Known as the "Father of Western Monastic Life," Saint Benedict founded the Benedictine Order by forming the Benedictine Rule which became the foundation of monasticism in all ages of the Church, and which produced undying good for the civilization of Europe, the development of the Church and for the salvation of souls. The rule was a masterpiece of legislation effecting the purpose of bringing the individual closer to holiness through community based on Christian charity for total unity as Christ wills. The rule stressed the Divine Office as the center of monastic life with obedience, stability, zeal and chastity as the cornerstones of virtue. Benedict's motto was "Ora et labora" which means in Latin "Work and pray", the two great instruments of each Benedictine in their journey to Heaven. No work aided civilization more than the "scriptoriums" where the Benedictines transcribed hours upon hours, days upon days, and years upon years Sacred Scripture, the liturgy and the teachings of the Church in beautiful calligraphy that would become, in itself, a treasure Holy Mother Church would forever cherish. Who was this man that basically changed the face of Europe forevermore for the good? Born in 480 into a noble family in the village of Nursia, Italy, Benedict studied in Rome but, fearing he would succumb to the licentious life of his peers, left it all behind in 500 to embrace the monastic life.
Two years prior to this Pope Saint Symmachus I had succeeded Pope Anastasius II as the 51st in the line of Peter on November 22, 498. Pope Symmachus' papacy, which lasted until November 19, 514, is remembered for his ransoming all the slaves so that they could receive their desired freedom. In addition, he consolidated Church property referring to it as permanent benefices for the use of the clergy, which included the beginning construction of the Vatican Palace. During Pope Symmachus' pontificate, Benedict retreated to the deserted mountain area of Subiaco where, guided by the Holy Spirit, he took up residence in a deep and remote cave. There he remained for three years many times depending on God's providence for food as crows would bring him bread. The only human contact he had for three years was with the holy monk Romanus who brought him food, water and simple clothing. Despite his solitude, the fame of his holiness spread far and wide, drawing many disciples to Subiaco. To minister to them Benedict founded a colony of monks and, with their help, built twelve monasteries at Subiaco. He also summoned his blood sister Saint Scholastica to help and she established numerous monasteries for nuns there to accommodate the women who wished to follow Benedict. The strictness of this holy abbot's rule and the vice of jealousy played a role in rebellion by some monks who conspired to poison Benedict. One of the conspirators mixed poison into Benedict's drink bowl. As was his custom, Benedict always blessed anything before he ate it. As he made the sign of the cross over the bowl it broke into pieces and the poison spilled harmlessly into the wood. Those monks who had planned this dastardly deed repented, seeing the hand of God in the event.
On July 20, 514 Pope Saint Hormidas was chosen to succeed St. Symmachus. It was during St. Hormidas' pontificate that Benedict moved south to Monte Cassino where, in the early 530's, he founded the great abbey there which stood until it was bombed during World War II in 1944. It was also at this celebrated abbey that he composed the bible of monastic life - the "Rule of St. Benedict" which has become the standard legislation for monastic life for religious men and women in the western world. Benedict held the personal love of Christ paramount for all with an emphasis on humility and prudence. His motto was Ora et labora, "Pray and work" with the insignia of a cross and a plough.
Pope Hormidas passed away on August 6, 523 and he was followed on August 13th by Pope Saint John I who reigned for only three years, dying on May 18, 526 in prison after having been incarcerated by the barbaric King Theodoric who had invaded Italy. John had been the first pontiff to travel to Constantinople.
John was followed by Benevento-born Pope Saint Felix IV who ascended the papal throne on July 12, 526. Though at first recommended by Theodoric for the barbaric king's own selfish ends, Felix foiled the Goth king's plans by showing tremendous loyalty to the Church; so much so that Theodoric had Felix exiled. Upon his death on September 22, 530 the Liberty of cult (the freedom to worship without political interference) was restored to the Christians.
Pope Saint Boniface II succeeded him on the very same day and lived only two years. It was Pope Boniface who designated that Benedict build Monte Cassino over a temple of the Roman god Apollo in 529. During Boniface's pontificate there arose a rival faction who elected an antipope Dioscoros because they considered Boniface of Gothic origina and therefore a "barbarous foreigner." But that struggle ceased when Dioscoros died and the holy way of St. Boniface II won them over so much so that they also mourned his death on October 17, 532.
Boniface was followed by Pope Saint John II who was elected on January 2, 533. This Roman-born pontiff was the first Pope to change his name since Mercurius was the name of a pagan god and John wanted his name only associated with the Church; hence he took the name of his predecessor two popes before him. The next two popes lived only a year or so into their pontificates with Pope Saint Agapitus following John II on May 13, 535.
The latter was followed on June 1, 536 by Pope Saint Silverius who also died a martyr on November 11, 537. St. Agapitus, on a visit to Constantinople was poisoned on April 22, 536 by Emperor Justinian's wife Theodora who followed the heresy of Eutyches. St. Silverius was exiled to the island of Ponza by the Byzantine armies of Justinian, under the command of Belisarius who had captured Rome. Forced to renounce the papacy by Belisarius, Silverius refused and was martyred.
Pope Vigilius was elected on March 29, 537 and immediately faced the problems of Theodora who tried to have the condemnation of the euthychian theories annulled, but Pope Vigilius refused. Theodora and Justinian retaliated by having him arrested while he was celebrating a papal Mass, but succeeded in escaping. Justinian, incensed, imposed the "Pragmatic Sanction."
It was also during Pope Vigilius pontificate that St. Benedict passed on to his everlasting reward, leaving a legacy that would serve Holy Mother Church through the next 1400 centuries. Benedict had counseled rulers, advised Popes and tried desperately to repair the damage done by Belisarius and the invasion of the Lombard leader Totila. Through it all Benedict ministered to the poor and derilect, the wretched and the needy, always looking at the soul more than any physical appearance. He was renowned for many, many miracles and knew six days before that he was going to die. On March 21, 543 he asked his fellow monks to carry him to the abbey sanctuary where, after having received the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, held his arms high toward Heaven and calmly left this earth with a prayer on his lips. Word soon spread throughout Italy where there was great mourning, including in the papal quarters of Pope Vigilius who vowed he would uphold all that Benedict had promulgated and eight years later convened the Council of Chalcedon, the fourth Ecumenical Council, in 451 which upheld all the Church taught and condemned Monophysitism and once again held firm against the heresy of Eutychianism.
Four years later God called Vigilius home on June 7, 555 and he was succeeded by Pope Pelagius I, the 60th in the line of Peter. Since Rome had become a province of the Byzantine Empire after capturing the city, Justinian again meddled and elected Pelagius thinking he would be one of his puppet popes after so much trouble with Vigilius. But Pope Pelagius crossed the Byzantine emperor up also, remaining faithful to the principles of orthodox Catholicism. He also oversaw the construction of the church of the Twelve Apostles as well as convening the Council of Tours in 560 which enforced the concept of tithing. He died on March 4, 561.
A vacancy occurred for the next four months until Pope John III was slected on July 17, 561. John III was a great crusader, rallying the Romans and the rest of his countrymen to fend off the Lombard invasions instigated by Narsete. In the end history shows John III was truly instrumental in saving Italy. It was during Pope John III's pontificate that a little known fact occurred, a birth that would forever change the world and immerse the Church into a centuries-long battle with the forces of hell as an antiChristian movement would be born and swell into every continent settling in the very heart of where Jesus Christ, the Son of God, performed His greatest miracles. On this soil would be fought some of the fiercest religious battles the world has ever known for in 570 was born the arab "prophet" Mohammed
Pope John III died on July 13, 574 and was followed by Pope Benedict I after almost a year's vacancy because of the on-going battles against the Lombards in Italy. Benedict tried as hard as he could to restore order in Italy as well as in France which also had been thrown into confusion by the barbaric invasions not to mention internal disorders. There are those who claim Benedict took his name in honor of the great Saint Benedict and was the first of many Benedictine popes, though this cannot be totally confirmed. Another great monk who was bringing the faith to Scotland during Benedict I's and his predecessor's Pope John III was Saint Columba who was born in Donegal, Ireland in 521 and had studied in the great monastery of Clonard. In 563 he journeyed to north of Britain in an effort to preach to the rugged Scots. So impressed were the people and the King of Scotland that he was deeded a small island off the western coast of Scotland where Columba founded one of the most famous monasteries in all of Europe - the monastery of Iona. When St. Columba died in 579, all of northern Scotland had been converted to Catholicism.
Pope Benedict I succumbed the same year - on July 30, 579 and was followed five months later by Pope Pelagius II on November 26, 579. As the Lombard invasions continued, Pelagius II sought help from Constantinople and received it in an effort to aid the Italian and Roman armies. Pope Pelagius II decreed that every priest must recite the Divine Office daily. On February 7, 590 he fell victim to the plague sweeping through Rome where people died of a disease that caused yawning and sneezing.
At the time of Pelagius' death, the Benedictines were firmly planted throughout Italy and spreading to all areas of Europe. Vocations were becoming plentiful as many men were drawn to the simple, but strict rule St. Benedict had laid down. It was truly the birth of monasticism and signaled a new direction in Holy Mother Church which was also on the brink of another new era that would "bookend" the 6th Century. Though it would be six more months before the next pontiff would be selected, that next Pope would not only guide the Church into the 7th Century, but become one of the greatest vicars of Christ ever as we shall see in the next installment when we study the Gregorian Era and the life of Pope Saint Gregory the Great.