jesus Caritas brothers have also been present in the Holy Land, at the former Poor Clare monastery where Blessed Charles de Foucauld lived and worked from 1897 until 1900. The place is now a quiet center of pilgrimage and welcome for people seeking to know better the story and spiritually of Charles de Foucauld.