Rome’s longest continuously occupied monastery of monks, existing since the eleventh century, is the Byzantine Catholic Monastery of Saint Mary of Grottaferrata. Located on the outskirts of Rome, this monastery of the Byzantine-Greek Catholic Rite belongs to the Order of Basilian monks. Grottaferrata was founded in 1004 by a group of monks from Calabria in Italy, under the guidance of Saint Nilus the Younger of Rossano, who was an important figure of his time for the development and growth of Italian Eastern Christian monasticism in communion with Rome. Nilus died a year after Grottaferrata was founded, but his successors, especially the fourth abbot, Saint Bartholomew, saw to the construction of the monastery buildings and development of the community.
Grottaferrata is the last of the many Byzantine-Greek monasteries that once dotted the Italian island of Sicily, as well southern Italy and Rome itself, up to the Middle Ages. A unique feature of Grottaferrata is that it was founded fifty years before the Great Schism of 1054, which inaugurated the separation and formation of what is now called the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The monastery at Grottaferrata has remained in communion with Rome since its founding and has preserved from that time the Byzantine Rite and the monastic tradition of its founders.
Outside the walled monastery of Grottaferrata a small town exists, in Italian called a “comune,” located within the Metropolitan City of Rome, in the Alban Hills, some twelve miles south and east from the center of Rome. Grottaferrata comune, with a population of about twenty thousand today, literally grew up and around the great Basilian Abbey since its founding in 1004. Not far away from Grottaferrata is the beautiful Lago Albano, on the shores of which Castel Gandolfo is located, also a tiny town of about ten thousand. Castel Gandolfo is where popes used to make their summer residence, though no longer so, at least not under the present pope or his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
In mid-June some monks of our Sant’Ambrogio curia in Rome travelled by subway (called the Metro here), then by bus and finally on foot to the impressive abbey of Grottaferrata. The trip took a little over an hour, mostly due to waiting for the subway and the bus to arrive. The trip was not a difficult one. I had visited the abbey thirty years ago with some other monks and was given a tour by a middle-aged monk, Father Emilianos, whom we also met on this year’s visit, who is now quite elderly. He had been the superior or Heguman of the monastery sometime after I first met him, but retired some years ago. Father Emilianos was as welcoming as when I met him in the last century, and though no longer able to give tours, turned that over to the current superior, a monk in his early forties, Father Luke, who guided us through the beautiful ancient church where the monks carry out the Liturgy of the Hours and Divine Liturgy (Holy Mass) each day. They gather in the church at daybreak, midday, in the evening and before retiring. Their music is Byzantine chant, done in Greek and Italian.
Today only six monks remain at Grottaferrata, the majority of them elderly, so the future of monastic life there is uncertain, but I hope and pray they can continue and even draw in new vocations. This always becomes harder, of course, when the majority of a community is composed of seniors. Younger people are reluctant to join such a monastery if they sense their main work will be the care of elderly and dying members. Nonetheless we can pray for their needs at this time.
The name “Grottaferrata” comes from the little chapel to the right as one enters the church. It had been a burial crypt in ancient times, probably the tomb of Tulliola, daughter of Cicero, and then converted into a Christian chapel in the fifth century. This was eventually handed over to Saint Nilus the Younger and his followers, who built the monastery up from the small original chapel. The iron window grates or bars gave the site its name, “ferrata” meaning iron and “crypto,” later “grotta” or grotto, combining the two words to form the word Grottaferrata.
The Abbey of Grottaferrata has enjoyed a varied and rich history, which I won’t go into here, though information is available online. The Basilian monastery at the gates of Rome has for centuries been a place of Greek learning, hymn-writing and iconography. Up until recent times, book restoration was an important work of the monks, though no longer possible with the aging community and diminished numbers. The abbey is under the jurisdiction of the Holy See, and has the title of being a Territorial Abbey of the Italo-Greek Catholic Church.
The important and extensive library of the monastery contains some fifty-thousand volumes and includes writings of the founding abbot, Saint Nilus, as well as some of his pupils. Many other valuable manuscripts and books are also part of the collection. At certain times and by appointment, the monastic library is open to the public.
In the Christian east, both Catholic and Orthodox traditions, religious life is not divided into “Orders,” such as Benedictine, Dominican, Carmelite, etc. Anyone in the Christian east who is a consecrated religious is simply a monk or nun, following the teachings of Saint Basil the Great. He is one of the major Fathers of the Eastern Church and lived from 330 to 379 AD. He was a monk and wrote several ascetical works that were gathered into two collections, the Longer and the Shorter Rules. In Saint Basil’s teaching, monastic life revolves around two spiritual principles: obedience to the abbot of the monastery and charity among the brothers. Saint Benedict in his Rule refers to Saint Basil as “our Holy Father.”
The precepts of Saint Basil exerted great influence on monasticism in the Christian East, right up to present times. Monks of Mount Athos, for example, consider Saint Basil the Great as their primary teacher and inspiration. As is true in the wider spectrum of monasticism in the Christian East, the Desert Fathers and Mothers and Saint Theodore the Studite also had and have their influence on the Basilian monks at Grottaferrata. Of course the life is above all based on the teachings of the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments, and monastic spiritual authors as well, such as Saints Maximus the Confessor and John Climacus.
For centuries and to the present, life at the Grottaferrata monastery revolves around common and prayer and work, the latter either manual or intellectual.
Visit the website of the monastery, which includes good English translations and many photos, at: www.abbaziagreca.it
Recently spending a few hours at this important and historic monastery was a real pleasure and a time of grace. May God prosper the prayer and work of the monks and grant them many years!
Saint Nilus the Younger, pray for us!