During his general audience on Nov. 11, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the monastic reform associated with the famous monastery of Cluny.
Founded 1,100 years ago, the monks of Cluny made the Church’s liturgy the center of their life and enriched the worship of God with splendid art, architecture and music. The monastery was renowned for its sanctity and learning, and its reform spread to monasteries throughout Europe. The monastery was home to a number of future saints as well as bishops and popes.
At a formative time in Europe’s history, Cluny helped to forge the Continent’s Christian identity by its emphasis on the primacy of the spirit, respect for human dignity, and its commitment to peace for all mankind.
Dear brothers and sisters,
This morning I would like to speak about a monastic movement that had great importance during the Middle Ages — a movement to which I have already referred in previous catecheses. It is the Order of Cluny, which, at the beginning of the 12th century when it was at its height, had close to 1,200 monasteries — a truly impressive number.
The monastery was established 1100 years ago — in 910 — under the guidance of the Abbot Berno. It was the gift of William the Pious, duke of Aquitaine. At that time, Western monasticism, which, beginning with St. Benedict, had flourished for several centuries, was in decline for various reasons, including political and social instability due to ongoing invasions and the ensuing devastation by nations that were not fully integrated into Europe’s fabric, widespread poverty and, above all, the dependence of the abbeys on the local lords, who controlled everything within the territory for which they were responsible.
In this context, Cluny became the soul of a profound renewal of monastic life, leading monastic life back to its original inspiration.
Cluny revived the observance of the Rule of St. Benedict, with some adaptations that had been introduced by other reformers.
First of all, the central role of the liturgy in the lives of Christians was guaranteed. With great love and concern, the Cluniac monks devoted themselves to celebrating the Liturgy of the Hours, to singing the Psalms, to solemn and devout processions and, first and foremost, to the celebration of holy Mass.
They promoted sacred music. It was their desire to ensure that art and architecture would contribute to the beauty and the solemnity of liturgical celebrations.
They enriched the liturgical calendar with special celebrations, including, for example, the commemoration of the faithful departed at the beginning of November, which we ourselves celebrated a short while ago. They also fostered devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Importance of Prayer
The monks of Cluny attached such importance to the liturgy because they were convinced that the liturgy was a way of participating in heaven’s liturgy. They also felt a responsibility to intercede at God’s altar for the living and the dead, since there were many of the faithful who were soliciting their prayers on an ongoing basis.
Indeed, this was the reason for which William the Pious established the Abbey of Cluny.
An ancient document, the charter for its founding, reads as follows: “I bestow these things as a gift with the understanding that a regular monastery shall be constructed at Cluny in honor of the holy apostles Peter and Paul, and that the monks shall gather and live there according to the Rule of St. Benedict … that the venerable house of prayer that is there shall be faithfully frequented with vows and supplications, and the celestial life shall be sought and striven for therein with the deepest desire and with the deepest ardor, and that prayers and petitions will be directed to the Lord.”
In order to safeguard and nourish this climate of prayer, the rule of Cluny emphasized the importance of silence — a discipline to which the monks willingly submitted, convinced that the purity of the virtues to which they aspired required a deep and ongoing life of contemplation.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the monastery at Cluny quickly acquired a reputation for holiness and that many other monastic communities decided to follow its observances.
A number of princes and popes asked the abbots of Cluny to propagate this reform, to the point that within a short period of time a solid network of monasteries associated with Cluny had developed with either a direct juridical bond to it or some kind of affiliation with its charism.
Thus, a spiritually united Europe was being developed throughout various regions of France as well as in Italy, Spain, Germany and Hungary.
Devotion to Peter
Cluny’s success was assured, above all, because of the splendid spirituality that was cultivated there. Other conditions, however, also fostered its development.
Contrary to what had occurred until then, the monastery of Cluny and the communities dependent on it were recognized as exempt from the jurisdiction of the local bishops and were placed directly under the Roman pontiff. As a result, there was a special bond with the chair of Peter.
Thanks to this protection and encouragement from the popes, the ideals of purity and faithfulness that the reform of Cluny had as its aim could be quickly disseminated. Moreover, contrary to what was happening elsewhere, its abbots were elected without any interference from civil authorities.
A succession of some truly worthy men guided Cluny and the numerous monastic communities that were associated with it, such as Abbot Odo, whom I spoke about in a catechesis two months ago, as well as some other great personalities like Aymard, Mayeul, Odilo and Hugh the Great. They served over a period of many years, thereby ensuring the stability and dissemination of the reforms that were undertaken. In addition to Odo, Mayeul, Odilo and Hugh are also venerated as saints.
Contributions to the Church
The reforms of Cluny had positive effects not only in purifying and revitalizing monastic life, but also in the life of the universal Church.
Indeed, the aspiration to perfection based on the Gospel was a stimulus for resisting two grave evils afflicting the Church at that time: simony (the acquisition of pastoral office by payment) and immorality among the secular clergy.
The abbots of Cluny, with their spiritual authority, along with monks who became bishops and some of whom even became popes, played a leading role in this impressive work of spiritual renewal. The fruits were not lacking.
Priestly celibacy was once again respected and practiced and even more transparent procedures were introduced in the process of assigning ecclesiastical offices.
The reforms of Cluny were also beneficial for society.
In an era when only ecclesiastical institutions looked after the needy, there was a deep commitment to the practice of charity.
In all of its houses, those who were responsible for distributing alms were obliged to provide lodging for travelers and pilgrims in need, for priests and religious who were traveling, and above all, for the poor, who came begging for food and housing for a few days.
Commitment to Peace
Two other institutions that were typical of medieval civilization and that Cluny promoted were equally important: the so-called “truces of God” and the “peace of God.”
In a period deeply marked by violence and the spirit of revenge, the “truces of God” ensured long periods of nonbelligerency on specific religious feast days and on certain days of the week. The “peace of God” was a call, under pain of canonical censure, to respect defenseless people and holy sites.
Thus, a process, which was long in the making, progressively took place in the consciousness of the peoples of Europe, leading to an increasingly clearer recognition of two fundamental elements for building society, namely the value of the human person and the primary benefit that peace offers.
Moreover, as was the case with other monastic foundations, the monasteries associated with Cluny had ample properties at their disposal, which, diligently put to use, contributed to the development of the economy.
Medieval monks, in addition to manual labor, were also engaged in cultural activities such as the establishment of schools for children as well as of libraries and scriptoriums for the transcription of books.
In this way, 1,000 years ago, when the process of forming a European identity was at its height, the experience of Cluny, spread throughout vast regions of the continent of Europe and made an important and valuable contribution.
The experience of Cluny emphasized the primacy of wealth of the spirit, maintained the tendency towards the things of God, inspired and supported initiatives and institutions for the promotion of human values, and educated people in a spirit of peace.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us pray that all those who really have both a genuine humanism and the future of Europe at heart may learn how to rediscover, appreciate and defend the rich cultural and religious heritage of those centuries.