St. Romuald

News: Commentary
by Church Militant  •  •  February 8, 2024   

Monastic reformer and founder of the Camaldolese order

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Editor's note: This is an edited excerpt from Rev. Alban Butler's 1866 edition of The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II.

Born around 956, St. Romuald was a descendant of the noble family of the dukes of Ravenna, Italy. Raised with worldly values, indulgence and a love for pleasures, he became increasingly controlled by his desires. Despite this, he aspired to do something notable for God's honor. If he discovered a peaceful spot in the woods while hunting, he would pause to pray, admiring the serene lives of ancient hermits and imagining the peace they must have felt serving God away from the chaos of the world.

St. Romuald founded many monasteries 

When Romuald was 20 years old, his father, Sergius, decided to settle a property dispute with a relative through a duel. Romuald was appalled by the idea, but faced with the threat of being disowned, he attended as a witness. When Sergius killed his opponent, Romuald was horrified by the act, feeling complicit merely by his attendance. He believed he had to atone for this through 40 days of strict penance at the nearby Benedictine monastery of Classe, close to Ravenna.

There, he embraced severe self-discipline, praying and weeping nearly constantly. His remorse and devotion made these harsh practices feel manageable and fulfilling. The young man's fear and love of God deepened daily. Inspired by the virtuous examples around him and through conversations with a devout lay brother about eternity and disdain for the world, he joined the monastery.

Over the years, his zeal and strict practices alienated some of the less committed monks, who interpreted his devotion as a rebuke to their laxity. Eventually, they plotted to kill him. To avoid danger, Romuald left with the abbot's blessing, relocating near Venice to follow Marinus, a respected hermit known for his strict lifestyle. Under Marinus's guidance, he significantly advanced in the virtues of religious life.

At the start of his conversion and withdrawal from worldly life, he faced many severe temptations. Sometimes, the devil directly tempted him towards sin; other times, he reminded Romuald of what he had left behind, suggesting that his sacrifices for ungrateful family members were worthless. The devil also planted doubts about whether his actions pleased God, suggesting that Romuald's struggles were too much for any person to endure. But through constant spiritual vigilance and prayer, Romuald prevailed. Despite the devil's efforts to disturb him, including violently shaking his cell and threatening destruction, Romuald remained steadfast in his practices.

He withdrew even further from society, living in a remote cell in a secluded marsh. Here, he continued to face the devil's hostility, experiencing deep melancholy and even physical assaults. In those moments, Romuald called out to Jesus, Whose name immediately dispelled the evil spirits and filled him with an overwhelming sense of divine comfort and repentance, leading him to tears and joy.

O gluttony, you shall never taste this; perpetual war is declared against you!

His reputation for holiness led the monks of Classe to elect him as their abbot. Emperor Otto III, present in Ravenna, personally persuaded Romuald to accept the position and even visited him, spending a night in his modest cell. Romuald initially resisted but was eventually compelled to accept the role by a synod of bishops under the threat of excommunication. His strict adherence to monastic discipline, however, soon led to dissatisfaction among the monks, who showed their discontent through unruly behavior. Romuald, patient at first, hoped for their improvement but eventually decided to leave upon realizing his efforts were futile.

The saint continued to establish monasteries and, during this time, experienced a phase of spiritual dryness. Despite that, he maintained his devotions with even more intensity. It was in his cell, meditating on the words of the psalmist, "I will give thee understanding and will instruct thee," that he received a sudden divine illumination and a spirit of compunction that never left him. This divine insight, gained through prayer, enabled him to comprehend the Holy Scriptures.

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Romuald's spiritual gifts included prophecy and the ability to offer guidance filled with heavenly wisdom to all who sought his counsel. He preferred to celebrate Mass privately because he could not hold back his tears during the sacred sacrifice. 

His integrity and zeal for justice led him to confront corruption within the Church, as when he learned of a Venetian who had secured the abbacy of Classe through simony. This unworthy abbot, in an attempt to protect his ill-gotten position, sought Romuald's life. He continually faced similar threats and conspiracies from some of his own monks, earning him the distinction of a martyr in spirit, if not in actuality.

In his later years, Romuald intensified, rather than diminished, his practices of self-discipline and fasting, even wearing a hair shirt as a form of physical penance. He adhered to a diet consisting solely of plain herbs and gruel, steadfastly refusing any enhancements to his meals that might provide flavor or enjoyment. On the rare occasions when more palatable food was offered to him, he would bring it to his nose, only to deny himself the pleasure of tasting it, proclaiming his ongoing battle against gluttony and the temptations of the flesh.

The Hermitage and Monastery of Camaldoli
in Tuscany, Italy, founded by St. Romuald

The most renowned among all the monasteries established by Romuald is the one at Camaldoli, situated near Arezzo in Tuscany, about thirty miles east of Florence. Founded around the year 1009, this monastery occupies challenging terrain beyond a mountain, with a steep descent on the opposite side that overlooks a large, pleasant valley. This valley, once owned by a lord named Maldoli, was gifted to Romuald, and henceforth, the monastery and the order that originated there took on the name Camaldoli.

There, Romuald innovated upon the Rule of St. Benedict by incorporating both cenobitic (communal) and eremitical (solitary) monastic life, giving rise to the Camaldolese order. Originally, his monks wore black habits in imitation of the Benedictine monks, but he changed their habits to white after receiving a heavenly vision of his monks ascending a ladder to heaven in white garments.

For those seeking even greater solitude, Romuald introduced the practice of living as a recluse, allowing hermits to remain perpetually secluded in their cells, only communicating with the superior and the brother delivering essentials. This lifestyle, characterized by intensified prayer, fasting and austerity, was embraced by Romuald himself for several years.

The saint died in his monastery in the valley of Castro on June 19, 1025. His relics were relocated to a monastery in Fabriano on Feb. 7. For a time, his feast was celebrated on that day.


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