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In The Aftermath Of The 2016 Earthquakes . . . The New Benedictine Monastery In Norcia Is A Sign Of Hope

August 13, 2019 Featured Today No Comments

By ALBERTO CAROSA

NORCIA, Italy — As reported by ANSA, on July 18, 2019, the president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, called upon the competent authorities to speed up the reconstruction of the town of Amatrice and all areas in central Italy hit by earthquakes three years ago.
“The dream of reconstruction must . . . go forward on all fronts to . . . remove the mark of precariousness,” he said during a visit to the Romolo Capranica campus in Amatrice.
“The future of Italy is at stake here. But we must act quickly,” the president said in response to an appeal by a student who had said that she dreamed of “going back to living in real homes.”
We do not know if it is a coincidence, but this appeal follows similar, bitter remarks from the archbishop of Spoleto-Norcia, Renato Boccardo, who lamented that “too many promises” had not been fulfilled.
“The feeling of having been abandoned is very strong,” he declared during an interview with Vatican Radio of Italy (July 11, 2019). “Unfortunately, reconstruction, and we know it, is slowly coming about and the bureaucracy makes more victims than the earthquake.”
Even amid these bleak circumstances, however, the prelate also mentioned some “signs of a restart,” such as the blessing of the first symbolic stone of the Monastery of San Benedetto in Monte. And in fact Archbishop Boccardo had been interviewed precisely on the occasion of the laying of this foundation stone of the new Benedictine monastery in Norcia.
The two-day event — which took place on July 10-11, 2019 and coincided with the first 20 years of the Benedictine community in Norcia and the Feast of St. Benedict, patron of Europe — was marked by four highlights: vespers the evening of July 10; a conference by the prior, Fr. Benedetto Nivakoff, to describe the first 20 years of the monastery and present the latest developments and plans for the future; the solemn Mass of the following day; and the procession with the relic of the patron saint. The procession culminated with the ceremony for the laying of the first stone in the containment wall of the new monastery of San Benedetto in Monte, on a former Capuchin convent.
Behind this stone, in addition to the relic of the saint, the prior’s dedication letter was cemented.

The Guiding Light

The two days, open to all, saw the participation of many “Nursini,” citizens of Norcia, together with representatives of the hierarchy, such as Archbishop Boccardo, Walter Cardinal Brandmueller, and many religious men and women, along with the civil authorities such as the mayor of Norcia, Nicola Alemanno, and the former governor of the Umbria region, Catiuscia Marini, and many faithful from the rest of Italy and also abroad.
The mayor, speaking at the local news portal Umbria24, said that this is a “historic moment for Norcia and for the whole of Umbria. The construction of the new monastery,” he added, “further cements the bond between the city and its monks and places this territory at the center of Europe, whose patron our saint is.”
The mayor also told the Umbrian online daily Tuttoggi that the bond between the monks and their fellow citizens is “indissoluble,” and all wish for the work of the monks to represent “the guiding light for the New Europe.”
Fr. Nivakoff, in his speeches, picked up on concept hinted at by Archbishop Boccardo — that is, the construction of the new monastery as a powerful sign of hope after the tragedy of the earthquake.
On June 12, the monastery celebrated 20 years since its canonical founding in 1999.
For this historic anniversary, it seemed right to Fr. Nivakoff to finally add a motto to the crest of the monastery: Nova Facio Omnia (“I Make All Things New”).
This motto was also carved on the foundation stone inserted into the wall of the monastery under construction.
As explained by the prior during the July event, the verse is taken from the Book of the Apocalypse (chapter 21, verse 5) and describes the New Jerusalem in all its splendor. “I believe this verse captures both the spirit of our first twenty years and provides an orienting principle for the future,” he said. “The search for what is new springs from the deep desire in the human heart for New Life, untouched by original sin.”
Newness and youth go together, he went on, bringing joy to the soul which has yet to experience some of the harsher realities of life. “The Church herself calls us always to renew that youthfulness, beginning the Mass with a reminder of how God blesses youth with joy: Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam (To God who gives joy to my youth). Sin makes us old, taking away our innocence and joy.”
The dimension of “newness” is a recurrent feature in the somewhat short life of the congregation. Fr. Cassian Folsom, re-founder of this Benedictine congregation and its first prior until Fr. Nivakoff took over in 2016, commented on this: From the various paths tried for the canonical recognition of the initial Benedictine community formed by himself and three other postulants, he said, Providence chose a completely new path and in a very short time. To sum it up it was, a “special miracle” which “gave me confidence that God was giving us His blessing.” And thus, “on June 12, 1999 the formal decree arrived placing us among illustrious monasteries of the Benedictine Confederation, but outside a specific congregation.”
Monasteries are normally founded from an older existing monastery which makes a new foundation. We tried this, he said, but Providence suggested a fresh start, exactly as stated by our new motto Nova Facio Omnia.
Monastic life needed then and still needs now a renewal, he pointed out.
“By renewal, I mean not just returning to the spirit of St. Benedict, but to the Rule of St. Benedict, to the actual way of life that he outlined. And it’s much easier to start something new than it is to renew something that exists already. . . . That’s why we took the risk to start something new; it seemed like the very best path to follow.”
And so we began with very clear principles, Father continued, but with little clarity about how they would actually take form.
“So the forms have changed over the years but the principles have remained the same. For example, we started in a little apartment, not in an established monastery. We started in Rome, not in Norcia. The first idea was that our community would serve St. Anselm in Rome, but that changed after two years. We came to Norcia, to the birthplace of St. Benedict, and for the first 16 years lived at the basilica and our main apostolic work was to serve the pilgrims who came to visit.”
But the earthquake has again changed the situation, transforming that service into a more spiritual and supernatural one.
“The post-earthquake experience is almost like a re-founding of the monastery with the same principles but in a slightly different form,” said Fr. Folsom.
In other words, “over these 20 years, things have changed a great deal. The principles have remained the same but the form has evolved to what it is now.” Whereas before the monks were in the middle of the city, now they are dwelling on a hill overlooking the city, with a great gain in terms of silence, solitude, and separation from the world.
“The reconstruction project allows us to build the monastery according to the needs of the community, which after so much time are now quite clear,” he emphasized.
Fr. Nivakoff continued this theme in his lecture after vespers. In fact, in Benedict’s search for God, the Lord made the saint accept the most varied and unexpected circumstances and find in them the way to salvation.
“Reflecting on our first 20 years, we cannot fail to find a similar situation,” he noted. “It is the beautiful blindness that God gives to those who seek Him by hiding future labors so as not to discourage them.”
In the 16 years spent in the city, he continued, we realized that the treasure that the saint had, the treasure to be preserved and possibly offered, was not culture, was not even the famous peace: “The treasure that the saint has kept and wanted us to cherish is faith.”
The events of the August 2016 earthquake were clear signs for us, Fr. Nivakoff went on. “Faith is under attack not only by external forces, but also from within the Church just as then, when they had to defend themselves from Arianism inside and from barbarians outside. And it is in these circumstances of total collapse that the saint has decided to plant and root, building not a walled building . . . but rebuilding people.”
St. Benedict was a father, in the true sense of the word, in that “he generated new life in his monks by giving them Jesus Christ, the beginning and Creator of life itself,” said Father.
Even if we hope to rebuild the beautiful Capuchin convent in the next three years and reopen the adjacent church by mid-2020, our hope is not based on that, Fr. Nivakoff pointed out.
Yes, the community is growing, he said, but the future cannot be secure regarding these great projects. “It is God who guides history and not us. If we want to be monks and true sons of St. Benedict, we cannot forget the true goal that is not a place, but a person, God. We are sure that for now God wants us here, in San Benedetto in Monte, to live together and accept the mystery of His Providence, to make room for God and not to take His place.”

God Knows The Answers

In his homily for the solemn Mass of July 11, Father gave a lectio magistralis on the spirituality of the saint inspired by the epistle for his feast day.
“Today’s epistle says that the life of St. Benedict is like music,” he began. “The memory of the saint is like music that accompanies a banquet where wine is not lacking and joy is palpable.” While the feast of March 21 commemorates the passage of the saint to his blessed eternity, the feast of July 11 “has been seen for centuries as an appreciation of the earthly part of the life of the saint, the many miracles, his perennial wisdom, all that which made him not just an ordinary person….In fact, by definition a saint is close to God in a way so that already in this world he behaves like God,” and therefore he is a reflection of the living image of God.
Faith is intimately linked to taciturnitas (silence), which is one of the three pillars of the Benedictine rule and spirituality, together with obedience and humility.
“The age in which we live has lost patience for this taciturnitas and has filled it with explanations, words, noises. When we monks after the earthquake believed we accepted the indication of the Providence to plant the roots of the new monastery here, it was with fear and hesitation. Like many of you we asked ourselves: but what will happen, how will we be able to live?. . .”
But “God knows the answers and will make us understand at the right time,” said Fr. Nivakoff.
Unable to tolerate this state of uncertainty and insecurity any longer, “the modern secular world seeks with technological, political, or commercial solutions to deprive us of the pain that the mystery of faith requires,” because it is in fact “only in the possibility of doubt that one can grow in faith. God has left us free precisely because we will be happier in choosing Him than in not having any choice. From within the Church in the past century, there has been a strong pressure to remove from the Christian the obligation of living with the uncertainty; better to change a rule than leave someone in doubt about their salvation. Various attempts to ease the weight of faith have just the opposite effect: Man becomes less free and consequently less happy.”
The music that accompanied the life of the saint, as the epistle says, therefore “is not any music,” Father continued. “Like the Gregorian Chant, which is the fruit of the monk’s prayer, and not just its cause or its means, the music that has surrounded his life and which could also surround ours is the result of a state of heart where the taciturnitas reigns.”
The construction of the monastery and the reopening of the church in Monte, therefore, “will not in themselves bring music, they do not solve problems, but if we see in it the path of faith . . . music and wine will be there and this will open a door to Heaven from here,” Fr. Nivakoff concluded.

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