Interview with Fr. Prior of San Benedetto in Monte as he reflect on the three-year anniversary of the devastating earthquakes.
Last March I visited Nursia (Italian, “Norcia”) for the first time and met the Benedictine monastic community there, writing about the experience in a post that month. On that trip I led a group of 15 men from our local Catholic community stationed in Vicenza, but this time it was just me and my son.
Due to schedule conflicts, I hadn’t met the current prior of the community, Fr. Benedict Nivakoff. And he politely arranged a short discussion about his memory of the earthquakes and the future of the community.
How about an ice breaker? Did you all make use of the pears we brought from Northern Italy? I hope they’re not still with Brother Ignatius in the beer hut.
Our Br. Peter, the cook, is a master at using and conserving fresh fruits and vegetables, so if we haven’t eaten them yet, we will this winter. The Prior doesn’t know whose pears are whose, but I know the pears we’ve eaten lately have been delicious and that God rewards those who help feed the monks!
This year the monastery celebrates 20 years since its founding. Much has happened since then, but what might the next 20 years look like?
Before the earthquake we made plans. Now we make suggestions. “God, we might like to do this or we might suggest to You that”. After a natural disaster one realizes just how little is one’s control. The most important things is that we conserve the Faith in these times of confusion and doubt. In so doing we hope to become saints or die trying. At the end of his life, St. Benedict had a vision that all his work of building Monte Cassino would be lost and only the monks saved. My hope is that our monks are saved, spiritually as well as physically.
What was your first reaction to the earthquake that brought the basilica down?
To rescue any who were trapped, to hear confessions and anoint the dying. That was from one mile away when we saw only smoke above the city like the cloud in those pictures from atomic bombs. When we realized no lives had been lost, but that the churches had all fallen, then we believed it was a warning to the world and a call for us as monks to become better monks.
Has the community seen international (and local) support for the re-building of your monastery?
From every part of the globe. A Taoist Temple in Taipei has been a big supporter, as has been a Catholic High School in Australia. Families from the United States have treated us with the generosity they would a neighbor, and Italians our real neighbors have become family. We have been very moved by all of their help. Within two weeks of the earthquake a woman named Sara called us from Bergamo saying she could bring anything we need. Within three days we had 10 beds, and all the power tools we could have ever dreamed of. From then on we have been trying to do much of the work ourselves, although skilled technicians teach us many crafts first.
The construction of the monastery on the hill is coming along nice with a very Umbrian stone walled look to it — what’s the plan there and when might it be complete?
In God’s hands. But the architect projects three years. We are using all the stone from the former monastery that fell down with the earthquake, but building on seismic isolators. The monastery will be like a boat, rocking and bouncing when another quake comes. It’s a good spiritual analogy too since no monastery is permanent and its main purpose is to get the members, and as much of the church as it can, to the other side.
Father Cassian has commented of his enjoyment of the quietness of the hillside monastery compared to the business in town. Is there a plan, when the basilica is rebuild, to move back to town?
At the moment it is still filled with rubble, so that is a question we will consider in 15 years or so. It is not impossible but none of those buildings belong to us and the diocese has spoken of other needs for them. We are very happy here on the mountainside and it is a setting we believe our patron would approve of. He loved these mountains of Norcia and both at Subiaco and Monte Cassino he built similar dwellings.
How had/have earthquakes affected the monastic life within the community?
There were several parts of the Rule of St. Benedict we always wanted to understand better, like his emphasis on the dormitory. He asks that all the monks sleep in room like a military squadron, or if that is not possible in groups of 10. Since the earthquake that has been the only option, since our first quarters were a large tent and then one room cabin. We see the unifying wisdom in this. He himself had lived alone in a cell and knew the eremitical life well but believed that the more one gives to the common life, the more one finds. The dorm is a small thing, and there are other examples but the main point is that when you have lost every material thing, the Tradition is still there and it is often easier to notice and follow.
Serious question: do you prefer the Blonde beer from the monks, or the Extra?
For me, blond in summer, extra in winter. They are both good though!
I’ve seen the church that’s under repair at your new location. What’s the story behind Santa Maria Delle Grazie, and is it connected with the previous Celestines of Nursia that were suppressed by Napoleon that are on your coat of arms?
It was built in the 1500’s by Capuchin Friars and consecrated in 1592. More than likely it rests on an old Benedictine site and was given by the monks to the Capuchins just as at Assisi. Thanks to some initial restructuring before the quake, it survived with minor damage. We hope to have it reopened in a year’s time.
Will that church be re-named upon consecration?
We still have to decide that. But our whole monastery has been officially renamed by the Holy See and the Italian state as San Benedetto in Monte.
I was in Nursia a couple weeks ago and many buildings that were damaged are receiving a nice facelift — some are even complete. What’s the latest news on the clean-up and re-building of the basilica?
It’s quite slow I’m afraid. Work began after a 10 month pause in May to remove rubble but stopped July 12 (the day after the feast of St. Benedict) as no place has been found to discard the debris. The Region, State, and EU have all pledged to contribute to rebuild the Basilica but this brings complications as well as financial resources. And this is just the phase of removing debris from the earthquake. Realistically at this pace we could hope to see the new Basilica in 10-15 years.
Anything else readers should know?
We’re blessed this year with 4 novices. If men 18-30 want to follow our Holy Patron St. Benedict, leaving all to follow Christ according to the ancient Rule, they can write to firstname.lastname@example.org
How can readers donate?