Saint Benedict founded only three monasteries: Subiaco, Montecassino, and Terracina. But he indicates various modifications of the Rule that may have to be made for differing climates, and so he probably expected it would be adopted elsewhere. In any event, that is what happened. His Rule was found to be so moderate and sensible that it spread throughout Italy and into the Frankish Kingdom, England, and Germany. From the tenth century until the beginning of the thirteenth century it was virtually the only form of religious life in Western Europe. Benedictine monks played a prominent role in converting the pagan Anglo-Saxons, Germans, Scandinavians, Slavs, and Magyars, and in renewing the Christian life in lands which had long been converted but where the invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries and later of the ninth and tenth centuries had produced chaos and a breakdown of orderly life.
With the rise of the mendicant orders of friars and of other forms of the religious life from the thirteenth century, the Benedictine Rule ceased to hold a monopoly in this field. But it continued to exist alongside the newer groups and spread wherever Christianity was carried, especially from the time of the great voyages of discovery. It was, however, relatively late in reaching North America. The first Benedictine monastery in the United States, Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1846 as an offshoot of the Bavarian Abbey of Metten. Among Saint Vincent’s numerous foundations was Belmont Abbey, established as a dependent priory in 1876 and raised to abbatial rank in 1884.
The Benedictine religious family is not an “order” in the strict sense. It is not organized under a supreme superior, who has the authority to dispose of the individual members as he sees fit and to intervene at will in the individual houses throughout the world. Actually, the only common bond among all the monasteries is the Rule of Saint Benedict. The “order” consists of individual monasteries, each leading its own life according to the Rule. But for the sake of supervision and of maintaining good discipline and in the interest of a minimal uniformity of observance, the monasteries are grouped into congregations, based chiefly on geographical location and the circumstances of their origin. Each congregation is presided over by an elected President and his council, and the highest authority reposes in its General Chapter, which meets at specified intervals. But, even so, the congregation does not absorb the member monasteries or encroach upon their lives. Its main purpose is to provide guidance and assistance to member monasteries as they might need it, and to detect and uproot abuses that may creep in. All the congregations are further united in a worldwide Confederation, headed by the Abbot Primate, who resides in Rome at the Abbey of Sant’Anselmo. While the Primate is the first ranking Benedictine in the world, he is not the “general” of an order or its supreme superior. He is the special contact of the Benedictine institute with the Holy See, which may delegate him to carry out specified functions in the interests of the Benedictine family or of a part of it.