Life of Greek saint in Italy an example of ecumenism for today

Life of Greek saint in Italy an example of ecumenism for today

Life of Greek saint in Italy an example of ecumenism for today

Portrait of St. Neilos, Sanctuary of San Nicodemo in Mammola. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.)

The Greek manuscript of 'The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano' has been translated into English for the first time.

[Editor’s Note:The Greek manuscript of The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano has been translated into English for the first time. Neilos, who died in 1004, was a Greek monk who lived in southern Italy under the Byzantine Empire. The Life of Neilos offers a snapshot of a distinctive time when Greek and Latin monasticism coexisted, a world that vanished after the schism between the churches of Rome and Constantinople in 1054. The translation was edited by Dr. Ines Angeli Murzaku Professor of Church History and Director of Catholic Studies Program at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Dr. Raymond Capra, Assistant Professor of Greek and Classical Studies at Seton Hall University, and Father Douglas J. Milewski, Associate Professor of Theology, at Seton Hall University. They spoke to Charles Camosy about their new work.]

Camosy: The Monastery of the Mother of God of Grottaferrata is 1015 years-old this year. Why a critical edition and translation of the Life of St. Neilos, founder of Grottaferrata? 

Capra: The timing of our project was fortuitous in this regard. The reality is that an English translation of the Life of St. Neilos has been wanting for quite some time. It is well represented by Italian translations and the 2002 text with translation in Modern Greek by Sister Maxime. For such an important saint it was surprising that no English version had yet been produced. The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series was the ideal publisher for such a text with its focus on Byzantine and Latin texts. Furthermore, the translation is accompanied by an improved Greek text which makes it an important resource for scholars. Abbot Emiliano was kind enough to provide us with a copy of the manuscript and I am very happy that the life was published while he was still with us.

Tell us more about the life of St. Neilos.

Murzaku: The Life of Neilos of Rossano is an accurate historical, theological and an ecumenical primary source. The saint died in 1004 the year the Monastery of the Mother of God of Grottaferrata was founded. The date is important: Grottaferrata was founded fifty years before the so-called schism between East and West in 1054. So, St Neilos the Greek died in full communion between East and West, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope of Rome.

The Life represents compelling details about the peculiarity of Italo-Greek monastic life with its distinctiveness in accommodating both solitary and community lifestyles within the same monastic community, which Neilos himself practiced. It portrays the religious spirit, teachings, and struggles of Saint Neilos, and provides remarkable details about the culture, historical events, historical players, geography, religious figures, and political personalities of tenth-century southern Italy including emperors, popes, abbots, princesses and kings. In it one can find a depiction of the Greek, Lombard, German, Saracen, and the common people with their everyday lives and daily worries: individuals like the thief, the peasant, the disciple, the prince, the emperor, the abbot, the widow and many others, or what made up the backbone of the pre-Norman southern Italian society. The Life is a representation of old Calabria at its best.

What is Nelios’ connection with the Benedictines of Monte Casino? How did Greek and Latin monks co-exist for 15 years being so different?

Milewski: It is important to remember the two communities lived apart following their own rules and traditions and not under the same roof. Still, this is a very evocative episode, perhaps the most fascinating one in the Life. This was no small gesture of fraternity, hospitality or charity on behalf of the Benedictines. We are told in chapter 73 that St. Neilos and his monks were greeted at the foot of the mountain by the whole community and escorted to the abbey with full pomp and regalia as though this were a feast day or the arrival of St. Anthony of Egypt or St. Benedict himself. Anyone remotely familiar with Monte Cassino would appreciate the honor of the escort by the effort of the climb! Further, there is the great contrast in the monastic traditions represented here. The order and stabilitas of the Benedictine life is far removed from the “peripatetic” asceticism lived by St. Neilos. Nevertheless, he is greeted not merely as an esteemed guest but is treated as a recognized master of the spiritual life. For all their apparent differences, the two communities, for as long as Monte Cassino was led by Abbot Algernus, evidently felt a genuine comfortableness around each other.

This sounds like it could be important for east/west Christian relations today. Can monasticism play a role in ecumenism?

Milewski: I think this is exactly right. The respect for the monastic traditions of the early Church corresponds to the shared theological heritage of the ancient Church Fathers. The two really are inseparable. St. Augustine, for example, composed the first Latin rule for monks, yet looked upon the Egyptian monks as spiritual heroes he yearned to visit. St. Ambrose was immersed in the thought and example of the Cappadocian Fathers who are so decisive to Eastern monasticism and the formation of St. Neilos, while Ambrose in turn remains revered in the East. Pope St. Gregory the Great was the first Benedictine pontiff, who also is esteemed in the Eastern Church. The westernmost of the local Churches – the Irish Church – organized on monastic patterns, patterns more of an Eastern stamp than of the kind found in the Latin world. The back-and-forth and overlaps could be continued. Suffice it to say, the insights into the spiritual life gained through the monastic experiences East and West in the undivided Church of the first millennium are tied to patristic theology as a common heritage of the Church because the spiritual life and the theology fed each other.

Here, again, the Monte Cassino episode in St. Neilos’ Life offers something to contemplate. Upon arriving at the monastery, the Benedictines ask the Byzantines to pray the Office according to their rite. They seem to look upon this eagerly as a special treat and privilege. St. Neilos first responds quoting Psalm 136(137):4, “How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” The Psalm recalls the experience of the Jews in exile from their homeland; St. Neilos acknowledges his entry into the Latin lands “exiled” from his native Greek-speaking Calabria. Nevertheless, the request is not inappropriate and is honored, just as the father of Western monasticism would be sung at Grottaferrata in a hymn composed by St. Neilos himself. A reciprocal enrichment is portrayed here. The Second Vatican Council enjoined learning about the Eastern liturgies and traditions, not for the purpose of acquiring or coopting them for the Roman rite, but to appreciate the vast wealth of the entire Catholic Church’s heritage. This, in turn, facilitates the appreciation of our own rites and traditions. The reciprocal enrichment can only help to foster unity.

The Abbot Emeritus of Grottaferrata, Archimandrite Emiliano Fabriccatore, died on January 6. What is the message the abbot left behind for St. Neilos’ foundation?

Murzaku: Hospitality and Unity are the two pillars of his legacy.

Archimandrite Emiliano served as Abbot of Grottaferrata for thirteen years (2000-2013) until his retirement at the age of 75. He was hospitable and generous with people and guests (hospites) from all walks of life, including regional and national political leaders, ecclesiastical leaders, scholars, the poor, immigrants, and others who sought the monastery’s hospitality for spiritual or other reasons. Pilgrims of a variety of religious backgrounds or of no religion at all were all hospites of the Grottaferrata monastic community during Father Emiliano’s tenure. The monastery’s τράπεζα (table) was extended to all. People left relieved, helped, listened to, illuminated after the community experience at the monastery. Reflecting on Father Emiliano’s life, I could not help but think how St. Cyprian of Carthage defines those who life a virtuous life: “they do not speak great things, but live them.” He understood and acted on unity which included Church unity on a very personal, intimate level with the human person. Having had the fortune to have witnessed the living monastic-ecumenical dialogue at Grottaferrata, I feel illuminated.

Moreover, Father Emiliano, who besides being abbot was also exarch of the monastery and superior general of the Italian Basilian Order of Grottaferrta, was not what one would expect of such an illustrious figure who had many exalted titles before his name. He did not like the titles. He would always say: “I am Padre Emiliano, e basta (enough said).” Abbot Emiliano lived the great things and served his monastic community with exemplary dedication – serviendo guberno (govern by serving). He was an embodiment of the Italian–Greek monasticism, a spiritual and an exceptional human being, whose actions, intelligence, and monastic wit illuminated the monastic community of Grottaferrata.

Father Emiliano embodied what St. Seraphim of Sarov portrayed as a shrewd abbot. He had the gift of discernment so that in each case he could give advice to everyone seeking his instruction and wisdom. He had the gift of penetrativeness, so that from the consideration of things present and past he could foresee the future: Father Emiliano was indeed a luminary.

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