January 1 : Odilo of Cluny, abbot (1049)

Odilo, abbot of Cluny(1049)

Born in Auvergne, France, c. 962; died at Souvigny, c. 1049. Saint Odilo was a scion of the very aristocratic French family of Mercoeur. He joined the monastery of Cluny when he was still very young. About 991, the abbot, Saint Mayeul, named him coadjutor. Upon the Mayeul's death in 994, Odilo became Cluny's fifth abbot.

During his 54 years in office he brought the other Cluniac houses into closer and closer dependence upon the mother house, and increased the number of foundations from 37 to 65. Among his general activities was the support he gave to Abbot Richard of Saint-Vanne for the acceptance in France of the institution called the Truce of God (Treuga Dei), whereby military hostilities were regularly suspended at certain times (Fridays through Mondays, Advent, and Lent). This measure had economic as well as religious and social significance and also guaranteed sanctuary to those seeking refuge in a church. Odilo also effectively promoted the Pactum Dei, whereby ecclesiastical persons and property were protected against attack in war.

In 998 (or 1031 by some accounts) he ordered that in all Cluniac houses November 2, the day after the Feast of All Saints, should be observed in memory of and prayer for all the dead; this observance, All Souls' Day, afterwards spread to the whole Western Church.

Though he was a friend of princes and popes, he was exceedingly gentle and kind and known throughout Christendom for his liberality to the needy. Odilo's concern for the people was also shown by the lavish help he gave during several famines, especially in 1006, when he sold Church treasures to feed the poor, and again from 1028-1033.

Saint Odilo's physical appearance was unimpressive, belying the strength of his character. He practiced great personal austerities (he wore a hair-shirt and studded iron chains) on himself, but liberality and kindness toward others. He experienced ecstasies. It is obvious that he was beloved by his contemporaries; Fulbert of Chartres surnamed Odilo "the Archangel of Monks."

Odilo united in his character gentleness with firmness, organizational skills with the ability to reconcile enemies. His favorite saying is that he would rather be damned for being too merciful than for being too severe. He promoted the spirit of true monasticism and tried to remove its abuses. During his rule, he sought to promote the close unity of Cluny and the Holy See.

It is appropriate that he should die during the Octave of Christmas because his favorite topic for sermons was the mystery of the Incarnation. The place of the Blessed Virgin was also worked out by Odilo, to whose writings the Mariology of Saint Bernard owes much.

His duties involved him in much travelling about, though he was ill during the last five years of his life. It was on a journey of inspection that he died, at the priory of Souvigny; he was about 86 (Attwater, Benedictines, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Farmer).

In art Saint Odilo is portrayed as a Benedictine abbot with a skull and crossbones at his feet. Because he instituted the Feast of All Souls, at times he may be shown (1) saying Mass with purgatory open at his side; or (2) with angels releasing souls from purgatorial fire (Roeder). He is invoked on behalf of souls in purgatory and against jaundice (Roeder).