Great Moments in Catholic History
Fr. Jacques Monet, S.J. 

08 The Abbey of Cluny

The highest peak of Benedictine life

Popes had been in France before, but never in such splendour as when Urban II proceeded towards the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny. He had been a novice there then a prior. Now, as Pope, he had come to consecrate the high altar of the great unfinished church of St. Pierre, the largest (after St. Peter's in Rome) and, to all contemporaries, the most glorious in Europe. The church would not be finished f or 35 years (in 1130 another pope, Innocent II, would consecrate it), but already it measured more than 600 feet in length and stood at a vaulted height of 100 feet -- the first such height in medieval architecture. But now on October 25, 1095, in full pontificals and surrounded by all the members of his court, Pope Urban II addressed his former brothers and colleagues. They had reached "so high a stage of honour and religion," he thought, ''that without doubt Cluny surpassed all other monasteries, even the most ancient.'' Just as Christ on the Cross had committed His mother to the beloved disciple John, so now he, Christ's vicar, would commit the Church to their care. "Vos estis ibex mundi," he concluded, ''You are the light of the world.''

Cluny had been great since its foundation hi 910 by the pious Duke William of Aquitaine and the courteous and scholarly Abbot St. Berno of Burgundy. Its abbots (over half a dozen were canonized) had been men of the highest character and ability. Next to the pope, they were the most important and powerful ecclesiastics in the Latin Church. Cluny's monks (from among whom at least two popes were chosen) had reached to the highest levels of scholarship, biblical, patristic, classical and historical. It was the chief centre of religious influence in Europe. And by the fourteenth century its daughter abbeys had increased and multiplied across Europe -- from England to Poland and even to the Holy Land -- to some 1,700 foundations housing more than 10,000 monks.

In fact, the presence and influence of Cluny was everywhere. The monks were the chaplains and promoters of the pilgrimage to Compostela and after Urban II's proclamation of the First Crusade in 1095, they became the foremost advocates of the great movement to free the Holy Land.

Essentially the monks were reformers. Efficient propagandists and men of action they counselled, supported, and strengthened the papacy during its long struggle with the secular power of the Holy Roman Empire. Austere and dedicated to the obligations of clerical life, they imposed discipline and preached conversion concentrating especially on the subjects of clerical marriage, lay investiture, and the traffic in bishoprics. Courteous, discriminating, and understanding, they sang choir and held services that were uniquely sumptuous and stately. They reshaped the liturgies and the chant of the Church.

The monks of Cluny knew how to be successful. Unlike other religious of the Benedictine tradition they linked each of their foundations to one another hierarchically. The will of their abbot was supreme. Cluny was thus more than a great abbey. It was, throughout the Middle Ages and until its suppression in 1790, a vast institution and an international system. Also it was a house unparalleled for learning and scholarship. In 1300, for example, the library boasted some 800 volumes -- a figure that outstripped that of all other monasteries. Cluny had succeeded in joining profound spirituality and broad culture. There the long development of the Benedictine life, begun at Monte Cassino about 540, had reached its highest and finest peak.

It seemed that Christianity could go no further. "l saw a Paradise,"' wrote St. Peter Damian in about 1050. "What else can I call the Monastery of Cluny?"

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