|He was devoted to the Body and Blood of Christ, in
the face of widespread neglect
At the General Audience on Wednesday, 2 September , in the Paul VI
Audience Hall, the Holy Father resumed his Catecheses on important
figures of the Church in the Middle Ages, commenting on St Odo of Cluny,
"an authentic spiritual guide for his troubled times". The following is
a translation of the Pope's Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
After a long pause, I would
like to resume the presentation of important writers of the Eastern and
Western Church in the Middle Ages because in their life and writings we
see as in a mirror what it means to be Christian. Today I present to you
the luminous figure of St Odo, Abbot of Cluny. He fits into that period
of medieval monasticism which saw the surprising success in Europe of
the life and spirituality inspired by the
Rule of St Benedict.
In those centuries there
was a wonderful increase in the number of cloisters that sprang up and
branched out over the continent, spreading the Christian spirit and
sensibility far and wide. St Odo takes us back in particular to Cluny,
one of the most illustrious and famous monasteries in the Middle Ages
that still today reveals to us, through its majestic ruins, the signs of
a past rendered glorious by intense dedication to ascesis, study and, in
a special way, to divine worship, endowed with decorum and beauty.
Odo was the second Abbot of
Cluny. He was born in about 880, on the boundary between the Maine and
the Touraine regions of France.
Odo's father consecrated
him to the holy Bishop Martin of Tours, in whose beneficent shadow and
memory he was to spend his entire life, which he ended close to St
His choice of religious
consecration was preceded by the inner experience of a special moment of
grace, of which he himself spoke to another monk, John the Italian, who
later became his biographer.
Odo was still an
adolescent, about 16 years old, when one Christmas Eve he felt this
prayer to the Virgin rise spontaneously to his lips: "My Lady, Mother of
Mercy, who on this night gave birth to the Saviour, pray for me. May
your glorious and unique experience of childbirth, O Most Devout Mother,
be my refuge" (Vita sancti Odonis, I, 9: PL 133,
The name "Mother of Mercy",
with which young Odo then invoked the Virgin, was to be the title by
which he always subsequently liked to address Mary. He also called her
"the one Hope of the world ... thanks to whom the gates of Heaven were
opened to us" (In veneratione S. Mariae Magdalenae: PL 133, 721).
At that time Odo chanced to
come across the Rule of St Benedict and to comment on it,
"bearing, while not yet a monk, the light yoke of monks" (ibid.,
I, 14, PL 133, 50).
In one of his sermons Odo
was to celebrate Benedict as the "lamp that shines in the dark period of
life" (De sancto Benedicto abbate: PL 133, 725), and to describe
him as "a teacher of spiritual discipline" (ibid., PL 133, 727).
He was to point out with affection that Christian piety, "with the
liveliest gentleness commemorates him" in the knowledge that God raised
him "among the supreme and elect Fathers of Holy Church" (ibid., PL
Fascinated by the
Benedictine ideal, Odo left Tours and entered the Benedictine Abbey of
Baume as a monk; he later moved to Cluny, of which in 927 he became
abbot. From that centre of spiritual life he was able to exercise a vast
influence over the monasteries on the continent.
Various monasteries or
coenobiums were able to benefit from his guidance and reform, including
that of St Paul Outside-the-Walls. More than once Odo visited Rome and
he even went as far as Subiaco, Monte Cassino and Salerno.
He actually fell ill in
Rome in the summer of 942. Feeling that he was nearing his end, he was
determined, and made every effort, to return to St Martin in Tours,
where he died, in the Octave of the Saint's feast, on 18 November 942.
His biographer, stressing
the "virtue of patience" that Odo possessed, gives a long list of his
other virtues that include contempt of the world, zeal for souls and the
commitment to peace in the Churches.
Abbot Odo's great
aspirations were: concord between kings and princes, the observance of
the commandments, attention to the poor, the correction of youth and
respect for the elderly (cf. Vita sancti Odonis, I, 17:
PL 133, 49).
He loved the cell in which
he dwelled, "removed from the eyes of all, eager to please God alone" (ibid.,
I, 14: PL 133, 49). However, he did not fail also to
exercise, as a "superabundant source", the ministry of the word and to
set an example, "regretting the immense wretchedness of this world" (ibid.,
I, 17: PL 133, 51).
In a single monk, his
biographer comments, were combined the different virtues that exist,
which are found to be few and far between in other monasteries: "Jesus,
in his goodness, drawing on the various gardens of monks, in a small
space created a paradise, in order to water the hearts of the faithful
from its fountains" (ibid., I, 14: PL 133,49).
In a passage from a sermon
in honour of Mary of Magdala the Abbot of Cluny reveals to us how he
conceived of monastic life: "Mary, who, seated at the Lord's feet,
listened attentively to his words, is the symbol of the sweetness of
contemplative life; the more its savour is tasted, the more it induces
the mind to be detached from visible things and the tumult of the
world's preoccupations" (In ven. S. Mariae Magd., PL 133, 717).
Odo strengthened and
developed this conception in his other writings. From them transpire his
love for interiority, a vision of the world as a brittle, precarious
reality from which to uproot oneself, a constant inclination to
detachment from things felt to be sources of anxiety, an acute
sensitivity to the presence of evil in the various types of people and a
deep eschatological aspiration.
This vision of the world
may appear rather distant from our own; yet Odo's conception of it, his
perception of the fragility of the world, values an inner life that is
open to the other, to the love of one's neighbour, and in this very way
transforms life and opens the world to God's light.
The "devotion" to the Body
and Blood of Christ which Odo
in the face of a widespread neglect of them which he himself deeply
always cultivated with conviction deserves special mention. Odo was in
fact firmly convinced of the Real Presence, under the Eucharistic
species, of the Body and Blood of the Lord, by virtue of the conversion
of the "substance" of the bread and the wine.
He wrote: "God, Creator of
all things, took the bread saying that this was his Body and that he
would offer it for the world, and he distributed the wine, calling it
his Blood"; now, "it is a law of nature that the change should come
about in accordance with the Creator's command", and thus "nature
immediately changes its usual condition: the bread instantly becomes
flesh, and the wine becomes blood"; at the Lord's order, "the substance
changes" (Odonis Abb. Cluniac. occupatio,
ed. A. Swoboda, Leipzig 1900, p. 121).
Unfortunately, our abbot
notes, this "sacrosanct mystery of the Lord's Body, in whom the whole
salvation of the world consists", (Collationes, XXVIII: PL
133, 572), is celebrated carelessly.
"Priests", he warns, "who
approach the altar unworthily, stain the bread, that is, the Body of
Christ" (ibid., PL 133, 572-573). Only those who are spiritually
united to Christ may worthily participate in his Eucharistic Body:
should the contrary be the case, to eat his Flesh and to drink his Blood
would not be beneficial but rather a condemnation (cf. ibid.,
xxx, PL 133, 575).
All this invites us to
believe the truth of the Lord's presence with new force and depth. The
presence in our midst of the Creator, who gives himself into our hands
and transforms us as he transforms the bread and the wine, thus
transforms the world.
St Odo was a true spiritual
guide both for the monks and for the faithful of his time. In the face
of the "immensity of the vices widespread in society, the remedy he
strongly advised was that of a radical change of life, based on
humility, austerity, detachment from ephemeral things and adherence to
those that are eternal (cf.
Collationes, xxx, PL 133, 613).
In spite of the realism of
his diagnosis on the situation of his time, Odo does not indulge in
pessimism: "We do not say this", he explains, "in order to plunge those
who wish to convert into despair. Divine mercy is always available; it
awaits the hour of our conversion" (ibid., PL 133, 563). And he
exclaims: "O ineffable bowels of divine piety! God pursues wrongs and
yet protects sinners" (ibid., PL 133, 592).
Sustained by this
conviction, the Abbot of Cluny used to like to pause to contemplate the
mercy of Christ, the Saviour whom he describes evocatively as "a lover
of men": "amator hominum Christus" (ibid., LIII: PL
133, 637). He observes "Jesus took upon himself the scourging that would
have been our due in order to save the creature he formed and loves (cf.
ibid., PL 133, 638).
Here, a trait of the holy
abbot appears that at first sight is almost hidden beneath the rigour of
his austerity as a reformer: his deep, heartfelt kindness. He was
austere, but above all he was good, a man of great goodness, a goodness
that comes from contact with the divine goodness.
Thus Odo, his peers tell
us, spread around him his overflowing joy. His biographer testifies that
he never heard "such mellifluous words" on human lips (ibid.,
I, 17: PL 133, 31).
His biographer also records
that he was in the habit of asking the children he met along the way to
sing, and that he would then give them some small token, and he adds:
"Abbot Odo's words were full of joy ... his merriment instilled in our
hearts deep joy" (ibid., II, 5: PL 133, 63). In this way
the energetic yet at the same time lovable medieval abbot, enthusiastic
about reform, with incisive action nourished in his monks, as well as in
the lay faithful of his time, the resolution to progress swiftly on the
path of Christian perfection.
Let us hope that his
goodness, the joy that comes from faith, together with austerity and
opposition to the world's vices, may also move our hearts, so that we
too may find the source of the joy that flows from God's goodness.