Norcia in the Spring
I followed the Benedictines in Norcia on their website, purchased their beer online, and listened to their chant CD. I had never met them or had connection with them, but the monks are pretty well known in some circles. After a brief visit to Norcia this spring, however, I learned quite a bit more.
The original interest was Pienza, the 1536 Renaissance civic makeover project of Pius II for his hometown overlooking the majestic Val d’Orcia in Tuscany. Adding Norcia transformed the trek into a pilgrimage. Manoppello was included to venerate the veil, the burial facecloth of Christ. That made an easy 3 night loop from Rome with stops in Cascia, Assisi and Orvieto coincidentally convenient.
Most old Umbrian towns are on hilltops, but Norcia is near the bottom of a broad, fertile valley bounded by snowcapped mountains. No trains to Norcia but pilgrimage by auto turned out to add a lot of detail.
The formidable 12th century Norcia city walls are in good shape. The impressive round Piazza San Benedetto is large but cohesive and with great acoustics. Lots of pork and wild boar salamis in Norcia. The churches in the city center certainly did came down in the 2016 quake. Mamma mia! – they are still a mess 3 years later.
The only church in Norcia still standing was the little 16th century Capuchin church at the edge of the valley. Built just a few decades after the Capuchins were founded in 1528, it survived the earthquake because the Monks of Norcia had been restoring it. The Napoleonic laws suppressed the Benedictines around 1810 but the Capuchin monastery was in use until it was sold to the diocese in the 1920s. It was used as a summer residence for diocesan seminarians and finally abandoned in the 1960s. The monastery was in ruins when the monks purchased it in 2007. They had planned to eventually move there from the Basilica di San Benedetto in the center of Norcia where they had been staying since their arrival in 2000. The townspeople’s attachment to the monks had made it difficult to go but the trauma of the quake finally prompted them to move to the old church tucked up against the mountain. It is now Monastero di San Benedetto in Monte and that is where we headed first – up to the mountain.
We were running late and emailed Father Cassian from Cascia, 22 kilometers away. We had venerated the Veil of Manoppello in the morning, zig zagged through spectacular mountain valleys and scaled the steps to the Basilica at the top of Cascia where St. Rita’s body is incorrupt (d. 1457). We wanted a chance to visit before Vespers, which was at 5 pm that day, so we hurried along.
Rather than the dramatic steep entrance heading straight into the old church – and the construction yard – the monastery currently uses a side entrance; take a left at the old fountain that someone left running and drive next to an almost gone villa buttressed by an optimist for some future renovation. Monesto, helping on the grounds, was hesitant but clicked us in the small metal gates after we assured him we were there for Vespers. Google translate was a big help.
The view from the monastery is amazing; green everywhere, small fields and olive orchards, the city center way down there, and mountains all around. More small houses and farms fill the valley than I would have guessed. They extend right to the edge of the little monastery.
Two monks were working on stones in the construction yard. A small crew was working in a trench in front of the old church. A Brother from Germany notified Father Cassian and he shortly came down the steps from the temporary chapel and dormitory. We visited on the office side of a construction trailer. Someone was cleaning the parlor side.
We talked about the Cistercian Abbey where he stays when passing though Dallas. I remembered to tell Father Cassian that Fr James Yamauchi in Forney, Texas sends greetings to Father Martin in the Monastery, his classmate at the North American College in Rome. Praise God for our solid young priests.
Father Cassian said it was actually a blessing that neglect and the earthquakes of 1979 and 2016 almost completely destroyed the monastery. That allowed it to be rebuilt from the foundation up, to better survive future quakes. It will be on steel springs using base isolation anti-seismic technology to protect the structure’s integrity during the next big one, as indicated in a monastery brochure. They are in a forest conservancy district and the strict zoning regulations only allow them to rebuild the original square footage and not add any additional. The current chapel and dormitory are only temporary, although they can be used for as many years as needed.
Father Cassian, from Massachusetts, speaks Italian but says he has an accent even after 30 years in Italy. There are 17 monks – 11 Americans, 2 Germans and one each Polish, Brazilian, Indonesian and Canadian. Most become acquainted with the monastery through their website. Young men visit the monastery and decide to stay. He said they are attracted by the strict adherence to the Benedictine rule and to the Tridentine liturgy. Only recently acquainted to the old Mass myself, I surmised that the whole purpose seems different than the Novus Ordo. Yes, agreed Father Cassian.
We heard the bells and made our way past the old church and up the stairs toward the chapel. Father Cassian pointed past the retaining wall they just built to keep the mountain at bay that two masons (hired, not Free) were facing with stone. The monks were fortunate to recently acquire some acreage up the mountain that will keep their flank protected.
We made our way up to the ‘temporary’ chapel. The woodwork inside is impressive and pictures can’t do it justice. Glue-lam timbers, strong and straight. Wonderful craftsmanship from a company north of Milan, Father Prior Benedict would tell us after dinner.
Father Cassian had opened our prayer books, but we mostly just absorbed Vespers. The chant was worth the journey itself. We benefited, but it was for Him. No other guests but us that day.
Afterwards, Brother Anthony, from the DFW area, lead us to dinner with the monks. We entered the refectory and one of the monks poured water into a bowl so we could wash. Fr. Cassian dried our hands and we found our seats by our name tags. A monk waited on the others and brought large bowls of pasta with a little alfredo sauce and bread. Then eggplant and beans, followed by tossed salad. A banana or pear for dessert. There seemed to be plenty to eat. It was Lent and the monks had been fasting and that was their meal for the day. No chit chat. Father Cassian read during dinner. One passage in Italian but most in English that day.
After dinner, one of the brothers invited us to visit outside with Father Prior Benedict. He is from Connecticut and greeted us warmly. I had seen him at a Dallas fundraising dinner a few years back. They raised about $100,000 that night. We talked of the progress on the monastery. There is a lot to do but the church itself is actually in pretty good shape and it should only take about a year, once they eventually start on it. The whole monastery will take much longer.
We asked about the faith of the locals in Norcia and he said it has been strained like everywhere. Are there many good Catholics in Dallas? he asked in a tone I took as a bearish outlook. There are, I said. Hmm. The pro-lifers always have strong faith. And home schoolers. There are some indult Latin Mass Catholics in Dallas. Quite a few random good Catholics. And EWTN does great work everywhere. I don’t suppose you watch TV? No, but Father Benedict did know of the good EWTN is doing.
I thanked him for letting us join them for 10 am Mass in the morning and suggested he would be able to sleep in a bit! He took the silly joke with a smile. Matins will be at 3:30 am.
We then made the short trip down to the B&B Il Casale degli Amici. No one there but they drove up promptly after a call and let us in our room. Not much English spoken, but what a setting. Views of the valley and views of the monastery. Everything about this area has a very high authenticity rating. And we heard the Matins bells at 3:30 am.
We slept in a bit the next morning and shook off the last of the jetlag, then poked around the old church before Mass. The church is small, 20 x 40 feet inside, not including the large sanctuary and the side altar on the south side. Dirt floor and large structural cracks up the walls. Bracing beams hold up a makeshift lintel over the door to a restroom outside the front of the church. The masons were again working adjacent to new steel reinforced cement walls of workshop rooms built into the mountain. Thick strong walls that look like they will also be stone clad. I am going to bet this place survives the next quake. The only remaining part of the old friary are two underground stone cells, each with one window. They looked a little lonely down there.
The bells called us to Mass. We made our way again up to the wood chapel. There was one woman praying. An elderly couple arrived late. The Conventual Mass with extensive chant was delightful. Praise God.
Brother Augustine from South Carolina – friendly and with a very big red beard – greeted us after Mass. We asked about the chickens off the hill. Yes, they get about 15 eggs a day. We talked about the old church. His brother is a graduate student in the traditional architecture program at the University of Notre Dame. Brother Augustine knew of Mater Dei Latin Mass parish in Dallas. My parish is St. Thomas Aquinas, I said, a large parish where they have always maintained use of the communion rail for distribution of communion. Praise God.
We asked about the monastery’s beer after the quake. They currently brew it in Spoleto because of the damage from the quake. They check on it every day and will be brewing back in Norcia soon, hopefully. The beer is in the Belgium monastic tradition, but the recipes are their own.
That was it. Too short a visit but we planned to see the Norcia city center and get to Pienza that night with a stop in Assisi along the way.
What we really learned was that the monks are not radical people. They are ordinary people who made a radical decision to live for God. Maybe that means we all need to make a decision to radically orient our lives toward God in some way. Yikes. That is a little unsettling.
Monks of Norcia website here.