The period between the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and the French Revolution in 1789 affected the Order of Saint Augustine in the way that it had affected the Catholic Church generally. The period was a revolutionary time, jousting with ideas and the intellect more than with weapons of war. It was the point in time during which historians assert that the Middle Ages abruptly ended. With the battlefields of the post-Reformation wars of religion falling silent after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Augustinian Order went about its recovery as best it could.
Certainly by 1748 it generally was in better spirits and condition than it had been in 1648, yet in the decades that followed – up to and after the French Revolution – new forces were going to precipitate the closure of more Augustinian houses than the Reformation had caused. When looking at a summary of the whole 750 years of formal existence of the Order of Saint Augustine, there is almost a pattern of some major external factor every 100-150 years that reversed the Order’s numerical growth. Founded in 1244-1256, the Ord er declined numerically during the Black Death in 1347-1350 (and in its recurrence in 1361), during the Protestant Reformation beginning in 1517, and during the sequential unfolding of the Enlightenment and French Revolution and Napoleonic era from 1770 to 1815.
The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 ended the Thirty Years’ War and the Eighty Years’ War, and marked the end of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire as major political influences in Europe. With this, the encompassing medieval grip of religion on the mindset and politics of nations had effectively ended. Religious wars had been fought to a stalemate, and in the minds of many people religion itself was the loser. And thus the modern – and more secular - era was born. The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 established a religion-neutral relationship between nations.
The post-1648 world was based on a relationship of international treaties between states as secular entities. In international relations, in government and in society, church influence had waned – a consequence of the Renaissance, the divisive Reformation and the lengthy wars of religion that followed it. This was a painful adjustment that Church faced with reluctance, and even with a rear-guard reaction in some instances. Between 1649 and 1789 there were twenty popes, from Clement VIII (1592-1605) to Pius VI (1775 - 1799) inclusive. Many of them were preoccupied in a geopolitical realigning the church with the European nations perceived to be of greater assistance to the Church and to the Pope as the civic ruler of the papal states.
Photos (at left) Picture 1: Augustinian director of Real Colegio de Alfonso XII in the Escorial, Madrid.Pictures 2 & 3: The Augustinian director teaching a sophomore class.
During this period, there were eighteen Augustinian Priors General, from Phillip Visconti of Milan in 1649-1655 to Stephen Bellisini in 1786-1797 inclusive. (This Prior General is not to be confused with Blessed Stephen Bellisini O.S.A., who lived 1774 - 1840.) All general chapters during this time were held in Italy, and almost all of those elected as Prior General at these chapters were Italian – one notable exception was the remarkable Francisco X. Vazquez O.S.A. from Peru.
Two of these Priors General are unique in having been appointed for life. The first of them was Agostino Gioia O.S.A. of Giovinazzo, Italy. Elected in 1745, he died unexpectedly in 1751. Even so, in this brief period he began construction of the remarkable monastery of Sant’Agostino in Rome, which still stands today (in possession of the Italian Government) as an admirable example of how the baroque love of magnificence was expressed even in the mendicant orders of the Church. The second Prior General for life served for a record term of thirty-two years. He was Francisco X. Vazquez O.S.A. (1703 – 1785), who has been the only Peruvian-born Prior General. He served in that role from 1753 until his death in 1785. His considerable achievements are detailed in a separate page of Augnet.
What the Order of Saint Augustine suffered at the hands of absolutist rulers of the 1770s and 1780s was not the fault of the central government of the Order. If any blame is placed on Augustinians, it would require examination of Augustinian leadership at the Provincial (i.e., “national”) level, and of how much the actual Augustinian spirit and discipline was in fact generally lived in the Augustinians houses of each Province. For it was at the local level of the individual Augustinian convento – the “front line” of any religious order – that was most vulnerable to the growing hostility that came with the emergence of absolutist and nationalistic rulers.
In the mid-eighteenth century, the Order of Saint Augustine had 43 provinces and 13 semi-autonomous observant congregations. As to how many members lived in these Augustinian houses at that period, the estimates from reputable twentieth-century Augustinian historians have variously numbered from 12,000 to 15,000 or even more. This great numerical differences here dramatically highlight the amount of speculation required because of incomplete statistics and historical records. As with the medieval numerical tallies of other religious orders in this regard, the tendency now is to favour the acceptance of the more conservative estimations.
Whatever was the actual number of Augustinians in the eighteenth century, it was certainly below the Order’s pre-Reformation numbers, when there had been an estimated 22,000 Augustinians. With the birth of new religious orders during the Counter Reformation (such as the Jesuits), the older mendicant orders were receiving a smaller proportion of the men joining community life and the priesthood. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Augustinian tally was assisted by the attraction of men in Portugal and Spain to join the Order and to go to the missions in Latin America, the Near East (Portuguese settlements) and the Far East (Philippines). As well, some Latin Americans had begun to be accepted into the Order from Mexico, Peru, etc.
Photos (at right) Picture 1: The University of Maria Cristina. Within the Escorial, Madrid. Conducted by the Augustinians. Picture 2: The Augustinian Rector of Maria Cristina, with two of the 600 students. Picture 3: Two students of business and law at Maria Cristina, Madrid, Spain.
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