The Abbey Of Montecassino: Where Past And Present Become Timeless

Discover a place where history and spirituality mingle to create an extraordinary legacy for humanity.

The Abbey of Montecassino. Photo: Marco Facc on Unsplash.

When reading up on a place where unending successions of peoples become part of that place’s tapestry and of its layers of development down through time, I find a mind boggling collusion between geography and history that won’t let up. This is exactly the experience I had while researching the Abbey of Montecassino.

Montecassino. A rocky hill with an elevation of 520 meters above sea level, part of Italy’s Apennine mountain chain, located about 130 kilometers southeast of Rome. This spot is perhaps best known as the site of the noted Battle of Montecassino, or The Battle for Rome as it’s also called, during the Second World War. In this article we look into how this particularly gruesome battle, analyzed in prose and in film, was but one of a series of events, catastrophic and fortuitous, that rained down on this hill from time immemorial.

The hill was inhabited by the pre-Roman Volsci people who first built a citadel on its summit. The Volsci in the area were defeated by the Romans in 312 BC and, over time, the town of Casinum became one of the stopovers on the Roman Via Latina that connected Rome and Benevento. Such road construction would have had to overcome geographical and geological obstacles that tested and improved the Roman Empire’s best minds.

Why there? The hillslopes and the valleys provided ample forage for animals, and yielded crops and abundant oils and wines. The workers and the soldiers would have gone through bountiful areas that had nourished those who went before them. The hilltop position was strategic and easier to fortify and its elevation would undoubtedly have been a factor in protecting people from the scorching Italian summer sun.

The arrival of Benedict of Nursia

In the 5th century AD the now Christian town of Cassino, located at the base of Montecassino, went into a period of serious decline due to a succession of barbarian invasions, and was left without a bishop until Benedict of Nursia arrived in 529 AD. He found some remnants of a once glorious town, whose inhabitants had returned to their pagan roots and still utilized the remains of the ancient Temple of Jupiter and altar to Apollo on the top of the hill for pagan worship and offerings.

Benedict did not face much opposition in his seizure of the site from the locals as, by this time, paganism was in decline all across western Europe. He destroyed idols and converted the temple into a church. Elements of the Temple of Jupiter were incorporated into the design and construction of the monastery, and surviving parts can still be seen today.

Pope Gregory I’s account of Benedict’s seizure of Montecassino makes a parallel with the biblical story of conquering Israel. This mountain had to be conquered from an idolatrous people and purified from its ‘devilish horrors’ with which Benedict seems to have been locked in a continuous struggle. The Rule of Saint Benedict was composed for the monastic community of Montecassino, and it emphasized the virtues of order and stability and a balance between work and prayer. It became the founding principle for Western monasticism.

Saint Benedict evangelizing the inhabitants of Montecassino, fresco by Luca Signorelli. Photo: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Rule of Saint Benedict contained the moral obligation to care for the sick. He founded a hospital in the Abbey that is considered today to have been the first of the new era Europe. He founded twelve monastic communities at nearby Subiaco, about 64 km to the east of Rome, where hospitals provided care and charity. Soon, monks spread out and founded monasteries throughout Europe, with hospitals modeled on Montecassino. Once established at Montecassino, Benedict never left. He died there in 547.

That first monastery was sacked by the invading Lombards around 570 and abandoned. A second monastery was established around 718, at the suggestion of Pope Gregory II. In 883 it was sacked by Saracen invaders and rebuilt in 949.

The golden age of Montecassino

The 11th and 12th centuries were the Abbey’s golden age. It acquired territory around Montecassino, the so-called Terra Sancti Benedicti (Land of Saint Benedict), which the monks fortified with castles. Fine art and craftsmanship were encouraged. In 1057, Pope Victor II recognized the abbot of Montecassino as having precedence over all other abbots. Many of its monks became bishops and cardinals and some three popes were from the abbey.

As nearby Naples is situated on the crossroad of many seaways of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, the monastery library was soon one of the richest in Europe. The knowledge of the civilizations of all times and nations was accumulated in the Abbey. The Benedictines transcribed precious manuscripts. The number of monks rose to over two hundred. Montecassino became the most famous cultural, educational, and medical center of Europe with a great library in Medicine and other sciences. The Schola Medica Salernitana, the world’s earliest medical school, was soon opened in nearby Salerno. Montecassino and the Benedictines played a great role in the progress of medicine and science in the Middle Ages. The fundamental influence of Benedict on the development of European civilization was strong as Europe emerged from the ‘dark night of history’ that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.

However, by the 13th century, the monastery’s decline had set in, a victim perhaps of its very size and power. As if to hasten this decline, it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1349. Then in 1369, Pope Urban V demanded a contribution from all Benedictine monasteries to fund the rebuilding.

History continued to challenge Montecassino. We can jump to 1799 when the abbey was sacked by French troops during the French Revolutionary Wars. Then on to the dissolution of the Abbey as an independent entity by the Italian government in 1866. The building became a national monument with the monks acting as custodians of its treasures.

WWII destruction at Montecassino. Photo: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The umpteenth destruction and reconstruction of Montecassino

In 1944, during World War II, Montecassino found itself in the path of the famous Gustav Line that stretched from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic coast established by the German military forces in order to prevent Allied troops from advancing northwards to Rome. The Abbey itself, however, was not initially utilized by the German troops as part of their fortifications, owing to one General Kesselring’s regard for the historical monument. On February 15, 1944 the Abbey was almost completely destroyed in a series of heavy American-led air raids. The Commander-in-Chief of Allied Armies in Italy, General Sir Harold Alexander of the British army, ordered the bombing following reports that suggested that the Germans were occupying the monastery, which was considered a key observation post by all those fighting in the field. However, subsequent investigations found that no Germans were present in the Abbey, and 230 Italian civilians seeking refuge there were killed. Many documentaries and films have been made on this page of the war’s history. The Battle of Montecassino that followed raged for five months and the grounds surrounding the Abbey are the final resting place of thousands of soldiers from both sides of the conflict.

After the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the monastery was one of the few remaining territorial abbeys within the Catholic Church. On October 23, 2014, Pope Francis removed from its jurisdiction all 53 parishes and reduced its spiritual jurisdiction to the Abbey itself. The former territory of the Abbey, except the land on which the church and monastery sit, was transferred to the diocese of Sora-Cassino-Aquino-Pontecorvo.

The Abbey was rebuilt yet again with considerable post-war support from Italy’s President Luigi Einaudi. In 1947, St. Benedict was called the Father of Europe by Pope Pius XII and in 1964 Pope Paul VI consecrated the rebuilt Basilica and elevated Benedict to the honor of Patron of all Europe. Pope Francis appointed Dom Donato Ogliari as the 192nd abbot of the Monastery of Montecassino in 2014. As of 2015, the monastic community consists of 13 monks.

I listened to an interview with Dom Donato Ogliari, and it’s quite extraordinary to hear this man speak of the founder of the order he now presides over with a sense of immediacy that transcends time, almost as if they’d just been having a conversation. Those who find a spiritual element in the history of human endeavor will have no difficulty believing that Montecassino and its monastic life are part of a Divine plan. Those who don’t will undoubtedly find this story of a phoenix continually rising from the ashes intriguing and, in some ways, reassuring.

Photo: Ludmiła Pilecka, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Montecassino and Cassino today

Like many other places that have natural or man made phenomena that attract tour buses of visitors, Cassino today has the advantage of having many extras in its community that contribute to its well being. The ‘Monastery Industry’ and the ‘War Industry’ there are starting to recover from the COVID crisis that has brought travel and tourism to its knees. The University of Cassino, founded in 1979, has become an important center for research and innovation. The Grotte di Sale Salgemma, a health and beauty center dealing in products and therapeutic treatment developed from a local natural salt with healing properties, is just one of the many enterprises that local young people are working on. A grant of one million euros has recently been allocated to the area to increase investments in tourism and infrastructure. Signs that the future is hopeful.

Cassino town, destroyed by bombs in 1944, was rebuilt with the criteria of the economic building boom of the 1950s. It doesn’t have a centro storico as such. I like to think that a second mural recently painted in the town center in the Piazzetta dei Murales is symbolic of a community used to the fluctuations of its fortunes and ready to rebuild once again.

It knows that no state of things, either good or bad, is permanent. It has the perfect example of this in the beloved Abbey right at its doorstep.

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