THIS YEAR is the 15th Centenary of the birth of St Benedict and you are going to hear a great deal about him. But then he is, arguably, one of the key figures in the creation of the idea of the Western world and its civilisation.
He was nobly born, in Rome, and as a young man fled the pleasures and sophisticated education of that place where highly civilised Romans lived like luxurious nestlings among the titanic ruins of the old Empire.
But not much is known about him and most of that is from the written Dialogues of St Gregory the Great who will go on about his miracles.
Ile was a hermit for a time in a horrid gorge called Subiaco where Nero once had a villa and a bath. He, rather unwillingly, founded small monasteries. His austerity and high seriousness seems to have infuriated the local clergy. So he left and started again on a hill between mountains that stare down the great valley that leads from below Rome to the South.
This was Monte Cassino which the Allies bombed and whose treasures the Germans selflessly saved.
He became famous, visited by kings, respected by bishops and here he wrote his Rule. This is
the key to his greatness.
It was not meant to be earth shaking. It was meant to be for his own household, for beginners. It taught moderation and the dignity and necessity of work and classlessness. It certainly did not envisage a time when Abbots would keep the state of great nobles, be attended by knights and have seats in the House of Lords.
But it taught stability-i.e. no gadding about -Amendment of Manners-i.e. live the good life and Obedience which is the voluntary subjection of self. It also insisted on discipline which was enforced with
His Rule bred an Order and spread across Europe. After his death his monks converted the Anglo Saxons and the North of Europe and offered islands of civilisation to the turbulent and nasty world.
The monks themselves kept evolving the Order, sometimes breaking away, sometimes reforming themselves. They preserved the classics, wrote the hooks and history, made the music of the Church and provided high servants for Kings and Popes for Christendom.
They also evolved into Cluniacs and Cistercians and Trappists and all manner of charming variations, some of which were terrible in their austerity.
But for centuries they were the Western repository of civilisation. They had their ups and downs but are the brightest band in the coal of the Church and of Europe.
Benedict is the real patron of Europe, though his sons flourish too in the United States. They once served some of the great cathedrals of England like Canterbury and Gloucester and Winchester and there are now over 10,000 monks in the world wide Benedictine Conference.
There are almost as many Benedictine nuns and the English male variety has eight great Houses in this realm.
There will be celebrations wherever there is a Benedictine House or parish. I am told that even EEC is going to honour him, which will be more useful than monkeying with the price of butter.
On his feast day, July 11, Cardinal Hume, who is one of them, will celebrate and preach in his cathedral and in the afternoon, a mass of
Benedictines will again descend upon Westminster Abbey to sing vespers. The West will be trying to repay a part of a very old debt.
handout by the Vatican
ANY JOURNALIST who has had to cover ecclesiastical events in Rome will have some horror story about the Vatican Press Office.
It works rather like the Holy Inquisition. It is there to suppress rather than to disseminate or teach.
It stands at the end of the great avenue that Mussolini drove through a picturesque part of Rome to make a handsome approach to St Peter's. It is in the grand Fascist style and has lots of marble. It is richly hung with some of those unfortunate examples of modern religious art that were so dear to the heart of Paul VI.
It offers every facility a journalist could want telephones, desks, a theatre for press conferences everything that is except information and a bar.
True, they provide sheaves of hand-outs that can only be of interest to Osservatore Romano, that Pravda of the Roman Church. There are briefings on great Occasions but even the briefers are told only what is good for them.
This place is one of the reasons why you should be careful of background stories about Rome. They don't come from here. Compared with this place, Buckingham Palace is garulous. And not even its American staff has been able to change it.
Of course secrecy is part of the tradition of the institutional Church. Not that much of it serves any real purpose. It's just a habit picked up over the centuries.
But to my joy they have at last appointed a good priest, a professional in the media and a kindly man who does not fuss easily, to be the executive head of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communication. (This means Public Relations really.)
It is an inspired appointment and was apparently clinched by the Pope himself.
Of course the priest is the Franciscan, Agnellus Andrew. If you do not recognise the name, you will recognise the dulcet, yes, dulcet tones that have commented upon so many of the great occasions of the Church from Papal funerals to village Masses. He has the supreme gift of knowing when to shut up. He looks like a genial friar, and is one, and I account him a press man and a friend and, like all journalists, the best of company.
1 know this is stale news. But he is BBC trained and a polished producer in his own right. He has set up a centre for training in broadcasting and television techniques at Hatch End which is in what used to be called London's Metroland. It is endlessly training bishops and priests to communicate. It is one
of the best studios in the country with the refinement that you can fold back one wall to disclose a chapel where the Sacrament is reserved.
He is treated by his lay colleagues as a "star" at the job. And Rome is throwing in a mitre with the job. What a delight it is when a man gets a job he richly deserves! I think Agnellus' gentle insistence will be more effective with the bureaucracy there than any bark or bite.
Canterbury `dig' at the Ropers
IN JULY (978, I was attending a General Synod of the Anglican Communion held on the cal pus of the University of Canterbury. This was perhaps Dr Coggan's finest hour, but not mine. I found the students' canteen uncongenial and so I
went down into the City to look for Charterhouse material, inter aria.
One of the places I went to see was St Dunstan's Church which was reputed to hold the vault of the Ropers and the head of the late Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, with a fine memorial to him, The church was closed for "repairs".
In fact they were excavating the Roper Vault and I have recently got hold of a copy of a report from the Canterbury Archaeological Society on what they found. I cannot recall reading about this elsewhere.
St Dunstan's is an ancient church but heavily restored. On the right of the altar there used to be the chapel of St Nicholas, c 1524, which was a chantry where Masses were intended to be said in perpetuity for the Roper family then a short cut to heaven open only to the well to do. It usually entailed keeping at least one priest for this special object and he probably filled in as curate which would have been useful for everyone. The Ropers, with memorials above, kept a commodius vault below the floor.
The Roper vault had been opened in 1836 and 1880 and again, accidentally. when they laid down the fine memorial slab to St Thomas in 1932.
The organ was moved and they opened the vault in 1978. They removed first the Victorian tiles and then a large slab that covered a flight of steps going down.
The chamber was half full of rubble and in the vault there was a lead box in a niche behind an iron grating.
Margaret Roper, who was St Thomas' favourite daughter, had retrieved her father's head and it was said to have stood on her coffin.
The lead box in the niche had been cut open, probably at the last burial in 1741. It contained the fragments and dust of a human skull. This was probably put there by Thomas Roper, More's grandson and it is almost certainly the head that had been treasured by the Ropers while they were alive. Margaret may be buried in an unexcavated extension to this vault or she may be in the pit or maybe she was buried in Chelsea Old Church in 1544. It is not known for certain.
But it seems certain that the fragments in the box are those of the Lord Chancellor set in a place of honour above the remains of his descendants and in a church that has done its best to honour him.