THE BENEDICTINE CONFEDERATION
At the present moment all Benedictine monasteries belong to an organisation called the Benedictine Confederation, whose head, the Abbot Primate, resides in Rome. It is a relatively young organisation, founded by Pope Leo XIII in 1893.
Originally St Benedict did not foresee any organisational structure between monasteries: each lived in complete autonomy under the vigilant eye of the local bishop. For various reasons, in the course of centuries, monasteries formed groups, often because of geographical proximity or because they were founded from the same monasteries and followed the same rule of life. Thus in the ninth century, under the aegis of the Carolingian Kings and Benedict of Aniane, monasteries achieved a certain union with similar usages. A century later a large number of monasteries grouped together under the aegis of Cluny, a grouping which would later lead to the regular ‘Orders’.
In the twelfth century, under the leadership of St Bernard, Cistercian monasteries constituted themselves a real structured Order on hierarchical lines. Seeing the advantages of this, various Benedictines tried to follow their example by making regional associations. However, this movement was far from being general. As a second stage Pope Benedict XII attempted in the fourteenth century to apply the principles of unification and centralisation to the Benedictines, with only partial success. However, a number of abbeys did group themselves together by countries and set up national Congregations. That was how the English, Italian, Hungarian Congregations, etc, came to be formed in the face of all political changes of fortune.
Pope Leo XIII in his desire for unity decided to federate the Congregations into a single organisation, and in 1893 decreed the ‘Benedictine Confederation’. Nevertheless, the Congregations, jealous of their privileges and their traditions, retained their own structures and internal organisations. Some of them preferred an abbacy for a limited time while others retained life abbacies. One congregation had a single noviciate for all the monasteries, while others had as many noviciates as monasteries; for some congregations parish ministry was the norm, for others the exception; for one congregation the missionary apostolate was a specific aim, while for others it was categorically excluded. Thus each retained its own rights and specificity. In short, each Benedictine Congregation (and at present there are twenty of them) was organised as an autonomous religious Order, with its own instruments of government (Abbot President, Abbot General or Archabbot), its own General Chapter (with the supreme right of legislation) and its own Constitutions, and so on.
The Congregations are of different sizes; some of them consist of a thousand monks, others barely a hundred. The same disparity exists in the number of monasteries: the Hungarian Congregation numbers only one great monastery in Hungary and another recent creation in Brazil. By contrast, the Congregation of Subiaco is spread over several European countries, in Africa, the Philippines and Vietnam, to the extent that it is divided into several provinces. Some Congregations can boast of several centuries of history, such as those of Vallumbrosa or Camaldoli, while others are quite young, such as the Congregation of Cono-Sur (Latin America), created in 1976.
If the Congregations differ from one another by their structure and their activity, nevertheless they are all deeply marked by the Benedictine spirit, eager to put into practise what St Benedict envisaged in his Rule. They have sufficient common resemblance to make it possible to come together as one Benedictine family. At the head of the Confederation there is an Abbot Primate, elected for a fixed term by the body of superiors; he resides at the Abbey of Sant’Anselmo in Rome, and represents the Confederation to the Holy See.
CONFEDERATED BENEDICTINE CONGREGATIONS
• Cassinese Congregation, stemming from the ancient Congregation of Santa Justina founded in 1408. This Congregation was incorporated into the Congregation of Subiaco on 7th February, 2013. The Subiaco Congregation became the Subiaco-Cassinese Congregation
• English Congregation, founded in 1336 and restored in 1619
• Hungarian Congregation, founded in 1514 and restored in 1639
• Swiss Congregation, founded in 1602
• Austrian Congregation, established in 1625
• Bavarian Congregation, founded in 1684
• Brazilian Congregation, stemming from the Portuguese Congregation and set up in 1827
• Congregation of Solesmes, established in 1837
• American Cassinese Congregation, set up in 1855
• Subiaco-Cassinese Congregation, set up as the Subiaco Congregation in 1872 and divided into 9 geographical provinces. At the incorporation of the Cassinese Congregation in 2013 it acquired its present name.
• Congregation of Beuron, set up in 1873
• Swiss-American Congregation, set up in 1881
• Congregation of St Ottilien, founded in 1884
• Congregation of the Annunciation, founded in 1920
• Slavonic Congregation, set up in 1945
• Congregation of Vallumbrosa, set up in 1036
• Congregation of Camaldoli, set up in 1113
• Silvestrine Congregation, founded in 1231
• Congregation of Cono-Sur, set up in 1976
A few monasteries, belong to no Congregation, are directly under the Abbot Primate.