Benedict of Nursia, Patron Saint of Europe

Depiction of Saint Benedict of Nursia. 13th century fresco, Monastero San Benedetto, Subiaco, Italy
Depiction of Saint Benedict of Nursia. 13th century fresco, Monastero San Benedetto, Subiaco, Italy.

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Benedict of Nursia (circa March 2, 480 – circa March 21, 547) was a Christian monk who founded more than a dozen communities for monks in Italy. His most enduring achievement was the Rule of Saint Benedict, which became one of the most influential sets of religious rules in Middle Age Europe and earned him recognition as the originator of Western Christian monasticism.

Fast Facts: Benedict of Nursia

  • Known For: Influential Christian monk who established the Rule of Saint Benedict
  • Also Known As: Saint Benedict
  • Born: circa March 2, 480 in Nursia, Umbria, Italy
  • Died: circa March 21, 547 in Monte Cassino, Italy

Early Life

Accounts of Benedict’s life are difficult to come by and verify, but the most widespread and agreed-upon account is from Pope Gregory I’s Dialogues. Dialogues was focused on the spiritual legacy of the holy figures it covered, but reportedly Pope Gregory strove to base his accounts on the most accurate testimony possible. His sources included some of Benedict’s followers who lived alongside Benedict and witnessed miracles. However, historical accuracy was not the primary goal of the biography, and some of the information is likely not verifiable.

According to Pope Gregory I's account, Benedict was the son of a Roman noble in Nursia, Umbria, which lies in the middle of the Italian peninsula. He had a sister, Scholastica (who also became a Christian saint), and at least one tradition claims they were twins. Until young adulthood, Benedict lived a fairly average life; very little about his childhood has been recorded.

As Benedict entered adulthood, he went to Rome to pursue his studies and begin his life as an adult Roman of noble descent. While he was there, he reportedly fell in love once. However, he soon grew disillusioned with the decadent lifestyle that his fellow students pursued, and he chose to retreat from his intended path in life. Instead, he retreated from city life to Enfide, a quiet town about forty miles away from the city of Rome.

While in this area, Benedict only wished to retreat from the chaos and decadence that he found in the cities, but to still continue life as normal – just quieter. However, all that changed when he met a monk from a nearby monastery. The monk, Saint Romanus of Subiaco, encouraged Benedict to take his retreat from the world even further and become a hermit. For three years, Benedict did just that: he lived in a cave above a lake in complete solitude.

Man of God

When Benedict emerged from his seclusion, he had already gained a reputation among the neighboring communities, where he was liked and respected as a man of God. The abbot of a nearby monastery had recently died, and the people of the community begged Benedict to take his place. Although Benedict was wary at first, given that he disagreed with the lifestyles of that monastery's monks, he eventually conceded in order to please the community.

Benedict’s wariness was well-founded. A series of tales in the accounts of Benedict’s life report increasingly violent rebellion against Benedict’s leadership. The monks reportedly attempted to poison him more than once, and a nearby priest also tried to murder or poison him. In the lore surrounding this era of Benedict’s life, there are several reports of miracles as well.

Despite the conflict with others in the religious community, Benedict continued to gain a following among the ordinary residents of the nearby area. People traveled great distances to have the chance to receive his wisdom and guidance. It was during this era that he gained an even greater reputation for having a holy character and way of life. However, the conflicts with other priests and monks continued, with one jealous rival, a priest named Florentius, apparently attempting to corrupt Benedict’s monastery by smuggling in prostitutes. Tired of the constant conflict, Benedict left Subiaco in 530. 

Rule of Saint Benedict

After departing from Subiaco, Benedict turned his attention to founding monasteries of his own, mostly in the neighboring regions. In 530, he founded the most famous of those monasteries, the monastery of Monte Cassino. Located on a high hilltop about 80 miles southeast of the city of Rome, the monastery was the first house of the Benedictine Order (so named for Benedict himself, the order’s founder).

In previous years, Benedict had seen the failures of other monastery and monastic rules, and he set out to create a set of rules that would encourage a better way of religious life. The set of rules he assembled came to be known as the Rule of Saint Benedict, which emphasized balance and moderation alongside spirituality. The text consists of 73 short chapters, which offer advice on spiritual matters as well as the administrative, earthly matters of running a monastery. Obedience and humility are the primary virtues that monks are directed to follow. The Benedictine order of religious life dedicated eight hours a day to prayer, eight to sleep, and eight to work (e.g. manual labor, works of charity, and reading).

The rules set out by Benedict were eventually adopted by many other monastic communities in Western Europe. Ultimately, his rule became so popular and widespread that Benedict came to be considered the founder of Western Christian monasticism. The Order of Saint Benedict, officially, came much later. It is less centralized than other religious orders; it functions as a group of related but independent monastic communities.

Death and Patronage

According to the most common narrative of Saint Benedict’s life, he contracted a fever and soon died at his monastery in Monte Cassino on March 21, 547. His feast day in the Catholic Church was originally celebrated on the day of his death. In 1969, the liturgical calendar was revised Saint Benedict’s feast day was moved to July 11 in order to avoid falling during Lent.

In 1964, Pope Paul VI named Saint Benedict as the patron protector of Europe. Sixteen years later, Saint Benedict was declared one of the three patron saints of Europe by Pope John Paull II; the other saints who share this patronage are Saint Cyril and Saint Methodus. 

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