February 15 marks the date of one of the most regrettable episodes in the history of World War II, the bombing and destruction of the abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944. The Battle of Monte Cassino has been described as one of the longest and bloodiest engagements in the war, and the destruction of the monastery by the Allies represented a colossal artistic and cultural loss to humanity—although deemed necessary at the time. My maternal grandfather, Dr. Michael A. Colella, served as a physician at a field hospital at the site of the conflict. My paternal grandmother, a teenager at the time, was ensconced in a village fifty miles to the south. But neither talked much about their experiences, and all that remains to me as a memento of the conflict is a photograph of my grandfather tending to wounded soldiers. Naturally, my curiosity about Monte Cassino has remained ever piqued.
One could say that Monte Cassino is not just a monastery, but the monastery: the signal achievement of the founder of Western monasticism, St. Benedict. He built it around 529 atop a 1600-foot mountain overlooking the ancient Roman town of Cassinum. There he gathered around him a group of monks devoted to a life of prayer, sacred reading and manual work carried out according to his signature Rule, with its motto Ora et labora et lege. Monte Cassino became a center of spirituality, learning and culture and reached the heights of its architectural glory in the eleventh century. It even produced a pope: Pope Victor III, elected in 1058, started out as Abbot Desiderius of Monte Cassino.
But Monte Cassino’s high perch and prominent location made it vulnerable to attack and strategically important to worldly powers. Besides a violent earthquake in 1349, it was sacked by the Lombards in the sixth century; overrun by the Saracens in the ninth; disrupted by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the thirteenth; and plundered by Napoleon’s troops in 1799.
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