By Marian Curd
'TWELVE THOUSAND members of the Benedictine Confederation scat
tered all over the world — among them the oldest Congregation of them all, founded in England — are today rejoicing at the news that Pope John, his health permitting, is to travel to Monte Cassino on Ascension Day, May 23, to bless the new Abbey now magnificently resurrected from the ruins of war.
The great door of the mountain top monastery with the greeting pax heavily engraved over the centre arch, will swing open as it does only on occasions of solemnity, for Pope John XX III, his accompanying cardinals, and for the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, Dom Beno Gut.
There with his community of som 50 priests and brothers to greet them will be Cassino's Abbot, Dom Ildefonso Rea, consecrated bishop on the feast of St. Gregory this year.
Nineteen years ago soldiers of Britain, Canada, New Zealand, America, India and Poland bought at high price the right to include in their battle honours "Cassino",
And, as the technique of sacking has developed considerably since the earlier and cruder efforts of the Lombards and Saracens, it was — in the words of one British soldier — "sacked more thoroughly and more terribly than ever before".
`As it was'
Eighteen years ago the cornerstone of the first of the restored buildings of Monte Cassino was laid: the first step had been taken towards the fulfilment of war-time Abbot Diamare's command to reconstruct the monastery "where it was and as it was".
"As it was" is the keynote to the new wonderment of pale honeycoloured stone. A CIT luxury coach will carry you rapidly south from Rome and zig-zag you five miles to the summit high among the bleak craggy mountains where between the hours of 9 and 12.30 and 3.30 to the setting of the sun, one is free to be astonished and rather over-awed.
Augustine had not yet set out for England when Benedict climbed the rough stone path trailing steeply among olive and thorn bushes to Cassino's summit. History there was already old when he converted the 400-yearold temple of Jupiter into a church, tore down the statue of Apollo, and built his monastery.
And atop these same great stones set way down in the foundations now stands a 20th century monastery, a prep school, two seminaries and a world-famous library.
Few bishops in the world have their cathedral on the top of a mountain, but Abbot Rea's St. Peter's style baroque basilica with its floor a shining lake of many-hued marbles — reds, yellows, blues — its high altar backed by a majestic glittering organ, and everywhere the glowing yellow of precious gilt, must be unique in being built today in the style of yesterday.
Re (oration of the fabric has cost the Italian government some £1,785,000—after all, they declared it a national monument nearly a century ago.
But why not something modern, or smaller? "This is what suits our needs, the terrain, and future requirements", the Abbot's spokesman told me. So it was that for eight years hundreds of stonemasons, marble and woodworkers raised again the cradle of the Benedictine Order — working to a plan made pre-war by a monk who had been an engineer.
Neither St. Benedict's cell nor his tomb were destroyed by the bombardment, although the latter along with the tomb of his sister, St. Scholastica, were lost for some time. In 1950 the remains were canonically recognised, resealed, and put again to rest in the crypt beneath the high altar.
And it is down in this crypt that the visitor to Cassino seems to jump right back even beyond the time of Benedict. On either side of the broad stairway leading downward are iron bars. Inside, in a fardown cavity are great stones which, I was told, are old pagan remains which were there prior to the arrival of Benedict -in fact they may be the walls of Jupiter's temple itself.
A FIFTH ARMY leaflet -CSpicked up by a refugee, one of hundreds sheltering in Monte Cassino on February 13, 1944, warned of coming destruction. Two days later, despite redoubled pleas from Pius XII to save the Abbey, the most terrible and at once one of the most controversial acts of destruction of World War Two took place.
Wave upon wave of American Flying Fortresses razed the church. toppled the dome, blasted the cells, libraries, guest house, seminary, all save part of the crypt and the tower (which incidentally incorporates some stone from Benedict's original building).
General Maitland Wilson said: "142 Flying Fortresses unloaded 287 tons of 500lb. bombs and 664 tons of 1001b. incendaries and 100 tons of other high explosives".
It was said by the Allies that the German High Command had turned the monastery into a fortress. Then and now this was and is denied by the monks of Cassino. After the bombardment Abbot Diamare, his monks and the surviving refugees left the ruined monastery. Before going. the Abbot signed a declaration that there had been no German troops in the monastery.
"Could there", I asked the Abbot's spokesman, "in the light of any subsequent events be any possibility that the Abbot was acting under duress".
The answer was firm. "No, there was absolutely no coercion. there was no mistake".
Civilians who were there support the monks' statements. "There was no military post or ammunition inside the monastery before the bombardment," they say,
Major General Fuller in his book "The Second World War" writes: "The bombing of the Abbey was not so much of a savage action as an action of mere tactical foolishness".
General Clark, then Commander of the Allied troops in the Cassino area, states explicitly in his "Calculated Risks": "I said then that there was no evidence of
the Germans using the Abbey for military purposes .. . not only was the bombing an unnecessary psychological mistake . . , but it was a tactical military error of the first magnitude '" One hundred and fifty refugee civilians were killed in the bombardment. The eighty-year-old Abbot and his monks were safe. Absence of food and water made it necessary for them to leave. The Abbot, his big cross raised, prepared to descend on foot to the plain. A few valuables he had managed to save were packed in a small bag.
No history' But at the entrance to the monastery came the most poignant scene of all. A child, with both St. Benedict's statue stands amid the ruins of Monte Cassino. A picture taken some years ago when the monastery had been
legs amputated, but still alive, lay among the rubble. The Abbot ordered that the hag of valuables be dropped and the child carried to safety in the valley.
Abbot Diamare had ruled the Abbey since 1909 and had contributed actively to the liturgical, cultural and artistic life of Monte Cassino. In 1929 they celebrated the 14th centenary of the foundation.
Three months of bitter fighting followed the bombing of Cassino before brave Polish troops occupied the ruins, setting their flag on the holy hill, and celebrating Mass there.
On June 5, the Allies entered Rome.
And what is the official view today of the Cassino tragedy?
Back in London 1 rang the War Office, "Has anything come to light since the war which, if it were known at the time would have saved Cassino", I asked a spokesman.
But Whitehall was not to be committed. "No official history of this battle has yet been issued," I was told.
The mystery continues.
A few days ago I picked up the phone and asked for Cassino One. I felt that history was going full circle. Benedict had no phone to pick up when he wanted a word with St. Scholastica at her house in the valley. Over 40 years later when Pope Gregory the Great, himself a monk, had no typewriter to speed things when he wrote the Second Book of his Dialogues on the life of Benedict — the first author to do so.
And in 595, only fifty-three years after Benedict's death, there was no quick way of letting England know that Benedict's Rule was on its way to this land with St. Augustine.
On the greensward before St. Gregory's church on the Coelian Hill in Rome you can stand today near the spot on which Gregory bid Augustine God-speed on his journey to England. Gregory, the first to write of Benedict, his Rule and the wonders of his life (and who wanted to come here himself); Augustine who was to see the Rule established in this country within a few years of his arrival.
It is sufficient to mention such as Canterbury, York, Westminster. Winchester and Malmesbury of those early years. Indeed in England Benedictine monasteries soon acquired a character which was to become a standard for all time.
When Cassino was restored in 770 following the Lombard destruction, St. Willibald went on pilgrimage there introducing members of the new community to the way of life adopted by the AngloSaxon monasteries,
Soon Cassino itself again became a model to be copied. The Rule, written within the walls of Cassino was by reason of its intrinsic worth, its moderation and clarity rapidly becoming the new code of Western monasticism. Benet Biscop, Aldhelm, Wilfrid and Venerable Bede are early and outstanding representatives of the Benedictine mentality.
St. Benet Biscop, founder and abbot of the twin monasteries of Jarrow and Wearmouth, received the Benedictine habit at Lerin. St. Bede's monastery later (1084) staffed Durham Cathedral under Prior Aldwine, who was also Archdeacon and Vicar General. This system pertained in other major Cathedrals of England until the Reformation; and at the instance of the Holy See, the English Benedictines still appoint titular "Cathedral Priors" of such abbeys as Westminster, and titular abbots of the ancient monasteries such as Glastonbury.
It was Boniface from Crediton in Devon who had taken the Rule to Germany and founded Fulda. In 743 a Frankish synod decreed that all monks in the land must adopt the Rule of St. Benedict . . Anglo-Saxon Alcuin became adviser to that patron of monasticism—CharIemagn e.
The decline following the breakup of the Empire with disastrous results for Benedietinism—English, French, Italian (including Cassino) and German monasteries were burned and sacked —was followed in the 10th century by a mighty revival.
Came the rise of Cluny, the revival in England under Dunstan, Ethelwold, and Oswald and headed by the Abbeys of Abingdon. Glastonbury and Winchester. The next century saw the Rule overflowing Europe and spilling into Asia. In England, Westminster Abbey became a model rivalled only by St. Albans and St. Augustine's, Canterbury. And another monastery went up on Cassino.
The rigours of Citeaux, anchorites, hermits escaping an Order entangled too much with the world came in the 1 I th and 12th centuries and produced also Camaldoli and Monte Oliveto, and with them a temporary wane for Cassino, Cluny and Fulda. Today one would say that in the Benedictine sense these latter were temporarily just not with it.
First monastery of the new blossoming in the 14th century was Subiaco, centre of a Benedictine renaissance which heralded also the confederation of abbeys and a new vitality throughout Europe.
But then disaster for Britain and Europe. 1535 saw the beginning of the suppression of monasteries here. The Abbots of Glastonbury, Reading and Colchester going to the gallows. Twenty years of intense persecution destroyed the work of a thousand years and left a trail of ruined monasteries and priories throughout the land. Twentyseven English Benedictines were martyred. eleven more died in prison. More than 800 monasteries were closed during the Reformation period in Europe.
As England's Benedictine monachism ended in the glory of martryrdom, so years later in the Revolution did that of France.
Today. the English Congregation has abbeys at Downside. Ampleforth, Douai, Fort Augustus, Belmont. Ealing and Buckfast, with a number of priories, and abbeys of nuns.
The Subiaco Congregation (offshoot of the Cassinese) has abbeys here at Ramsgate (which staffs many Thanet parishes), and Prinkflash, with dependent houses; the Solesmes Congregation is represented by Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight; the St. °kitten congregation runs a supporting agency for foreign missions from Hendon in N.W. London, while the Olivetan Congregation have their only house in England at Cockfosters where they run the parish.
More than 2000 boys attend Benedictine schools in this country, more than 50 parishes are served by the monks. Printing, bookbinding, vestment making and other arts and crafts find their way into the workshops of the monks and nuns — remembering in passing Prinknash vestments (and pottery), Buckfast (wine and pottery), Minster's well-known sculptress Sister Concordia, and Farnborough's sculpturing Dorn Da pre.
Halls of Residence at Oxford and Cambridge enable the monks to maintain their reputation for scholarship and education.
On August 24, 1958, Pope Pius XII in one of the final acts of his Pontificate proclaimed St. Benedict "Father of Europe and Patron of the West" because we owe to him no small measure of our civilisation.
The Pontifical ceremony to take place on Ascension Thursday will mark the beginning of yet another era for Cassino whose motto so aptly says: succisa virescit — though felled, the tree springs up anew.