The Abbey of St Paul’s outside the Walls shares a common history with the Basilica for which it was founded. Both have passed together through the ups and downs of the centuries.
The first evidence of a monastic community at the Basilica of St Paul’s outside the Walls is found in the marble “Praeceptum” of St Gregory the Great (590-604), still preserved in the lapidary museum of the monastery. Pope St Gregory II (715-731) is, however, officially considered the founder of the present monastery.
During the Middle Ages, the kings of England, a country converted to the Catholic faith by Roman monks, exercised the function of protectors of the Basilica. In fact the coat of arms of the Abbey still includes the garter and the motto: “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (shame to him who thinks ill of it), which surround the shield and the traditional image of the sword of Paul. St Odo of Cluny (†942) came to Rome in 936 to begin a monastic reform of St Paul’s, and it was in that period that the title “abbas et rector Sancti Pauli” was first used.
The 11th century conflict over ecclesiastical investiture between Pope and Emperor had a considerable effect on the observance of the monastery of St Paul’s. Leo IX (1049-1054), on discovering the state of decay into which the Abbey and Basilica had fallen, took immediate steps, appointing the monk Hildebrand, the future Gregory VII, as "provisor apostolicus" of the Abbey. The latter, having restored the dignity of the Basilica, provided sustenance for the needy community and swiftly built up its numerical strength and improved its observance.
There was a further reform in the 15th century: Cardinal Condulmer, later elected Pope as Eugenius IV, together with Ludovico Barbo, launched a new monastic observance. The monasteries reformed under Barbo were formed into a congregation, initially called St Justina of Padua, but then, in 1504, renamed “the Cassinese Congregation” when the monastery of Monte Cassino became a part of it. The reform movement initiated by Barbo brought renewal to the discipline and to the spiritual and administrative life of the Italian monasteries. It awoke among the monks a passion for sacred and secular learning, and the monastery of St Paul’s became a focus of holiness and culture. For this reason, the superiors of the Cassinese Congregation chose St Paul’s as the seat of a philosophical and theological “gymnasium” approved by Innocent XI (1676-1687), with the name Collegio Sant’Anselmo. A student of particular note was the future Pope Pius VII (1800 – 1823).
With the suppression of the religious orders in Italy in 1866, and in Rome in 1870, all ecclesiastical goods were confiscated by the Italian government. The monastery thus found itself in precarious circumstances. The monks were able to remain in their own house only as custodians of the Basilica, then in reconstruction after the terrible fire of 1823. But it is clear that they never had to abandon their service at the tomb of the Apostle of the Gentiles. Monastic and economic life picked up again at the end of the 19th century and continued in the 2oth. The renewed spirit at St Paul’s in the 19th century was so vigorous that the community was able to contribute significantly to the rebirth of Benedictine life in various parts of Europe. Great figures of this period include Blessed Cardinal Ildephonsus Schuster and Blessed Placid Riccardi. It is fitting to mention that it was in the abbot’s apartment at St Paul’s that another “Beatus”, Pope John XXIII, announced his intention of summoning an ecumenical council, that would be known as Vatican II.
The Abbot of St Paul’s now has the title of Pastoral Vicar of the Basilica. The monastic community rejoices in an international character: there are some twelve nationalities represented in it. The Benedictine monks of St Paul’s continue to labour with dedication in their traditional task, a responsibility given them by the Popes: to watch over the tomb of St Paul, to pray and work for Christian unity, and to offer monastic-pastoral service to all who come to St Paul’s.