Echoes of St. Benedict as Norcia monks rebuild after earthquake

By Matt Hadro

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As Benedictine monks in Norcia, Italy rebuild their monastery from the rubble caused by devastating earthquakes last year, they do so in the spirit of their founder, Saint Benedict.

“For us, it’s very symbolic, that is, being at the birthplace of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, St. Benedict being the founder of Western monasticism,” said Fr. Martin Bernhard, O.S.B. of the Benedictine Monks of Norcia.

He noted that St. Benedict (480-547) lived amidst “the collapse of the Roman empire” and the “collapse of society and structures.”

“Montecassino was destroyed once when he was there as abbot,” Fr. Martin added of St. Benedict, but the saint “didn’t give up, and he knew that the real answer was still the worship of God, that the primary thing he could do is just give back to God and to center our lives and build our lives around Him in a declining culture and world.”

“And I think in many ways we find ourselves in kind of a similar situation,” he told CNA. “So we find great consolation in that we have this opportunity in a way to follow the spirit of our founding father.”

Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict, has been seriously damaged by earthquakes last year.

An earthquake rocked the region in August, causing 247 deaths in Italy. Then a 6.6 magnitude tremor in October caused massive damage to the town and the Benedictine monastery. The Basilica of St. Benedict was totally destroyed and the town was rendered unsafe to dwell in.

Norcia’s main street has re-opened for business but much of the town is still a “red zone” inaccessible to people, Fr. Martin noted. However, the monks’ brewery, which produces “Birra Nursia” has remained largely intact.

A Benedictine monastery had existed for centuries in the town until they were suppressed in 1810 by the Napoleonic laws of the time. In the year 2000, monks based in Rome returned and re-founded the monastery.

Now, the monks have moved outside of the town to a property two kilometers away, the site of an old Capuchin monastery. They lived in tents for several weeks before moving into shelters suitable for the winter months.

However, conditions are quite crowded in the two buildings of only 96 square meters where the 14 monks sleep, eat, and pray. Their biggest need is simply a more suitable place to live and pray as they rebuild the main monastery, especially if the community wants to grow. The basilica will probably take years to rebuild.

The whole ordeal has actually drawn the monks closer to God, however. “It’s been a very humbling and purifying process,” Fr. Martin said.

“The earthquake and kind of the destruction that we had seen of material things has really reminded us of the fact that we’re pilgrims here on earth, and that this world will pass away, and that the biggest, most glorious things man can build, one day they will come to dust, and it’s the soul that endures, and it’s God.”

“So even living in…more physically poor conditions, cold conditions due to winter, has really made us rely upon Him [God] even more,” Fr. Martin continued.

“There’s been a lot of graces for the monks of the monastery. There’s actually a great peace and joy among the monks despite the great trials and hardships.”

The monks started brewing beer in 2012 and sold “Birra Nursia” to support the monastery, and sales expanded into the U.S. in 2016. The monks brew two types of Belgian-style ales, “Blonde” and “Extra.”

While the brewery suffered little damage from the earthquake, the poor condition of the buildings surrounding it mean that the monks cannot yet use it for brewing. Beer is still available for purchase online, however, with proceeds going to the monastery rebuilding effort and 15 percent going to the needs of local residents “who lost their livelihood because of the earthquake.”

“We’re anxious to get back in there,” Fr. Martin said, noting that the monks hope to start small-batch brewing again soon. The beer is a pride of the town, he added.

“It’s very important for us, not only for financial reasons,” he said, “but also because of the sign and the symbol that it gives to the town and to the community.” Local restaurant owners who sell the beer have been asking the monks when they will start brewing again.

If the monks could come back to the town, that “gives a very tangible sign of hope to the town and to the people,” he added.

The community’s needs are both material and spiritual, he noted.

“I would say the town needs continued hope and faith, that is, the challenge for them now is to not lose that patience, perseverance, and endurance and to really trust in God and to move forward and trust that He has a bigger plan for, really, the care of their souls.”

In addition to the clean-up and rebuilding efforts, the town also needs “tourism,” he said, an important source of revenue for businesses before last year’s disasters but one that has been put on hold as many businesses have not yet re-opened.

Those interested in donating to the monastery’s rebuilding efforts can either do so at the website www.nursia.org or through the purchase of Birra Nursia.

“We live in a Western world that has many struggles and trials, and in many ways is collapsing, at least perhaps morally. Now around us, very physically, it has collapsed,” Fr. Martin noted.

“And we now have an opportunity to renew our faith and to rebuild with that spirit of centering everything around the worship of God, the most important thing for us.”


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