It’s like a film depicting a medieval scene, but it happened, for real, just days ago.
As the earth shakes around them, Benedictine monks intone the Latin Prayers in Time of Earthquake, in the Crypt of their Basilica which in the ancient home of St Benedict (480-547 AD) himself. REGINA sat down with Father Benedict Nivakoff, OSB, to get the latest news from the Monks of Norcia in the aftermath of the recent quakes there.
REGINA: Where were the monks when the first quake struck?
FR. BENEDICT: The monks were making their way towards the monastery Church when the first quake struck at 3:35. It was the feast of St. Bartholomew, so we were beginning Matins fifteen minutes earlier than normal at 3:45 a.m., as we usually do for Sundays and feast days. That means that the monks were awake and either getting ready in their cells or already on their way to the Church when, bam! The first quake hit.
REGINA: Wow, what did that feel like?
FR. BENEDICT: We felt one giant quake initially; later we knew that it was a 6.2 magnitude. To one of the monks on the third floor in a corridor very close to the Basilica, it felt like the whole building was being violently shaken and about to crumble.
REGINA: In the hours following?
FR. BENEDICT: Immediately after the first quake hit the monks made their way to the central town square, the Piazza di San Benedetto. We remained there for a few hours with several hundred others, fearing to go back into our homes as the aftershocks continued, some of them reaching up to 5.0 magnitude.
REGINA: So, the monks and the townspeople stayed outside in the dark for three hours?
FR. BENEDICT: Yes. Immediately after the first quake hit the monks made their way to the central town square, the Piazza di San Benedetto. We remained there for a few hours with several hundred others, leading them in the rosary, trusting in God but hesitant to go back into our homes as the aftershocks continued, some of them reaching up to 5.0 magnitude.
REGINA: How did this affect your rigorous prayer schedule?
FR. BENEDICT: We then prayed Lauds in the Crypt and an hour or so later we also prayed Prime. From Prime onward we were able to keep our regular prayer schedule in the crypt, with the sung Conventual Mass at 10:00 as usual. We were particularly moved by the prayers offered in the Missal for use in time of earthquake, which we prayed in addition to the Mass of St. Bartholomew.
REGINA: Prayers in time of earthquake! So what practical steps did you take?
FR. BENEDICT: After the Conventual Mass, a few of the monks prepared pranzo (lunch) while the rest of the monks set up temporary cells for monks whose cells were too dangerous to be in.
REGINA: And the damage to the Basilica and the monastery itself?
FR. BENEDICT: We saw the damage to the basilica almost instantly. There was rubble all over the floor near the St. Benedict and St. Scholastica side altars. The whole church was covered in dust. Rubble was also in the nave and cracks could be seen not only on the walls but also in the dome. We didn’t see the effects in the monastery well until the sun rose and one could better see the damage. Many deep cracks were seen all over the monastery buildings attached to the basilica, especially in the library, scriptorium and kitchen, but the worst damage was in the novitiate.
REGINA: We've heard that many of the monks have gone to Rome, and that others are sleeping in tents outside the city walls for safety.
FR. BENEDICT: By 4:00 p.m. on the day of the quake, an official inspection declared that the buildings were unsafe, at which point the whole community packed up their bags and headed for Sant’Anselmo in Rome.
Two of the monks, Fr. Benedict and Fr. Martin, remained in Norcia living in tents at our property outside the walls in order to follow up on the continuing inspections and to let everyone know when it was safe to return.
Little by little monks have been returning to Norcia to help prepare temporary living quarters and it is hoped that the whole community will be back in Norcia by August 30.
REGINA: Are the buildings closed?
FR. BENEDICT: For the moment the Basilica is closed as well as most parts of the monastery. We hope to be able to open the gift shop as soon as the aftershocks cease.
REGINA: What effect will this have on your nascent beer brewing business?
FR. BENEDICT: Thanks be to God there was little equipment damage in the brewery and bottling room, which means that the earthquake did not harm the beer in the fermentors or in the warming room. But the building in which these are both housed has been severely damaged so in the coming months we will have to evaluate whether a better location, temporary or permanent, is necessary to keep production up. Since we plan brewing and shipments months in advance with large margins of error, there is a good stock now in the United States which should last until we can start production again hopefully in 2 months time. Purchasing our beer in the USA is a great way to help us rebuild.
REGINA: What are the conditions like in Norcia now?
FR. BENEDICT: Most of the buildings in Norcia were built according to earthquake safe standards after an earthquake in 1970 almost leveled the town, so thanks be to God most homes were not too badly damaged this time around. That said, and despite the fact that no buildings crumbled entirely, many buildings suffered deep structural damage and have become uninhabitable. The damage will take a long time to accurately assess, to repair, and for confidence in the safety of the buildings in town to be restored. The taller buildings, like our monastery and Church and other Churches, were the most adversely affected. So many people have left, rightly concerned for their safety, leaving Norcia as a kind of ghost town, something unfortunate for a city that was just the day previous to the earthquake bustling with tourists and visitors from all over the world.
REGINA: Is the government responding? The diocese?
FR. BENEDICT: Both government and local diocese have become involved in assessing damages and charting a plan for reconstruction/renovation of Norcia in general and the monastery in particular.
REGINA: What are the monks' feelings about next steps?
FR. BENEDICT: The monks are naturally a bit anxious about what the immediate future has in store for them. We sure want to be back in our home and especially in our Church! But on the whole there is a great freedom that comes from the monastic life, a freedom that allows us to trust in God and see this time not only as an adventure but as an opportunity to grow in sanctity through prayer and abandonment to divine providence and to make the community stronger through fraternal charity and the work of mutual service. The monks have a joy that comes from this freedom, and this has been very apparent.
REGINA: What can people do in the short term to help?
FR. BENEDICT: Anyone who wants to help us in this trying time can first and foremost pray for us. We need the strength and support that comes from your prayers as we in turn pray for the whole Church.
The Monks of Norcia launch a grassroots campaign to rebuild their monastery properties following the devastating effects of the earthquake that occurred in central Italy on the Feast of St. Bartholomew, 2016. See below for details
REGINA: And in terms of practical help?
FR. BENEDICT: People can also support us by buying our CD and of, course, buying our beer. Signups to our Brewmonks' Club, which is a monthly subscription to our beer, would be especially appreciated. Please see our website for instructions on how to make a donation. We thank you with deep gratitude in advance!!
REGINA: What will donations be used for?
FR. BENEDICT: Financial contributions will also be much appreciated to cover the immediate expenses of providing temporary shelter, food and other necessities for the monks in the next few months, as well as to begin the great work of restoring the monastery Church and buildings.
Update 22 October 2016
“It reminds me of Bethlehem.”
With these words, Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship at the Vatican, brought consolation and inspiration to the ears of his listeners — the 10 monks of San Benedetto in Monte. In the early hours of October 22, we gathered together for the Cardinal’s blessing of our temporary living quarters.
After sprinkling the kitchen, scriptorium, beds and chapel, he declared gently but powerfully: “I am certain that the future of the Church is in the monasteries… because where prayer is, there is the future.”
Planned long before the earthquake, His Eminence’s visit for a speech to the local lay chapter of the Association of St. Benedict, Patron of Europe, became the occasion for a visit to the damaged buildings and personal time with the monks. After assisting at Conventual Mass in choir, the Cardinal brought his gentle tone and gracious words to an informal gathering of the entire monastic community and answered our questions with candor and depth, reminding us that, just as Pope Benedict XVI has given us an example of the importance of prayers, we are called to be men of prayer for the entire Church, to help bring up to heaven all who encounter us in one broad sursum corda.
I ask that this be a place of love for the Lord. I am certain that the future of the Church is in the monasteries, because where prayer is, there is the future. Where there is no prayer, there is disaster, division, war. Perhaps I am not an optimist, but I see that a church that doesn’t pray is a disastrous church. Since you are a church that prays, the whole of the Church is here.
So I thank you for your commitment, for this manifestation of your love, for the expression of your love in continuous prayer. Pray for the Church, pray for the Holy Father, for his collaborators and for me. I promise you now that I am familiar with your home, that I will always pray for you and ask the Lord to continue to send you more young men to join your life that serves the Lord in prayer, in silence and, above all, in solitude.
Thank you, pray for me. I promise to pray for you. And if the Lord gives me life, perhaps I will return to see your new home. But never forget poverty, never forget humility, and if your house is beautiful, remain always humble and poor. Thank you.
October 22, 2016