Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

An Unsettling Development in Norcia

I’ve never been to Norcia, but before the seemingly-endless series of earthquakes that ravaged the town and destroyed the Basilica of St. Benedict, I would imagine it as my friend Hilary White described it, or as it was captured so beautifully in the photographs and descriptions (like the one above) offered by Julian Kwasniewski. Just the other evening — and not for the first time — I was listening to my album of Marian chant from the Monks of Norcia, and as the bells of the Basilica pealed in the first track, the thought struck me again that this is a sound that might never be heard again. As I listened to the chanting, I took note of the particular echo of the particular place, as unique as a fingerprint, but forever lost in the recent past.

Several days ago, our friends at Juventutem DC posted a note on their Facebook page about a recent development in Norcia that has many supporters of the Benedictines there on edge:

Dr. Robert Moynihan in his latest letter (email only right now) reports some very depressing news from the Monks of Norcia / Monaci di Norcia:

“They told me that the archbishop of Spoleto, Renato Boccardo, age 64 — who has jurisdiction over Norcia — has decided that he will rebuild the Basilica of St. Benedict in a modern style of architecture. He will also take possession of the quarters where the monks had been living from the year 2000 until October 2016. He will use the quarters as a part-time episcopal residence.

“So the Benedictine monks of Father Cassian will not return to the center of Norcia, to the spot where St. Benedict and his twin sister St. Scholastica were born. That period of the monastery’s life is over now, it seems. The monastery will now be built on the hillside above the city, about two miles outside of the city walls.”

In an update to their post later the same day, they revealed:

The Monks of Norcia have made a somewhat cryptic comment confirming Dr Moynihan’s report in a new blog post today on their website, in Italian:

“For us monks, there have been struggles: on minor things, like the type of brick to be used to the roof, but also about serious things, such as how to meet the high hopes that the community has placed in us after the earthquake. The Archbishop has shared with us his concern for the pastoral needs of Norcia, and this has allowed us to understand more clearly that our task is to live more deeply the monastic life in the new monastery on the mountain, because God seems to have other plans for the oldest monastery in the city.”

The website of the Benedictines of Norcia also indicates that the monks move to the mountains outside of town will be a permanent relocation:

For 16 years, the monks acted as guardians over the historic birth home of St. Benedict and his twin sister St. Scholastica. The monks are grateful to the many who helped them restore the basilica to great beauty over the course of those blessed years.

Now, the European Union and the Italian state have pledged to restore the basilica and monastery. The Archdiocese of Spoleto-Norcia, which owns the buildings, has decided that the spaces will have to be used by the diocese since all the other churches in town were also destroyed. Throughout the many years needed for the massive work of reconstruction, while the monks work to build the new monastery in Monte, their hearts will remain there in the ancient crypt of the basilica, the birth home to their great founder and father, St. Benedict.

In Italy, there are bureaucratic protections against arbitrary changes to historic places like the Monastery of St. Benedict. This means that the bishop may well be fighting both local and national governments — including the agency known as the Beni Culturali — if he wants to make architectural “improvements” rather than simply restoring the monastery.

The Benedictines of Norcia also have oblates from around the world, so the repercussions of any such action would be far more than local. I am told by sources close to the Monastery that the Nursini themselves — the natives of Norcia — are very fond of the Benedictines, are proud of their presence there, and that the local bishop would become very unpopular if he displaced them.

But it’s hard not to read a finality into the words of the monks themselves. It’s a tragic thought that a time may well be returning when no Benedictines will serve in the birthplace of their founder.

54 thoughts on “An Unsettling Development in Norcia”

  1. Well, they’ll only be a couple of miles away.

    I feel bound to the place and to the Benedictines too as I am named after the great Saint, the founder of Western monasticism and one of the key men in the history of the christianisation of Europe.

    My thoughts when this earthquake happened were that it was Heaven’s commentary on the state of the West, on the state of the Church and on the state of this Pope.

    Expect much more of the same as the infidelities of all three continue apace.

    • It’s truly a sad state of affairs, this change in architecture. It is also representative of changes in the Church as a whole. I attended my first and thus far only Tridentine Latin Mass at a beautiful historic parish, and I remember thinking to myself while looking up at the beautiful icons and architecture, “This is indeed a place where God dwells!” Most parishes I have been to appear as though, with a few changes, they could pass for any concert hall or community center…

      • I well remember the poverty of the only Catholic priest in Azerbaijan in the late 1990’s (the story of the restoration of the Catholic Church in that country at that time should be the subject of a novel), contrasted with the luxury of the Nunciature in Tblisi, Georgia to which he reported.

        Your average modern Bishop loves his modcons and up-market office space. Same obviously with this Comrade in Nursia. And if he can nu-Church the interior at the same time, then for him all the better. The monks are better out of it.

        • on visiting luxurious new HQ of a religious order, Fr. Groeschel, RIP, remarked: “If this is poverty, I’d hate to see celibacy.”

          • Having lived with the Conventual Franciscans for three years, I can attest to the fact that while individually they owned nothing, they lived in the lap of luxury because the community, the order, provided everything, not just their needs but their desires as well.

          • Diocesan priests used to joke the religious took the vow of poverty, and the parish priest kept it.

        • It is interesting that our Pope, who is embracing the Lutherans; along with his bishops is relishing some of the very things that Martin Luther rebelled against. I cannot help but remember the various warnings given us by Christ concerning these very things. We are supposed to be IN the world, but not OF it Unfortunately the shepherds of our souls have forgotten or never accepted this. Yet, the greatest saints and the holiest of people are the ones who have lived the life of pilgrims passing through an alien land.

        • This one is rumoured to spend a lot of time at his favourite tanning salon.

          This is the kind of man in charge. So we wait.

  2. Well, a few thoughts. First, the monastery there was first started in the 10th century, fully 500 years after Benedict lived. The church that was built in the family home of Benedict and Scolastica was a diocesan church. The saint himself never lived there as a monk. The monastery was started by Celestine monks and they were chased out by Napoleon. So, it’s not true to say that Norcia has always been a bastion of Benedictine monasticism. Though the town loves Benedict (and Scolastica – though we hear less about her, there is a huge popular devotion to the twin sister in town) they have less natural attachment to monasticism per se. There was no monastic presence in that monastery until 2000 when the Nursini themselves requested monks. There are nuns. Benedictine nuns live in the Abbey of St. Anthony at the top of the town. They have had to leave their monastery because of the quakes, but they have a good hope of being able to return. There are also Poor Clares in the same situation.

    The Valnerina has a population of about 5000 and 4000 people signed that petition. That was one bishop ago. They started offering the traditional rites and though the monks themselves were hugely popular, the Mass and Divine Office attracted fewer locals. The people of Norcia have largely been de-Catholicized along with the rest of Italy. The few that did still go regularly to Mass were mostly those who had a lifelong habit of it. Before the monks came, the Mass was offered in the co-cathedral, the big church on the opposite side of the piazza. (The basilica is not and has never been the cathedral, but was always a kind of shrine church for the birthplace of Sts. Benedict and Scolastica.) At the co-cathedral, the religion on offer was of course the kind one expects in any standard post-Conciliar novusordoist environment, and the congregation reflected this. As is normal in Italy and elsewhere, the Masses at the “rival” co-cathedral were attended mainly by elderly ladies, a much smaller number of elderly men and sometimes their visiting grandchildren. In other words, it was dying out, even before the quakes came and destroyed the buildings. I never attended the novus ordo Masses offered by the diocese after the quakes in a tent outside the walls, so I can’t tell you what the attendance looked like after the quakes.

    Before the quakes, of the eleven churches remaining in Norcia (there used to be a bunch more but a lot of them were demolished in 1950) I think only four were in regular use. They were administered by the diocese and only the “parish priest” – the pastor of the co-cathedral (a 68er hippie who hated the ancient Faith) – kept them locked up tight. Most of the ancient churches in Norcia were either half-ruined, derelict or simply never seen by anyone. San Lorenzo, the little 5th century church around the corner from the piazza – and thought to be the place where Benedict and Scolastica were baptized – was opened on special occasions, and used as a concert venue in the summers.

    As has been pointed out before, the Faith and the Catholic culture that had sustained the town since the 4th century, was dying. The quakes have just made it more obvious.

    So, though most people wanted monks and the town was deeply attached to them, the religion part had yet to really sink in. The basilica always attracted large crowds of pilgrims and tourists, however, so their preaching was heard by huge numbers of people… just not the townspeople that much. Modernist secularism – that I have nicknamed “novusordoism” – is a hard, hard shell, and difficult for even the holiest people on earth to crack. And Italy – even in Norcia – has a very advanced case of it.

    But the monks were certainly making progress, and it does seem as though for the moment that progress will halt. For the moment. Bishops – and popes for that matter – come and go, and the fact that the monks own the property on the hill and are digging in for the long term is a very good thing. They are committed to staying there and building, in exactly the same way as the people of the town.

    Boccardo is indeed not very popular. In August on the morning of the first quake, he turned up with a small entourage, after the reporters had already been there for hours. He made sure the cameras were rolling and had pics of himself touring the damaged basilica and town. While we went down to the crypt church to sing Laudes, he was giving interviews with RAI in front of the statue. Then he ordered all the churches in town closed and left. I understand that after us he went to Amatrice, got his picture taken holding a shovel while people were digging out survivors, and then went back to Spoleto.

    The Nursini know full well that the novusorodoist establishment doesn’t care about them, doesn’t care about the town and cares perhaps least of all about their spiritual wellbeing. And they know that the monks really do.

    In short, this too will pass. And I think we can take Fr. Benedict’s words all by themselves without the subtext. They are doing what we are all doing: waiting it out. And in the meantime, they are setting an example, building and growing strong and holy so that there will be something left when the storm passes.

    • I read this and I think of how the faith died in North Africa during the sweep of Islam. Tho admittedly some head-chopping spurred the process.

      That might be next in pretty large chunks of Europe, I suppose.

      • At least the North African Christians had the excuse of a hostile alien sectarian conquest to explain their extinction.

        A century and a half of Savoyard and republican rule just isn’t quite in the same category. The pervasiveness of American-led materialism hurts, but the faith is dying in Italy above all because its own shepherds have deconstructed it – all for 30 silver pieces of secular approval.

        • Exactly.

          Evidently the Catholic prelates all over the world feel the scimitar and the coin are sharper than the Sword of the Word.

      • Check out the history of the Church in North Africa or the life of St. Augustine and you will find that there were many problem there long before the followers of Mahommed got there.

    • Thanks for the first hand observation and commentary, Hilary.

      This is definitely the most edifying thing I have read on Norcia since the earthquake.

      I think about the monks of Walter Miller’s A Canticle For Liebowitz: Most of the Church, and indeed most of Western Civilization have been annihilated by splitting atoms, but the bookleggers of the Order of St. Liebowitz soldier on, rebuilding and the faith in obscurity. Only here, it’s not a nuclear holocaust which has wrought this destruction, but modernist secularism, even within the bosom of the Church. I pray the Monks of Norcia can likewise soldier on, unmolested in their monastic grange, sanctifying what survives of the Church with their prayers, and the pilgrims with the sacraments and their teaching, against a better day to come.

      • “The Canticle for Liebowitz” is a great book for your analogy; and for the Catholic perspective on time, and our place in it. A fascinating read.

    • Hilary,

      I know you had to flee Norica and last I remember reading you were in Rome. Do you by chance have any contact with the community at La Santissima Trinita dei Pellegrini? My wife and I are looking for potential places to settle down and live out the Benedectine Option with fellow-minded Catholics, and having married at this parish, the thought always crosses our minds of what about going to Rome and joining Father Kramer’s FSSP parish. If you have any contacts there (either through personal experience or friends), do you know how healthy the parish is and if parishioners are actually interacting with and helping one another outside of Mass?
      Our current gripe is that – at least in our small southern American city where we have a nice TLM- people do not really get together outside of Mass for fellowship and mutual support. We want to get integrated with a traditional Catholic community (either Latin or Byzantine) somewhere in which there is not the great atomization and fragmentation of Catholics mostly isolated from one another in the suburbs as most of us have it here in America.

      • Trinita is my parish in Rome. I spent the six months since the quakes in a rented flat in Santa Marinella, a beach town on the coast about 50 miles north of Rome where there is a small traddie ex-pat community. I’m in my new place near Perugia as of last week.

        Frankly, in terms of Mass availability, you’re a good deal better off if you can live in the US. Things aren’t going well in Europe, and it is extremely difficult for Americans to emigrate here. If you have Mass to go to but you feel socially it’s not up to much, I’d suggest the solution is for you to get more social yourselves.

        Shelter in place.

  3. That old saying, God writes straight with crooked lines. I can’t really figure out why the earthquakes happened where they did, but God has a plan, for sure.

  4. Father Benedict, the present Prior of the community, said after one of the recent devastating quakes, “we are being purified.” The Lord’s ways are mysterious (thanks be to God!).
    One of the things I missed most after relocating from Rome 5 years ago, was going on retreat to Norcia. It’s a place of springtime, new life. A huge part of the newness is the celebration of the Office and Mass according to the tradition. Being there gave me a thirst for the tradition.
    If community can enter fruitfully into the mystery of purification, it is our brothers there.
    I pray for them always.

  5. I agree with Hilary — the monks are committed for the long haul, and it is very good for their contemplative life to be out of the center of town, where it got pretty noisy at times, especially in the high vacation season of July and August. The monks there have told me that it is much easier to pray and focus on being monks up in the hills — no surprise, since every great monastery was built way out in the middle of nowhere. Most importantly, a new bishop will come along, and may very well invite the monks to come to the basilica to hear confessions, say Mass, and preach. Stranger things have happened.

    • That is very helpful.

      That, and the above reminder on “purification”.

      We must remain happy warriors. Our side wins. Our side thrives on suffering. Eyes fixed on Christ as those things we thought so necessary are burnt away.

    • Firstly all praise to the Monks. The decision though of the 64 year old prelate to have a “modern” Church built on the site of the Basilica is to me a tremendous shame. Just imagine this newly built church right in the heart of old Norcia. No support from me on this one but plenty headed towards the Monks for their strength and service.

  6. Steve, I could not help but remember on reading your poignant copy an old quip from Ronald Reagan: “When the government comes to say it is here to help you, run!!”

  7. Thanks very kindly to OnePeterFive for the link to our post!

    We share the hope that, even if the forced removal of the Monks to their monastic grange in the mountains cannot be reversed, that there is some hope that the Basilica can still be rebuilt to look as it did before the earthquake last year, and open for the celebration of the traditional Mass. And that the Monks may continue to reap the fruits they have gathered so far in the sanctification of ever more Nursini, pilgrims, and in the continued increase of vocations they have enjoyed so far.

    Remember: If you want to help, do so with your prayers – and also with your donations:
    And consider acquiring their beer, which helps keep their apostolate solvent:

    • You know honestly, the basilica wasn’t going to win any awards for beauty of interior design or its art. It was a rather average Gothic Umbrian church that had been rather cheaply Baroqued in the 18th century, with not-very-impressive paintings and a lot of cheap plaster painted as marble on its side altars. The only really good paintings were those of Benedict and Scolastica over the transept altars. I remember taking what turned out to be my last walk around inside on the morning of the first quake in August, before the fire department closed the church, and seeing the ugly Baroque decorative plaster – that had been those rather tacky fat baby-angels, some culicues and plaster clouds – all in little bits all over the floor, and thinking maybe we didn’t need to mourn them too much. An artist friend in town agreed that maybe it would be an opportunity to restore the church’s original Gothic interior. Neither of us have much time for the Great Baroquification of nearly all of Italy’s beautiful medieval churches – something I personally regard as the original novusordification.

      The side altars had been re-painted in drab colours that were trendy in the late 19th century, and were being restored to to brighter colours that, we were told, were closer to the original Baroque – but this was still mostly just more paint on the plaster. The monks liked it, but … well… Baroque…

      The sanctuary had recently undergone quite a lot of improvement by the monks who had moved the altar back to its original position in the apse and put in an altar rail. The rumour was going around town that they had found and purchased the original sanctuary furnishings too, that had been ripped out in the 60s and stashed away somewhere. They had built a kind of choir and were looking at getting some real choir stalls put in to replace the benches.

      The real appeal, architecturally, was and is the facade, with its rose window. In August, as we sat around the piazza between aftershocks, we had sort of assumed that the facade was going to come down. During one really big shock, we all huddled close to the statue while the stone piazza did the trampoline thing, and watched the cross at the peak waving back and forth like a reed in a gale. We all thought for sure the facade was going to end up on the ground in bits. Hence our amazement when the rest of the basilica collapsed that morning and there was the facade still standing, all alone.

      Of course I don’t agree with the bishop’s threat to rebuild it in some horrifying modern style. I’ve been around Italy and seen the grotesque monstrosities that bishops think is oh so hip and cool. (Seriously, this is the country that time forgot, where 1976 came to retire.) And I’m more glad than ever that the Beni Culturali has more sense. Catholic bishops in this country are driven by a single minded and extremely bitter 68er anti-Catholicism that makes a character like Roger Mahoney look like Fulton Sheen. These are men who hate the Catholic faith and their own cultural patrimony with a viciousness that is frightening as well as nauseating.

      But let’s be honest: the Basilica is a loss culturally, religiously and historically… but not so big a catastrophe strictly from an artistic point of view. I’ve still got my fingers crossed for a re-Gothification. Umbrian Gothic is a balm to the soul.

      • I have a friend who is also an oblate who used to come for all the offices of the Triduum – a marathon of chanting into the wee hours my age and health doesn’t really allow – and she said she spent a lot of time admiring the marble floors. Red, shot through with white bits. Then she said one day it crossed her mind it looked exactly like prosciutto di parma, and wasn’t able to think of anything else after that. Of course, she told me and I looked down and thought, yep, that’s prosciutto all right, and so it remained in my mind ever thereafter.

        • You seem to be verging on forlornness. The world is a pretty tacky and ugly place, but try to do something that brings you joy! God bless you!

          • That’s not what your Bible tells you, my girl. I’m not pretending to be fine. Only the saints could be considered “fine” in any respect and I know you’re not crazy enough to think of yourself as a saint.

            But I know your type quite well. You’re the relentless butchers who murder any attempt at expanding the Latin Mass because it threatens you that others might have a part in the community. You are happy to sit on the proper Mass like an angry cat growling over the kitty food bowl.
            You’re the same as the old ladies at Novus Ordo who turn the Mass into a Bed, Bath and Beyond spectacle. You want to dominate and have things just your way and you’d rather lose a few souls if it means holding onto the Mass just the way you want it.
            There are rules that the Mass should always follow, but that doesn’t justify these people who invent rules to enforce and ruin attempts at spreading the proper Mass because they hate and distrust the outside world. God never commanded us to act like angry cowards, denouncing the world from the holes we hide in, with pretty much no one listening anyway.
            This is where the Novus Ordo people are right. There was a stuffiness, a reclusiveness and a refusal to go out into the world before VII. Of course, the powers that be responded with the worst possible cure, which was actually a poison, but that doesn’t change the fact that the angry, old Pharisees are just as wrong and full of evil as the heretical hippies.

          • I don’t disagree, but for some reason the best Catholics seem to think that’s the only appropriate emotion lately. We know that the saints and the martyrs were more likely to convert people with their invincible joy.

          • I get what you’re saying. Agree to some extent. But sometimes people are just having crummy days. It’s not all related to the Church or politics. We’re all wired differently. Some of us (like me) are melancholic by nature. And many of us are also living through hard times personally, financially, professionally, maritally etc.

          • Think of what the martyrs were living through, yet they radiated joy because they lived the Christian life. The reason most are miserable now is because they only partially live the Christian life and refuse to show the courage to demand the full thing again.
            Without thoroughly Catholic communities, there is no way to experience proper community and we all end up miserable, bitter and absolutely worthless when it comes to spreading God’s message and, yes, converting people.

            I know it’s hard. I live the same misery. However, if nothing else, I’m going to shout it on the mountain top, rather than remaining silent for fear of being yelled at or ignored by Novus Ordo Catholics and other worldly folk.

          • I think you’re fibbing. It’s ok to acknowledge how depressing the world is. It’s sad how so many otherwise devout Catholics think they need to pretend to be saints. It really gets in the way of God’s grace. God bless you.

      • If there is EU money there is going to be an international competition of projects. Would be good if D. Stroik take part. Hopefully, there are also other architects around who will not build monstrosities.

        • This is happening at Clear Creek. It is the Benedict Option being lived out.

          Yet the Abbey is not done in it’s building. They need to build the bell tower and finish the nave. Then they need to build the adjacent wings to the Monastery which once it is finished in around 2025 will be a monumental feat.

      • You have a lot of interesting things to say and I’m sorry if I’m just being ignorant of the fact that this is your nature.
        I was just pointing out that this depressive, bitter attitude is an epidemic in the orthodox/”Traditionalist” Catholic community. It’s so sad that the people who are right simply don’t know how or refuse to deliver the message in a way that people will listen to. The FrancisChurch likes to make everything into a public relations problem and, of course, that’s usually a complete lie and it’s a moral or theological issue. But in the case of people such as yourself, who are actually defending what the Church teaches, it couldn’t be more true.
        I don’t think any of your excuses will satisfy God when he asks why you don’t follow the example of the martyrs, who faced much worse persecution than we do, yet, by all accounts, continued to radiate joy at every juncture.
        I suffer from depression and misery myself and I fail to live the Christian life with joy as the martyrs did, which is why I have so much to say on the topic.

        God bless you!

  8. The monks don’t appear to be too disturbed by this decision. They are smart enough to see God’s will in this situation and not to be distracted by the motives. The important fact is they are all safe and sound and are going to rebuild so their presence will still be felt by Norcia!

  9. It’s always sad to lose buildings, but I’m so much more worried by the lack of bodies in the seminaries and monasteries.

  10. It seems the Archbishop is taking advantage of the calamity that has strickened the Monastery at Norcia.

    Instead of relying on God and the elms of fellow Catholics, the Archbishop is relying on the E.U. for help which in not a good thing at all. Getting help in form of money from the E.U. will enslave the Archbishop to the demands of the E.U. and it’s agenda.

    There is possibility the Archbishop had always wanted the monks to move to the mountains all along and found this an opportunity to move them. Perhaps the E.U. also might have wanted this to happen. With the trend in the Secular world and in the Catholic Church under the current Vatican to move away from Tradition and move into Modern Progressivism, it would make sense for them to make a more modern architecture for the constructing of a new church in the place of the old one.

    It is still going to be a wonderful monastery in the monks new location with the monks obedience to the Archbishop which is very important in the monks monastic life and their vocation. Grace and Sanctification will always come to these monks no matter where they will go under the obedience to the Holy Church.

  11. St Maximillian Kolbe wanted to build a new monastery on the side of a mountain in Nagasaki. He couldn’t and he had to build on the other side. The side he originally wanted to build on was destroyed when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki while his monastery was protected from the blast. St Benedict pray for us.

  12. Why does it have to be modern style? The Archbishop should have a home to live in built in the modern style of a Church. I’ll bet he’ll find it unworthy of himself. But he will find an ugly modern monstrosity worthy of God.

  13. That the facade of the church in Norcia remained standing after the earthquake and the rest of the church was in ruins almost seems like a message from God. Isn’t this an allegory of what is happening in the Church itself? The monks’ new home may be on the “side of the mountain” that is protected and the Archbishop may be on the “side of the mountain” that is destroyed.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...