Monte Cassino is a rocky hill about 80 miles southeast of Rome. St Benedict established his first monastery here around 529, and never left. Others gathered around him, and it was there he wrote the Benedictine Rule that became the founding principle for western monasticism. Monte Cassino became a model for future communities. Benedict’s sister St Scholastica (feast day Monday) moved nearby to be close to him
Unfortunately its prominent site has always made Monte Cassino an object of strategic importance. In 581 the Lombards sacked the abbey, and the surviving monks fled to Rome. A flourishing period of Monte Cassino followed its re-establishment in 718, but in 884 Saracens sacked and then burned it down. It was rebuilt and reached the height of its fame in the 11th century under the abbot Desiderius, who later became Pope Victor III. The number of monks rose to over two hundred, and the library and its manuscripts became famous throughout the West. The buildings of the monastery were reconstructed on a grand scale. An earthquake damaged the Abbey in 1349, and although the site was rebuilt it marked the beginning of a long period of decline. The site was sacked by Napoleon’s
troops in 1799.
During the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944 the Abbey made up one section of the 100 miles Gustav line, a defensive German line designed to hold the Allied attackers from advancing any further into Italy. On 15 February 1944 the abbey was almost completely destroyed in a series of heavy American led air-raids. The bombing was conducted because many reports from troops on the ground suggested that Germans were occupying the monastery. However, actually during the bombing no Germans were present, and it emerged that the only people killed in the monastery by the bombing were 230 Italian civilians seeking refuge. After the bombing Germans held the position until 17 May 1944, having repulsed four attacks by the Allies. Eventually Allied forces broke the line between 11 and 17 May, and the Polish flag was raised over the ruins on 18 May 1944.
The Abbey was totally rebuilt after the war, and Pope Paul VI reconsecrated it in 1964. Reborn yet again, it is one of the great sights of Italy.