Turbulences and Rebirth
The so-called reformation in the 16th century turns against religious and monastic life of any kind. Protestant sovereigns use theological justifications to suppress the monasteries and confiscate their property. Some abbots and monks are killed, others simply retire from monastic life, return to their families or accept parishes. In England, Northern Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia monastic life disappears.
In Catholic countries, however, Benedictine monasticism begins to flourish again. Benedictine abbeys are being rebuilt in the splendid baroque style, and many monasteries become centres of scholarship, culture and education. And for the first time Benedictine life goes beyond Europe when the first abbeys of the New World are established in Brazil.
In the 18th century, new philosophical and political trends threaten monasticism. Faith comes under attack, and monasteries are seen as useless places of superstition and backwardness. In the decades after 1760, more than 95% of the monasteries in Europe are suppressed by governments or destroyed in the course of revolutions and wars. Churches are turned into factories, buildings are used as quarries, land and treasures or confiscated, books destroyed or sent to new national libraries.
But monasticism refuses to die. In the mid-19th century, a romantic rediscovery of medieval Christianity and monastic life takes place. In several countries old monasteries are re-founded or new communities created. Monastic life changes: the communities can no longer depend on rich endowments. The monks now work for their upkeep. The abbots have ceased to be lords and live much closer with their brothers. These monasteries fulfil important roles in the church, running major seminaries and schools, sometimes parishes or foreign missions. Because the Benedictines are still without any central organization, Pope Leo XIII establishes a study house in Rome, and in 1893 creates the Benedictine Confederation with an Abbot Primate at its head. Benedictine scholars rediscover the liturgical life of the early church. They influence the Liturgical Movement which prepares the reforms of the Second Vatican Council:
Most communities start singing in the vernacular, no longer in Latin. And the distinction between priests and brothers disappears. Most monasteries continue to attract Christians who want to spend a quiet time in prayer, who seek spiritual advice or who simply want to live alongside the monks for a few days.