By the end of February 15, 1944, the Montecassino Abbey, which was established by St. Benedict in the mountains an hour south of Rome, lay in ruins. World War II wasn’t the first time that the abbey was devastated. Fifty years after it was built in 529 AD, the Longobards destroyed it. It was rebuilt in the early eighth century and then sacked by the Saracens in 883. In 1349 an earthquake felled the abbey, leaving nothing in its wake but a few walls.
During World War II, the abbey made up part of the Gustav Line, a German defensive line designed to keep the Allies from advancing north. Although both the Allies and Axis leaders promised the pope that they would not harm the abbey and although the abbot swore that no Germans stayed there, flawed intelligence led the Allies to believe that Germans were occupying the abbey, and American-led air raids smashed it to smithereens in just three hours.
Following the air raid, the Germans quickly occupied it and its surrounding high ground, and for three months, the hilltop witnessed fierce fighting between the Germans and the Allies, including New Zealand, British Indian, and Polish corps. The Germans finally withdrew on May 17. When the Allies moved into the abbey, they discovered that the only casualties of the February raid were 230 Italian civilians who sought safety there. The abbey had been demolished for nothing.
At the end of the war a fierce public outcry demanded that the abbey be rebuilt. The reconstruction was exclusively financed by the Italian state, and the abbey was rebuilt according to old architectural plans, using as many remains as could be found. The abbey was reconsecrated in 1964.
Today the abbey sits peacefully atop its mountain, a beacon to pilgrims and people driving on the autostrada between Naples and Rome. Charlie, Michael, and I visited the beautiful, serene abbey in September, and it was one of the highlights of our three weeks together. Touring the abbey requires much physical stamina. To see the cathedral, visitors must walk up steep hills and climb seemingly endless stairways. Despite Charlie’s knee, he climbed to the top and was so glad he did. The Montecassino Abbey is a glorious place and worth the effort.