The Protestant Reformation happened in the context of the intellectual and religious ferment in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages.
There was the decline in Scholastic theology, the after-effect on papal authority of the Great Western Schism, the appearance of Wycliffe and Hus, profound social evils, the increasing tendency of regional rulers and princes to wrest some control from the church, and the anti-ecclestiastical aspects that emerged within humanism and the Renaissance.
Added to this intellectual and sociological ferment, there was also the growing storm being caused by religious abuses. This was evident in abuses regarding pious practices and pilgrimages, the matter of indulgences, the cult of relics, the increase of superstition and of belief in witchcraft. Within the episcopal and clerical circles of the church itself, there was a decline in - and even a neglect of - pastoral care, worldliness, the accumulation of benefices, simony, avarice, and public scandal. In religious orders, too, aside for some successful pockets of reform, there was a slackening in monastic discipline and in religious spirit. In such a foreboding atmosphere, therefore, what was the general condition of the Order of Saint Augustine in terms of its morale and its performance during the decades before the Protestant Reformation exploded into medieval history? A response that is both far too simplistic and far from accurate is to say that the Order was corrupt or rotten to the core. That is abjectly false.
One interesting observation to the contrary is that in 1561 Augustinians were still living and working in their Augustinerkloster (i.e., the Augustinian convento) at Erfurt, where Martin Luther had joined the Order of Saint Augustine in 1505. When they were forcefully evicted from their monastery by anti-Catholic civic authorities of Erfurt in 1561, Luther had already been dead for fifteen years. There was laxity in Augustinian community life that was a legacy of the reduction of Augustinian membership and a diminution of entrance standards through the previous tumultuous 108 years between 1309 and 1417. During these years there had been the Avignon Papacy (1309-1378), Black Death (1348-1352 and 1361), and the Great Western Schism (1387-1417). Before the Protestant Reformation of 1517, paradoxically (if not unfortunately), the leadership of the Order of Saint Augustine was more effective and focussed in the years just before 1517 than it would be in the years just after it.
Between 1485 and 1506 the five successive occupants of the office of Prior General had been ineffective. This was not necessarily through any moral flaw or ill will on their part, but through ill health, advanced age, and the lack of those skills necessary for so complex and consuming a task. With considerable truth, it has been said that the Augustinians had elected men who were holy rather than administratively capable. And, regrettably, these were men who too often were admired rather than imitated. Nor were the Augustinian communities places of great or public moral abuses, especially in relation to the disreputable standards often set by some members of the Roman Curia of the church. Rather, the Augustinians had somewhat lost their way, and were being poorly directed in a climate and in a church where the temptation to personal gain (wealth and/or power) was very much present. The tone of the friars' life was excessively worldly, and insufficiently spiritual. Even so, the majority of its 22,000 members still held fast to the ideals of Augustinian religious life.
Since 1458 Augustinian government had been unsteady and interrupted, and the members suffered from a growing relaxation of observance and from their own indiscipline. The Order was in a state of laxity, rather than of corruption. The structure of the Order still stood a chance of being healed without having to be completely demolished and rebuilt. Was Giles of Viterbo O.S.A., the Prior General from 1507 until 1518, the person for this task? The early indications of this possibility certainly were promising. Giles was a member of the observant movement at the Augustinian eremo (hermitage) at Lecceto in Tuscany. He was a scholar with a fine intellect, a man who could relate to the Renaissance without accepting what he perceived as its areas of moral weakness. As well, Giles was generally acclaimed as being one of the best preachers of his day. He was one who said that the reform of the Order of Saint Augustine was uppermost in his mind.
At the General Chapter of 1507, the 1,100 Augustinian delegates (in an Order of 22,000 members) unanimously elected Giles as Prior General - a gesture more or less rare in the Order's history. The Chapter passed thirty resolutions, which was an indication that the goals of reform sought by Giles had much support. It was a brave plan, and yet not a radical one. In the spirit of the Augustinian observant movement, it called for a return to the living of the ideals of the past. There was little that was "new" being envisioned. Just as a call back to poverty was the hallmark of renewal for the Franciscan mendicants, it was a call back to the perfect living of the vita communis (the community life) that was proposed as the Augustinian path to spiritual perfection. The vita communis required the renunciation of private property, participation in community prayer and meetings, meals in common, and observance of the rules of cloister (clausura, patio). It also required a careful administration of the property of the community, regulated association with the laity, regular prayer in community, and, most of all, a greater degree of mutual charity among and between Augustinians.
Additionally, Pope Julius II supported the goals of Giles with a series of papal bulls that strengthened his authority. This was to protect Giles from individual Augustinians or from civil and ecclesiastical authorities who might oppose his reforms in order to maintain any ill-gotten gains attained through Augustinian laxity. Papal legislative help to Giles even extended to giving Giles authority to imprison any Augustinian who was living outside of community without sufficient cause, and to seek the excommunication of anybody who refused to return property belonging to the Order that had been improperly obtained. The next practical step of Giles was to issue the first printed edition of the Constitutions of the Order of Saint Augustine. The Constitutions had existed in manuscript copies since 1290, but there was no guarantee that any particular copy was updated with all amendments passed at each General Chapter that followed every three years. For the first time ever, every Augustinian authority possessed an authentic and contemporary copy of the Constitutions. The Constitutions and related documents printed in the same volume were the program of reform that Giles intended to implement.
Add to this the fact that he was Prior General for six years from 1507 to 1513, and respected by Pope Julius II (a materialistic man, with whom Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. did not agree on political matters), and it would seem that the reform of the Order of Saint Augustine had a good chance of succeeding. Giles personally visited many of the Augustinian houses in Italy (especially the larger and more important ones), and even a few in Germany. He implemented a consistent plan of reform for both "the roots and the branches", focused on Provincial superiors, key Augustinian houses (conventi), and the young candidates of the Order. In many places he appointed a local agent who was charged to monitor the progress of reform on behalf of Giles. In places that Giles was unable to visit in Italy and elsewhere, he chose a delegate (somebody brought in from another region of Italy), who imposed the same requirements. In houses where Giles as Prior General had authority to appoint a Prior (religious superior), he often intentionally installed an Augustinian of good reputation from a different region of Italy.
In contemporary terms, Giles was a great "networker." He wrote many more letters to individual Augustinians in key positions who were achievers in reform, than he sent letters about reform to Augustinians simply because they held the office of Provincial (regional superior). This bonus would, however, immediately became a detriment when Giles was succeeded by a man without this same network of associates. When it came time for Giles as Prior General to ratify the election of an Augustinian Provincial (regional superior) in an area (and Provincial Chapters in Italy were then conducted annually), Giles did so only on the condition that the candidate was committed to implement reform. The candidate also had to pledge to send Giles every month a progress report about reform. There are instances of his subsequently removing a Provincial from office in Italy for not adhering to this promised regimen. At times Giles directed that a Provincial have copies made of a letter from Giles for distribution to each house (convento) in the province. At this time, the Order of Saint Augustine had about 22,000 members and 1,000 houses (conventi), grouped as thirteen Augustinian Provinces in Italy and thirteen elsewhere.
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