Founder of The Subiaco Congregation
(The Cassinese Congregation of the Primitive Observance)



Adapted from Benedict's Disciples, by David Hugh Farmer

THE third column of the nineteenth century monastic reform movement, alongside the contingents of Solesmes and Beuron, was the body later to be known as the Primitive Observance or the Subiaco Congregation. Once more the leadership of a single personality rather than the discovery by a group of a common consciousness was the fountainhead of the movement. The character of Pietro Casaretto (1810–78) has more than once been described by biographers of his own congregation as `complex'.

He was the sickly son of a Genoese commercial family, settled in Ancona, who entered the Cassinese monastery of Cesena at the age of seventeen, was solemnly professed the following year, and almost immediately began a series of locomotions from monastery to monastery in a vain attempt to find a climate that suited his health. These frequent dislocations not only left him with a lifelong urge for travel but must have damaged what would have been in any case a rather straitened education. Although Casaretto pined after a higher level of observance than he found in the Cassinese houses, the vistas that drew him on were not opened out for him, as they had been for Gueranger and the Wolters, by the study of theology and history, but by the narrow conviction that a stricter asceticism necessarily meant a better monasticism.

At one time he tried to become a Camaldolese, but in 1842 was ordered to care for a parish at Pegli near Genoa, which belonged to the Benedictines but was threatened by being taken over by the diocesan chapter. It was hardly a flattering appointment, but it was to be the doorway to future developments. Casaretto loudly lamented his exclusion from monastic community life, but soon along with this querimoniousness displayed that unsuspected resolution and resourcefulness that underlay his physical fragility. He set about transforming the parish house into a monastery, enlisted the novice-master of Subiaco as a companion, obtained the support of King Charles Albert of Piedmont, normally opposed to Benedictine foundations which had not done much to recommend themselves previously in his model nineteenth-century state, and soon recruited a little band of aspirants.

Very shortly he was able to move to more commodious quarters at S. Giuliano d'Albaro near Genoa, where in 1844 Casaretto became Abbot, nominated by the Cassinese Congregation which was impressed by the ability he had unexpectedly shown. S. Giuliano had been a monastery abandoned by the Carthusians; another house on the Italian Riviera, Finalpia, which the Olivetans found themselves unable to staff any more, Casaretto took over to be a missionary college, especially for territories where the English language was spoken. In this project, as original in the Cassinese ambient as the seventeenth-century English Benedictine missionaries had been in the Congregation of Valladolid with its strong emphasis on enclosure, Casaretto betrays the influence of his spiritual director, S. Vincenzo Pallotti. So what had at first seemed to Casaretto to be an exile from monastic community in the event enabled him to construct a monastery after his own ideal, which would never have been possible for him in any of the other Cassinese houses.

The rather pedestrian way of life in these venerable abbeys was due above all to the prolonged interruption of their life during the French occupation of Italy, which had closed most of the monasteries for nearly a quarter of a century. Even when restored after the war, the monasteries were in suspense as to their continuance because of the apparently inevitable progress of the Risorgimento with its anti-clerical accompaniments. During the suppression the monks had had to become diocesan clergy or live with their families. In the struggle to fend for themselves during this long interval, they had acquired habits which were hard to shed on their return to the monasteries and which they knew they might have to resume. Instead of living entirely from the community's resources, individual monks retained small reserves of private property, the peculium. Family ties counted for a great deal, even within the monastery. Greater store was set by the kind of devotional exercises and pious practices suitable for a parish priest than by the liturgy performed in common. The political divide in Italy between those who welcrmed the movement for Unification and those who defended the status quo gave rise to factions within monastic communities.

Vociferous supporters of the Risorgimento like Abbot Pappalettere of Monte Cassino and the historian, Don Luigi Tosti, had brought the Cassinese Congregation into disfavour with the Holy See. The future Cardinal Dusmet had been forced out of his own monastery, S. Martino della Scala, by the high feelings aroused there by political developments. Yet in spite of all its weaknesses the ancient stock of this congregation could still give proofs of its vitality; the motto of Monte Cassino was succisa recrescit, and not in vain. Each one of the mighty Benedictine enterprises we have so far investigated, even though its impact was outside Italy, had in its faltering beginnings owed a great deal to its contact with the Cassinese. And though small in numbers the Cassinese at this time produced a great array of cardinals and archbishops who were entrusted with some of the principal Italian dioceses, particularly in the South. At S. Paolo it maintained an influential Benedictine presence in Rome, while at the same time out of gratitude for its support during the United Italy campaign, particularly the kindness of the monks at Perugia to the wounded in battle, the Liberal governments which supplanted the Popes tolerated an attenuated survival of the monks at a time when all the other religious orders were being suppressed.

A last sign of the undiminished power of the Cassinese to make a contribution to the general life of the Church and the Order in this century is that their noblest son, Cardinal Dusmet, was to be the chief instrument of Leo XIII's plans, first for founding Sant'Anselmo, the international college at Rome for Benedictine students, in 1888, and secondly for organizing in 1893 the Congress of Abbots which, after allaying all fears of centralization and loss of autonomy, agreed upon the Lex Propria, the constitution of the new Benedictine Confederation.

In 1850 the Holy See, impressed by Casaretto's success in Liguria, decided to use him for reforming the Cassinese generally. This new mission would be more complex than his previous achievement, which had been to take over and restart empty monasteries according to his own ideas, without any need to placate or win round monks who were already there living the monastic life after their own fashion. In less than twenty years he was to find this task of raising the level of observance in all the Cassinese houses too much for his powers, and would hive off a few of these monasteries to be totally given to the Reform, with a growing independence of the rest of the Cassinese Congregation, an evolution similar to that of the Discalced from the Carmelites of the mitigated observance. But for the moment he envisaged his task differently.

In 1850 Pius IX used his Commendatory powers over Subiaco to appoint Casaretto Abbot there. The former inhabitants were summarily ejected to make room for Casaretto's little band of reformers from Liguria. From the start co-existence in the same house seemed unthinkable. The principal elements of the reform were common property, total abstinence from meat and the recitation of Matins in the middle of the night.

[editor's note: Vigils and Prime were to be recited at 2:00 a.m.  Curiously, Casaretto's confessor had, years before, dispensed him perpetually (by what authority is unclear) from both fasting and the obligation to recite the Divine Office, except for the offices of Prime and Compline.  Thus whether Cassaretto even occasionally joined his recruits in practicing the asceticism on which he insisted is uncertain.  See Mark Hargraves, "Pietro Casaretto and the Beginnings of the Subiaco Congregation O.S.B.", (Pax, 1999-2000)]

In 1851 the little cluster of reformed houses was formed into the Subiaco Province of the Cassinese Congregation, a grouping based not on regional location of the constituent houses, as was the case with all the other provinces of the Cassinese, but according to the level of the observance. With rapid momentum other houses were aggregated to this province—the Sacro Speco at Subiaco in 1853, S. Giovanni in Parma in 1854, Praglia in 1857. This rapid advance must have seemed rather threatening to the Cassinese of the older variety, especially since Casaretto had been elected—after the Papacy had gone to lengths to make its wishes clear—President of the Cassinese Congregation in 1851.

A new dimension was added to his Reform when isolated monasteries outside Italy began to be attached to it, chiefly at the prompting of the Holy See. In 1856 he was asked to take under his guidance the Flemish monastery of Dendermonde. In 1859 there was annexed to his organization Pierre-qui-Vire, a community which its saintly and apostolic founder, a secular priest Jean-Baptiste Muard, intended to combine penitential practices with missionary initiatives. In 1862 the great Catalonian monastery of Montserrat was affiliated, after Subiaco had opened up many Spanish contacts through its support of the missionary work of Monsignor Serro and Abbot Salvado among the Australian aborigines. The English abbey of Ramsgate, founded as early as 1856, differed from all these other non-Italian houses in that it was a direct overseas foundation by Subiaco, the first-fruit of its missionary college. The leader of its founding fathers was Wilfrid Alcock.

The French anti-monastic legislation of 1880 expelled the community of Pierre-qui-Vire. One group of these monks, after a short sojourn at Leopardstown, a vast property near Dublin owned by Ramsgate, who had hoped to found there an agricultural college in connexion with Newman's Catholic University but in the event found it a source of much financial embarrassment, moved to England to take over Buckfast. This pre-Reformation monastery had been adapted to be a gentleman's country house. In time these French monks opened at Buckfast a school for boys who aspired to the monastic life; this was soon filled with young men from the devout Catholic regions of Wurttemburg. This explains the change in one generation from a French to a German complexion in that community, which impressed legions of visitors by the different products of the skilled work of its monks. This ranged from building the abbey to producing honey and tonic wine. Buckfast was also to give the Church one of its deepest theologians on Eucharistic doctrine in Abbot Anscar Vonier.

This extension of his organization beyond the Alps to include monasteries which were in their turn to be prolific in foundations, just preceding a time when the new Italian state would suppress Casaretto's Italian monasteries (he wasn't so much persona grata with the Government as were the Cassinese, possibly because in all his works he was so much an agent of the Holy See) and force them to seek refuge in adjoining countries, led Casaretto to think afresh on the constitution of his Reform. He no longer saw it as his mission to change the Cassinese by degrees as one house after another submitted to the new observances. Instead he set about creating a separate international congregation of the Primitive Observance, which would be subdivided into national provinces; the Italian houses of his allegiance would separate from the Cassinese to form the Italian province.

After an experimental stage this new Congregation was finally approved in 1872. The legendary prudence of the Holy See can be seen in its rejection of a set of Constitutions which Casaretto himself had drawn up and which combined the system of temporary local superiors he had known in his Cassinese tradition with strong centralized rule by the Abbot General. The contours of the scheme he proposed reveal the cast of Casaretto's mind—autocratic, not very original and obsessed with observances. He ended his life rather sadly—sick, dying outside a monastic community, under examination on charges of misusing his Congregation's finances. Yet he had built up a work that would have a wider radiation than he could ever have conceived. The poor and severe life he imposed upon his monks would fit them admirably for the implantation of monasteries in the mission field. Many features of his international congregation anticipated the organization of the Benedictine Confederation.

Adapted from Benedict's Disciples, by David Hugh Farmer.

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