One of the fascinating things about the Benedictine Order is that it did not receive its present structure until the late 19th century. At that time, Pope Leo XIII decreed that the Benedictines set up a generalate in Rome under a Superior General. To the Benedictines, this was news since St. Benedict had never envisioned that he was founding an Order and he never gave it such a structure.
You see, St. Benedict founded many different monasteries under his Rule over the course of his lifetime. The Rule was meant to be followed by all of the monks and nuns that lived in those monasteries. Yet the interesting thing is that St. Benedict’s foundations were always created independently of each other. This means that each abbot or abbess was responsible for his or her monastery.
Essentially, this means that Benedictine monasteries are independent of each, but are all united with regard to their observance of the Rule. If you look up the number of Benedictine monasteries in the United States, I’m sure that you will be surprised among the differences between them. There are some in which the nuns are completely habited and others in which they wear civilian clothes. Some monks teach, while others devote themselves to prayer. Yet the one thing that unites them above all is the Rule.
The interesting about the 19th century reform of Leo XIII is that the Benedictines suddenly found themselves having to create a structure that had never existed for the 400 or so years up to that time. Accordingly, the Benedictines were divided into many different congregations. For example, there is the Cassinense Congregation. As its name implies, this includes Monte Cassino and many of the monasteries that were founded in Italy. There is an English Congregation that is responsible for the monasteries in England and so on.
One of the interesting things about these congregations is that they have dependencies elsewhere in the world. A dependency is a branch monastery founded by a much larger monastery somewhere else in the world. The Benedictine priory in Taipei, for example, is a dependency of St. Vincent’s Abbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
Every four years, the abbots of these Benedictine monasteries will meet in Rome for a general council at which they discuss various issues that are affecting the Benedictine Order. This is also a time for them to meet other Benedictines from around the world and to discuss matters of importance with First Abbot, the superior general of the Benedictines.
As I have said before, this kind of hierarchical organization is something that is very recent in Benedictine history. Other orders such as the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Jesuits were organized this way from the beginning. The Benedictines, however, view themselves both as a confederation and as an Order. Indeed, they remind us of the United States motto: “E pluribus unum” (Out of many one).
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
St. Benedict, pray for us!