St. Odilo of the Poor Souls

(962-1049 A.D.)

St. Odilo was abbot of the monastery of Cluny in France’s Rhone Valley.

This abbey was one of the glories of monasticism. Founded in 909 A.D., it was suppressed only during the French Revolution in 1790. The reason for its vast medieval influence was that when established it was expressly made subject only to the popes. Thus the local king or the local bishop could not meddle with it, as they had, disastrously, in the case of a number of independent Benedictine monasteries.

Because Cluny enjoyed this independence, many other monasteries affiliated with it in order to share its protected status. Thus was formed the congregation of Cluny, under the abbot of Cluny as its head abbot. At its peak the Cluniac Federation had as many as 10,000 monks, living in some 1450 monasteries that extended from England eastward to Poland.

Odilo, whose family name was Mercoeur, applied for admittance to the Cluny mother house around 980. As early as 991, he was elected coadjutor abbot; and on the death of St. Majolus in 994, he succeeded him as fifth abbot of the monastery. Despite his youth, he had already shown himself a gifted leader, and he would hold office admirably until death.

As a spiritual leader, Odilo was very austere with himself, but gentle and bending with others. His gentleness no doubt helped him in the diplomatic tasks that fell to his lot because his congregation was of international importance. For instance, the emperors of Germany and the kings of France were at that time touchy neighbors. The fifth abbot of Cluny was, however, able to mediate successfully between King Robert II of France and Emperor Conrad II of Germany.

Odilo lived, of course, in feudal times when the nobles of Europe were engaged in petty but destructive wars that bore down heavily on the poor.

Odilo was a champion of the poor, and during a local famine of 1033, he did not hesitate to sell the treasures of his monastery in order to aid the needy. But it was necessary to go further and try to stop these guerrilla wars that were so harmful to the common man. Now, around 1027, a local French church council conceived the clever device of the “Truce of God.” The Truce forbade warriors to fight on certain days, Sundays in particular. This ban proved rather effective, so when it was later extended, St. Odilo encouraged the extension.

Eventually, the Third General Council of the Lateran, held in Rome in 1139, commanded that all warfare cease from Wednesday sunset to Monday sunrise each week, and also throughout the Advent and Christmas season and the Lenten and Easter season! The idea was obviously to crowd all war off the calendar. This was too much to expect, however, and military men began more and more to ignore it. But the Truce of God had meanwhile been one of the most innovative experiments in the history of peace-keeping.

If St. Odilo and his fellow “doves” were unable to pass down to us a warfree world, the saint’s efforts to bring peace to the souls in purgatory were of permanent value, in that they brought about the establishment of All Soul’s Day.

The Church has always encouraged prayers that the deceased may be received into heaven, but only in the second millennium of Western Christianity was a special liturgical day set up in the interest of the Poor Souls. Around 1030, Abbot Odilo set aside November 2 as a day for the special commemoration in his own monastic community for the souls in purgatory. He strongly exhorted all the monasteries under his jurisdiction to devote this date each year to Masses, acts of self-denial, and almsgiving on behalf of the souls in purgatory. Eventually Rome added this Cluniac feast to its own universal calendar.

In 1049, St. Odilo, knowing that his death was near, commanded that he be laid on the floor on a sackcloth strewn with ashes. There, in all humility, he died. He was canonized 14 years after his death.

St. Odilo’s life provides a good illustration of the vast contributions that religious orders have made and can make to the Church and to the whole world.

--Father Robert F. McNamara