Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

The Reformation and the religious wars spread havoc among the Benedictines in many parts of northern Europe; and as a consequence, in part of the rule of Joseph II. of Austria, in part of the French Revolution, nearly every Benedictine monastery in Europe was suppressed—it is said that in the early years of the 19th century scarcely thirty in all survived. But the latter half of the century witnessed a series of remarkable revivals, and first in Bavaria, under the influence of Louis I. The French congregation (which does not enjoy continuity with the Maurists) was inaugurated by Dom Guéranger in 1833, and the German congregation of Beuron in 1863. Two vigorous congregations have arisen in the United States. These are all new creations since 1830. In Italy, Spain, Portugal and Brazil only a few monasteries survive the various revolutions, and in a crippled state; but signs are not wanting of renewed life: St Benedict’s own monasteries of Subiaco and Monte Cassino are relatively flourishing. In Austria, Hungary and Switzerland there are some thirty great abbeys, most of which have had a continued existence since the middle ages. The English congregation is composed of three large abbeys (Downside, Ampleforth and Woolhampton), a cathedral priory (Hereford) and a nunnery (Stanbrook Abbey, Worcester); there are besides in England three or four abbeys belonging to foreign congregations, and several nunneries subject to the bishops. Each congregation has its president, who is merely a president, with limited powers, and not a general superior like the Provincials of other orders; so that the primitive Benedictine principle of each monastery being self-contained and autonomous is preserved. Similarly each congregation is independent and self-governing, there being no superior-general or central authority, as in other orders. Leo XIII. established an international Benedictine College in Rome for theological studies, and conferred on its abbot the title of “Abbot Primate,” with precedence among Black Monk abbots. He is only primus inter pares, and exercises no kind of superiority over the other abbots or congregations. Thus the Benedictine polity may be described as a number of autonomous federations of autonomous monasteries. The individual monks, too, belong not to the order or the congregation, but each to the monastery in which he became a monk. The chief external work of the Benedictines at the present day is secondary education; there are 114 secondary schools or gymnasia attached to the abbeys, wherein the monks teach over 12,000 boys; and many of the nunneries have girls’ schools. In certain countries (among them England) where there is a dearth of secular priests, Benedictines undertake parochial work.

The statistics of the order (1905) show that of Black Benedictines there are over 4000 choir-monks and nearly 2000 lay brothers—figures that have more than doubled since 1880. If the Cistercians and lesser offshoots of the order be added, the sum total of choir-monks and lay brothers exceeds 11,000.

In conclusion a word must be said on the Benedictine nuns. From the beginning the number of women living the Benedictine life has not fallen far short of that of the men. St Gregory describes St Benedict’s sister Scholastica as a nun (sanctimonialis), and she is looked upon as the foundress of Benedictine nuns. As the institute spread to other lands nunneries arose on all sides, and nowhere were the Benedictine nuns more numerous or more remarkable than in England, from Saxon times to the Reformation. A strong type of womanhood is revealed in the correspondence of St Boniface with various Saxon Benedictine nuns, some in England and some who accompanied him to the continent and there established great convents. In the early times the Benedictine nuns were not strictly enclosed, and could, when occasion called for it, freely go out of their convent walls to perform any special work: on the other hand, they did not resemble the modern active congregations of women, whose ordinary work lies outside the convent. It has to be said that in the course of the middle ages, especially the later middle ages, grave disorders arose in many convents; and this doubtless led, in the reform movements initiated by the councils of Constance and Basel, and later of Trent, to the introduction of strict enclosure in Benedictine convents, which now is the almost universal practice. At the present day there are of Black Benedictine nuns 262 convents with 7000 nuns, the large majority being directly subject to the diocesan bishops; if the Cistercians and others be included, there are 387 convents with nearly 11,000 nuns. In England there are a dozen Benedictine nunneries.

Authorities—The chief general authority for Benedictine history up to the middle of the 12th century is Mabillon’s Annales, in 6 vols. folio; for the later period no such general work exists, but the various countries, congregations or even abbeys have to be taken separately. Montalembert’s Monks of the West gives the early history very fully; the later history, to the beginning of the 18th century, may be found in Helyot, Hist. des ordres religieux, v. and vi. (1792). A useful sketch, with references to the best literature, is in Max Heimbucher, Orden und Kongregationen (1896), i. §§ 17-28; see also the article “Benedictinerorden” in Wetzer u. Welter, Kirchenlexicon (2nd ed.), and “Benedikt von Nursia und der Benediktinerorden,” in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie (3rd ed.). For England see Ethelred Taunton, English Black Monks (1897); and for the modern history (19th century) the series entitled “Succisa Virescit” in the Downside Review, 1880 onwards, by J. G. Dolan. On the inner spirit and working of the institute see F. A. Gasquet, Sketch of Monastic Constitutional History (being the preface to the 2nd ed., 1895, of the trans. of Montalembert) and English Monastic Life (1904); and Newman’s two essays on the Benedictines, among the Historical Sketches. On Benedictine nuns much will be found in the above-mentioned authorities, and also in Lina Eckenstein, Woman in Monasticism (1896). On Benedictines and the Arts see F. H. Kraus, Geschichte der christlichen Kunst (Freiburg-i-B., 1896-1897).

 (E. C. B.) 

BENEDICTION (Lat. benedictio, from benedicere, to bless), generally, the utterance of a blessing or of a devout wish for the prosperity and happiness of a person or enterprise. In the usage of the Catholic Church, both East and West, though the benediction as defined above has its place as between one Christian and another, it has also a special place in the sacramental system in virtue of the special powers of blessing vested in the priesthood. Sacerdotal benedictions are not indeed sacraments—means of grace ordained by Christ himself,—but sacramentals (sacramenta minora) ordained by the authority of the Church and exercised by the priests, as the plenipotentiaries of God, in virtue of the powers conferred on them at their ordination; “that whatever they bless may be blessed, and whatever they consecrate may be consecrated.” The power to bless in this ecclesiastical sense is reserved to priests alone; the blessing of the paschal candle on Holy Saturday by the deacon being the one exception that proves the rule, for he uses for the purpose grains of incense previously blessed by the priest at the altar. But though by some the benediction has thus been brought into connexion with the supreme means of grace, the sacrifice of the Mass, the blessing does not in itself confer grace and does not act on its recipients ex opere operato. It must not be supposed, however, that the Catholic idea of a sacerdotal blessing has anything of the vague character associated with a benediction by Protestants. Both by Catholics and by Protestants blessings may be applied to things inanimate as well as animate; but while in the reformed Churches this involves no more than an appeal to God for a special blessing, or a solemn “setting apart” of persons or objects for sacred purposes, in the Catholic idea it implies a special power, conferred by God, of the priests over the invisible forces of evil. It thus stands in the closest relation to the rite of exorcism, of which it is the complement.

According to Catholic doctrine, the Fall involved the subjection, not only of man, but of all things animate and inanimate, to the influence of evil spirits; in support of which St Paul’s epistles to the Romans (viii.) and to Timothy (1 Tim. iv. 4-5) are quoted. This belief is, of course, not specifically Christian; it has been held at all times and everywhere by men of the most various races and creeds; and, if there be any validity in the contention that that is true which has been held semper, ubique, et ab omnibus, no fact is better established. In general it may be said, then, that whereas exorcism is practised in order to cast out devils already in possession, benediction is the formula by which they are prevented from entering in. Protestants have condemned these formulae as so much magic, and in this