19 Mar The (American) Monks of Norcia
It was October 6, 1995 and Father Cassian Folsom was riding the train between Rome and Naples when he felt the call of the Holy Spirit. In his seat, he found himself envisioning a new religious order, one that would focus on the integration of prayer, study and manual labor. Three years later, Father Cassian founded a new Benedictine order, the Monks of Norcia.
Today, situated in the Sybilline Mountains, within the walled city of Norcia, the Monks’ monastery is directly above the 5th-century ruins of the birthplace of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. Fr. Cassian began his order in 1998 in a small apartment. Today, the Monks have their own monastery, a visible presence in the local community, an online presence to the world and even their own brewery. While the order is still a small one—sixteen monks in all—the authenticity of Father Cassian’s original call has been validated by the growth of the last fourteen years.
Norcia is a tourist city, thanks to its culinary delights and the uniqueness of its walls, which allow only seven points to enter the city. The Basilica is at the heart of the town, and visitors who might have come just to sample the boar and cheese instead end up being exposed to the bread that is eternal. “Visitors basically stumble across the monks,” said Bryan Gonzalez, the order’s Director of Development in the U.S.
“Tourists wander into the Basilica. They’re blown away by the beauty of the Mass. It gives the monks a chance to change culture from the inside-out.”
The food in Norcia might bring tourists, but few things could go better with boar and cheese than good beer, and that is something the Monks have been able to provide. “Brewing beer has long been a part of the monastic tradition,” said Father Mary Benedict Nivakoff, who lives at the monastery. “For years on Sunday nights we would sample the vast variety of Trappist beers and wonder if it was possible to do this ourselves.”
This past August, Father Nivakoff and his brother priests got an affirmative answer to that wish. After allowing one of the monks to renew his hobby of home brewing, they were happy with the results and realized they really could do this themselves. On the Feast of the Assumption—August 15—Birra Nursia—was open for business.
In four short months, “Nursia” beer has taken off. The monks supply restaurants both in Norcia, and as far as Venice, Livorno, Perugia, Montefalco and Rome. Within their own gift shop, Father Nivakoff reports that the beer never stays on the shelf more than a week or two.
The bigger challenge Birra Nursia faces is fulfilling the demand, as their American friends and benefactors are ready to import. “The exportation process is difficult,” said Gonzalez. “There are permits and distributors to be dealt with.” More importantly though, “the monks can’t just crank out beer,” Gonzalez added. “They can make 250 liters at a time and need a bigger beer kettle, about three times bigger.”
“A monk witnesses to the goodness of God and the beauty of creation.”
More important than meeting market demand is the positive spiritual impact the brewery work has had on the monastery. “If monks do not have good work, their spiritual lives can suffer,” said Father Nivakoff. Each monk now participates in the brewery in some form. This contribution helps each monk to take responsibility both for the quality of the beer and for the monastery in general.
The early success of Birra Nursia gives Father Nivakoff hope that their work will enable the Monks to achieve self-sufficiency. “As anyone who has started their own business knows, the material fruits of the brewery will take some time to appear, since most of what we earn has gone back into the plant.” However, according to Gonzalez, the generous donations the Monks receive at least enabled them to start their business debt-free.
The sixteen monks literally live above the ruins of the house of the great saints Benedict and Scholastica in Norcia, now a gastronomic tourist destination located in central Italy. The monks own an old Capuchin monastery, unused for sixty years, presently “uninhabitable.” However, the permits and costs associated with renovation are prohibitive.
The Monks grow spiritually, as all Catholics do, through participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. While the celebration of various liturgical rites since Vatican II has led to a battleground in the Church, the Monks have countered by replacing the battleground with beauty—the reverent celebration of, and regard for, all the rites of the Church.
Those who want to share in the Monks’ love for God need not travel to Norcia—they can go online and download the Vespers that are uploaded each morning. “The practice of having Vespers online isn’t new,” Gonzalez told REGINA. “But in other cases, it’s on live and that’s not practical for someone in the United States who wants to pray with the monks.” Gonzalez posts a recording each morning. Father Nivakoff added that he’s heard from both soldiers in Afghanistan and missionaries in Africa, telling him they listen in.
Growth and success means challenges and the biggest one the monks face is that they’re running out of room. They own an old Capuchin monastery, unused for sixty years, presently “uninhabitable.” However, the permits and costs associated with renovation are prohibitive. Nor is an American-based sister house a likely solution, given that the monastery’s location at the birthplace of St. Benedict give it a uniqueness impossible to re-create. “If you built a house in Des Moines (the American home base) it would lack the uniqueness,” said Gonzalez.
While the challenges of finding new space and expanding the brewery are significant and will require generous action from benefactors, the flourishing of God’s grace continues to abound in Norcia. The Monks bring the beauty of the Mass to pilgrims, the splendor of Vespers to their online audience and the simple pleasure of a good beer to people throughout Italy. It’s the true living out of Father Cassian’s original mission of integrating prayer, study and manual labor.
“A monk witnesses to the goodness of God and the beauty of creation,” said Father Nivakoff. “It is his job to convert his life to one of total sacrifice to God in imitation of Christ. In so doing he reminds the world that God is not just worth dying for, He is worth living for; He is worth loving.” Indeed, He is. You can visit the Monks of Norcia’s website at osbnorcia.org
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Flaherty is a freelance writer and editor of TheSportsNotebook.com. When not covering sports, he’s written on a wide range of topics, including online dating, politics and real estate. He is the author of Fulcrum, an Irish Catholic novel set in the Boston of the late 1940s. Dan currently resides in southeastern Wisconsin.