Inside the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore

"I can affirm that there is no lack of vocations at Monte Oliveto Maggiore; we are truly blessed by the Lord for the fact that a few young people are always entering the community.”

The Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore
The Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore (photo: Courtesy photos)

On the beautiful hills of Tuscany, Italy, towers the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, a silent and ancient place, much visited by international tourists. The Register went inside the abbey to understand how the monks live and what they do during the day.

Dom Diego Gualtiero Rosa, the abbot general, said, “Our congregation counts eight monasteries in Italy and others scattered in various countries of Europe and other continents. The great Benedictine tree is made up of various congregations, including ours, which is the last-founded historical congregation.”

The Archicenobio of Monte Oliveto Maggiore was born from the initiative of the Sienese Bernardo Tolomei (1272-1348), as the spiritual center of the Olivetana Family. Today it is the monastery to which the Benedictine Congregation of Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto refers and belongs.

Bernard, a man of God, chose the Rule of St. Benedict as his norm of life and was a true lover of Mary from his youth. The congregation he founded has, in fact, among the various monastic congregations of the Benedictine Order, a particular devotion to the Madonna, highlighted by the white color of the monks’ habit.


Discerning Monastic Life

Today, the new generation wants to share their lives with everyone, even through social media, a lifestyle that could be at odds with the life of a monk. However, one of the youngest monks, Angelo Maria, 29, said that “If you think of monastic life as presented by Uberto Eco in his famous novel The Name of the Rose, you are a bit far from what a monastic community of 2021 really is today. Nothing is in contrast with monastic life, neither young people nor social media, but everything is lived in a different way. I would say more authentic.”

The vocation to seek true happiness, and not a lifestyle, drove Angelo Maria to change his life. The young monk said that “after graduating university I started working as a teacher in public schools. My life was regular between work, friendships, family, and I often traveled, which I liked to do a lot. Something was missing, however, despite everything going well. At the beginning of 2020, I came to Monte Oliveto because, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they had closed the schools; and, therefore, I had some days free to travel. Having a longtime friend in the abbey, I decided to visit him and spend a few days with him at Monte Oliveto. The days of my stay in the abbey were supposed to be four, but they became around 50. Maturing especially in my prayer, something was changing in me. I felt happy, and so, helped to discern these moments, I understood that perhaps my place was here, as a monk at Monte Oliveto.”

The young monk is now alone in his quest.

Dom Diego said that, “in the Church, both in seminaries and in male and female religious congregations, there is always talk about vocations as if there were a moment of crisis, due to the numbers of new entries being fewer and fewer. I can affirm that there is no lack of vocations at Monte Oliveto Maggiore; we are truly blessed by the Lord for the fact that a few young people are always entering the community.”


Praying the News

Monastic life does not distance people from the problems of society because one is never isolated from the world inside the abbey; the community is always updated on events and news coming from the Catholic world and from all over the world. The abbot general reported that “several newspapers arrive every day; then access to the internet allows people to read the news even faster. In our community timetable, there are two moments called ‘recreation,’ and in that occasion it is possible to exchange some opinions also about the events that are happening in Italy and in the whole world. After the reception of the news, good or bad, the monks always intercede in prayer for everything that happens.”


Ora et Labora

Life at the abbey is marked by what St. Benedict asks of the monks in the Rule, that is, moments of prayer and work, from the Latin ora et labora. They pray but also work hard to support the abbey.

They live this rule according to a daily schedule.

Dom Andrea, the abbey’s treasurer, said that “the day begins at 6am, with the community choral prayer followed by a time of lectio divina [reading and meditation of the word of God] in one’s own cell. At 7:30 am, we celebrate Lauds and Holy Mass; then, after breakfast, each of us devotes himself to his own work until 12:30pm, when we meet again in choir to sing the sixth hour [of the Liturgy of the Hours] and to recite the Holy Rosary. At 1pm, we have lunch and then a time of community recreation while we drink coffee. After a time of rest and study, at 3:30 p.m., we gather in the choir for the prayer of the ninth hour [of the Liturgy of the Hours] followed by a time of personal work according to one’s assignment. At 6:30pm, we sing vespers, followed by dinner at 7:30pm. Our day ends at 9pm, with the singing of Compline, always in choir, after which each monk retires to his cell to rest.”

Work characterizes the life of the monks, and they use the excellent climatic conditions of Tuscany to cultivate the land and produce the highest-quality products. Dom Andrea explained, “In the abbey they have a farm for the production of cereals, extra virgin olive oil mechanically extracted with a cold-pressing method, and red and white wine. We also have liqueurs prepared with aromatic and digestive herbs, following ancient recipes handed down from generation to generation. In particular, we produce a liqueur called Flora di Monte Oliveto, obtained from the alcoholic infusion of 23 herbs whose recipe is secret. It’s a long tradition that began in 1319.”

In order to reduce the environmental impact of cultivation and respect the principle of sustainability, the monks have “decided to take the path of natural cultivation with organic certification,” added the treasurer.


Pilgrims Return

After two difficult years due to the COVID pandemic, the abbey has begun hosting groups of pilgrims again. The abbot general said, “We have a guest house where pilgrims can spend a few days in silence and prayer, sharing in part the liturgies of the monks.”

During the pandemic, “there were more moments of prayer both solitary and communal, praying a lot for the victims of the pandemic, for the healing of the sick and for the whole society that was going through such a critical moment,” added Dom Diego.

Pandemic or not, they remain committed to their work.

As the treasurer said, “Every activity has positive and negative aspects; in our case, we can count on the collaboration and division of labor among various monks so that we can share the burdens and responsibilities for the various activities. Agricultural work in particular makes us experience what we read in Scripture: ‘Look at the farmer: He waits steadily for the precious fruit of the earth until he has received the first and last rains. Be steadfast also; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand’ (James 5:7).”

Andrea Barvi is a freelance journalist and collaborates with the Italian Parliament.