During his visit to Monte Cassino, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the great heritage of St Benedict and the gift of peace. The Holy Father also offered prayers for the Church in China.

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Monte Cassino

Pope Benedict marked the feast of the Ascension by visting Monte Cassino where St Benedict, the founder of western monasticism and patron saint of Europe, is buried.

Following this morning’s Mass and before praying the Regina Coeli, the Pope pronounced some remarks to the thousands of people gathered in Cassino’s Piazza Miranda, which from today will be known as Piazza Benedetto XVI.

Referring to what he described as “the need of all humankind fully to savour the richness and power of Christ’s peace”, the Holy Father recalled how the word “Pax” is written over the entrance to the abbey of Montecassino and to all Benedictine abbeys.

“As you know”, he continued, “on my recent visit to the Holy Land I myself became a pilgrim of peace, and today – in this land marked by the Benedictine charism – I have the opportunity to emphasise once again that peace is primarily a gift of God, and therefore its power lies in prayer”.

The gift of peace however, Benedict XVI explained, “is entrusted to human endeavour. … It is therefore vital to cultivate an authentic life of prayer in order to ensure that social progress comes about peacefully. … Only by learning, with the grace of Christ, to struggle against and defeat the evil in ourselves and in our relations with others can we become authentic builders of peace and of civil progress.

“May the Virgin Mary, Queen of Peace”, he added, “help all Christians, in their various vocations and life situations, to be witnesses to the peace that Christ gave us”, the peace He “left us as a mission to be carried out always and everywhere”.

Church in China – 24 May

The Pope then recalled how today, 24 May, “liturgical memory of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Help of Christians – who is venerated with great devotion in the Shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai, China – marks the Day of Prayer for the Church in China. My thoughts go to all the Chinese people”, he said. “In particular, I send a most affectionate greeting to Catholics in China and I exhort them, on this day, to renew their communion of faith in Christ and of faithfulness to Peter’s Successor. May our joint prayer obtain an effusion of gifts from the Holy Spirit so that unity among Christians, and the catholicity and universality of the Church, may always become more profound and visible”.

Vespers in Benedictine Monastery

The ceremony began at 5 p.m. and was attended by Benedictine abbots, monks and nuns from various communities. Having been greeted by Dom Pietro Vittorelli, ordinary abbot of Montecassino, the Holy Father pronounced his homily.

He began by recalling how over its history the abbey has been “destroyed and rebuilt four times, the last following the bombardments of World War II sixty-five years ago. … Montecassino, like the ancient oak planted by St. Benedict, has been ‘pruned’ by the violence of war, but has grown back stronger than before”.

St. Benedict abandoned everything to follow Jesus and, “incarnating the Gospel in his own life, became the initiator of a vast movement of spiritual and cultural renewal in the West”, said the Pope. Referring then to the account of St. Gregory the Great, who explains how St. Benedict “was ‘raised aloft’ by an indescribable mystical experience”, the Holy Father highlighted the fact that the saint “received this divine gift not to satisfy his intellectual curiosity but so that the charism God had granted him could reproduce in the monastery the life of heaven itself, recreating the harmony of the creation through contemplation and work.

“Rightly so, then”, the Pope added, “the Church venerates him as an ’eminent master of monastic life and as a ‘doctor of spiritual wisdom in his love for prayer and work’. … St. Benedict was a shining example of sanctity and indicated Christ to his monks as the one great ideal to follow. He was a master of civilisation who, while presenting a harmonious and balanced view of divine needs and of man’s ultimate goal, remained well aware of the requirements and reasons of the heart, teaching and fomenting true and constant fraternity so that, in the interplay of social relationships, a unity of spirit capable of building and nourishing peace should not be lost”.

The Holy Father went on: “It is no coincidence that the word ‘Pax’ welcomes and visitors at the door of this abbey”, which “stands as a silent admonition to reject all forms of violence and build peace: in families, in communities, among peoples and in all humankind”.

Prayer, study and work

Following St. Benedict’s example, “monasteries have, over the course of the centuries, become lively centres of dialogue, of meeting and of beneficial fusion among different peoples, brought together by the evangelical culture of peace. Through work and example, the monks were able to teach the art of peace, giving tangible form to the three elements identified by Benedict as being necessary to conserve the unity of the Spirit among mankind: the cross, which is the very law of Christ; the book, in other words culture; and the plough, which stands for work, mastery over matter and time”.

He continued: “Thanks to the work of monasteries, divided into the threefold daily commitment to prayer, study and work, entire peoples on the European continent have known real liberation and beneficial moral, spiritual and cultural development, being educated in a sense of continuity with the past, real activity for the common good, and openness to God and the transcendental. Let us pray that Europe may always appreciate this heritage of Christian principles and ideals which represent such an immense cultural and spiritual resource.

“This is possible”, the Pope added in conclusion, “but only if we accept the constant teaching of St. Benedict: … that seeking God is man’s fundamental task. Human beings do not realise themselves fully, they cannot be truly happy, without God. … From this place where his mortal remains lie, the patron saint of Europe still invites everyone to continue his work of evangelisation and human promotion”.

Prayer for fallen of all wars and all nations

After celebrating Vespers, the Pope travelled by car to the Polish military cemetery at Montecassino which contains the bodies of 1,052 soldiers who died in the battle of May 1944 against German forces occupying the hill on which the abbey stands.

The Holy Father lit a votive candle and recited the following prayer for the fallen of all countries in all wars:

“O God, our Father,
endless source of life and peace,
welcome into Your merciful embrace
the fallen of the war that raged here,
the fallen on all wars that have bloodied the earth.
Grant that they may enjoy the light that does not fail,
which in the reflection of Your splendour
illumines the consciences of all men and women of good will.
You, Who in Your Son Jesus Christ gave suffering humanity
a glorious witness of Your love for us,
You, Who in our Lord Christ
gave us the sign of a suffering that is never in vain,
but fruitful in Your redeeming power,
grant those who yet suffer
for the blind violence of fratricidal wars
the strength of the hope that does not fade,
the dream of a definitive civilisation of live,
the courage of a real and daily activity of peace.
Give us your Paraclete Spirit
so that the men of our time
may understand that the gift of peace
is much more precious than any corruptible treasure,
and that while awaiting the day that does not end
we are all called to be builders of peace for the future of Your children.
Make all Christians more convinced witnesses of life,
the inestimable gift of Your love,
You Who live and reign for ever and ever
Amen”.

Having completed his visit to the cemetery, the Holy Father travelled back to the abbey. There he greeted the civic authorities who had welcomed him on his arrival in the morning, then boarded his helicopter, arriving back in the Vatican at 7.30 p.m.

VATICAN CITY, 24 MAY 2009 (VIS)