There are nineteen autonomous Congregations, or formal groupings of monasteries, that comprise the International Benedictine Confederation. The Subacio Cassinese Congregation, to which my monastery belongs, is just one of the nineteen Congregations. Some of the other Benedictine Congregations of monks include, in no particular order, the Hungarian, the American Cassinese, the Solesmes, the Silvestrian, the Annunication, the Brasilian, the Camaldolese, the Swiss and the Swiss American. There are also many Congregations of women Benedictines who are part of the larger Benedictine family.
Benedictine monks, nuns and sisters are spread throughout the world, on every inhabited continent; Antarctica being a continent but uninhabited. Some of the Benedictine Congregations of monks are regional, meaning their monasteries are all in a particular country, as is the case of the Austrian Congregation, for example, which has monasteries only in Austria. Most Benedictine Congregations have houses are not linked to one country only, but with some amount of international presence. Benedictines are jokingly called an “Order without order,” and perhaps you can see why. A better word than “disorder,” though, and more accurate, might be, “a Confederation of diversity.”
The common denominator of all Benedictine Congregations of men and of women is that all of the monasteries follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. How precisely that is done varies from strictly contemplative monastic life to very active apostolic life to the eremitical or hermit way of life. But the Rule’s inspiration and legislation to one degree or another is the commo0n denominator of all Benedictine monasteries.
Over the centuries Benedictine Congregations have arisen and some have disappeared. The Maurist and the Celestine are two examples of Congregations of monks from the past that no longer exist. It can still happen that one Congregation or another will cease to exist and one or more new Congregations emerge. I am not predicting either case, but it could happen, and in this day and age, the former is more likely to occur, whereby a Congregation might in time merge with another or simply cease to exist.
A Congregation that once was a separate Order, with no formal ties to the Benedictines, but inspired by the Rule of Saint Benedict and eventually became part of the Benedictine Confederation, is the Congregation of Monte Oliveto. The name derives from their main monastery in Tuscany, not far from Siena. This Congregation has monasteries around the world and is known for the monks wearing a white, rather than black, monastic habit. Wearing white was chosen at the beginning of the Congregation as a tribute to the Blessed Virgin Mary and a sign that the origins of the Olivetan Congregation were part of a general reform movement within the medieval Church. This meant a return to a stricter discipline and monastic observance. White habits came to be recognized as proper to other reform Congregations or separate Orders as well, such as the Cistercians, Carthusians and Camaldolese Orders. Of these three just mentioned, the Camaldolese Benedictine monks and nuns, founded around 980 AD and once a separate Order, have since 1966 been part of the Benedictine Confederation.
When I studied Italian in Florence (Firenze), Italy, in the mid-1980s, I got to know the Olivetan Benedictine monks at the Abbey San Miniato al Monte. The monastery is on a hill overlooking the city of Florence. One of the monks of San Miniato, around my age, became the Abbot General (or President) of the entire Olivetan Congregation in 2010, and now resides at the monastery of Monte Oliveto, as both abbot of that monastery as well as head of the entire Congregation. Abbot General Diego Rosa and his community welcomed a group of us monks from curia Sant’Ambrogio in May of this year.
Located about forty kilometers from Siena and one hundred kilometers from Florence, Monte Oliveto, was founded in 1272 by Giovanni (John), later called Bernard, Tolomei. He chose the name Bernard in honor of the great Cistercian monk, Bernard of Clairvaux. Where Tolomei settled for his monastic life was dedicated to the Holy Virgin of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, but in this case, located in “Accona desert,” in the diocese of Arezzo, Italy. Starting as a hermit, Bernard Tolomei gradually attracted others to his way of life and they formed a cenobium, or community of monks and adopted the Rule of Saint Benedict. Bernard Tolomei died in 1348, a victim of the plague. He was beatified in 1644 and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
Eventually other monasteries sprang from Monte Oliveto and by 1400 there were twenty-three monasteries, all in Italy, attached to the Congregation, a separate Order in the Church. By the 1700s there were 82 monasteries connected to Monte Oliveto. Government suppression of monasteries in Italy began in the late 1700s up to the early 1800s. Never entirely disappearing, the Olivetan Congregation began to grow again in the late 1800s as was the case in many monasteries in Europe as well.
Since 1960 the Congregation of Monte Oliveto has been part of the Benedictine Confederation and today has monasteries in Italy, France, Ireland, Israel, Korea, USA, Guatemala and Brazil. Some twenty monasteries belong to the Olivetan Congregation. In the United States, there is an Olivetan monastery at Pecos, New Mexico, and at Opelousas, Louisiana. Both are friends of my monastery.
The beautiful and historic abbey at Monte Oliveto has around forty monks, who live the Benedictine life of prayer and work, which includes hospitality to the many who come to see their monastery. As is common in Italy, because of government interference in past centuries, the buildings of the sprawling abbey and the land on which they sit belong to the Italian government, but the rest of the abbey property belongs to the monks. In a worst-case scenario, the monks could abandon the buildings and move to another part of the extensive property they own. This is a very unlikely situation, but one of the realities of the complex Church and State relationships in Italy.
Though our visit to Monte Oliveto was short, as we spent only two days there, we were impressed by the warm welcome of the abbot and brethren as well as their prayerful liturgy. Contacts such as these, between monks of different Benedictine Congregations, is an enriching experience, as we share tales and laugh with fellow monks. For me one of the highlights of our visit was meeting the abbey’s oldest monk, Father Lino, who is now ninety-eight years young. He will turn ninety-nine on Christmas Eve this year and is an inspiration to us “youngsters” to carry on, through thick and thin, in the monastic adventure that we have undertaken.