After a turbulent papacy of thirty-two years, Pope Pius IX died on 2nd February 1878, at which time the Augustinian Order seemed headed for extinction. With the pontificate of the new Pope Leo XIII, however, a new chapter was about to be written in the history of the Order. Right from the very first years of his pontificate, Pope Leo XIII exerted special efforts towards defining and strengthening the status of Religious Orders.
As a result of this, In 1881 he was able to issue the apostolic constitution Romanos pontifices, which governed the relationship between the hierarchy (bishops) and the regular (i.e., Religious) clergy. He realised that the Church would remain weak as long as its Religious Orders were weak, and thus set about doing what was within his power to nurture them so that they might flourish once more.
This web site will focus on Leo’s interest in and assistance to the Augustinians, although other religious orders and societies such as the Franciscans and Jesuits could write similar pages about his positive assistance in their regard also. (Leo made his brother, a Jesuit named Giuseppe Pecci, a cardinal in 1897.) When previously he had been the Cardinal Archbishop of Perugia from 1846 to 1877, Leo XIII came to know very well the struggling condition of the Religious Orders in Italy. For example, he was aware that the Augustinians had been forced out of their church and convent in his native town of Carpineto a few years before his birth, and had had been unsuccessful in returning there. Carpineto Romano is a commune (municipality) in the Province of Rome in the Italian region of Lazio, located in hills about 60 kms southeast of Rome.
And while at Perugia Leo (then Cardinal Gioacchino Pecci) had become even more acquainted with the Order because one of his closest friends was Fr Luigi Sepiacci O.S.A., and because the scholarship and the exemplary life of the Augustinian community in the city of Perugia edified him. Even before promulgating Romanos pontifices, his Constitution for Religious in 1881, Leo XIII had already initiated a long series of helpful measures for the Augustinian Order. By 1879 the situation of the Order was becoming desperate. In Italy, no novices were being received, the older friars were dying off, and many priories, with the religious still dispersed, were going to rack and ruin.
An Augustinian historian wrote, "It would be very nearly true to say that for a time the Order, as actually and juridically subject to the Prior General, existed only in the Papal States of Southern Italy and in Ireland. Now, however, with the loss of the Papal States, the security of the last refuge is gone."
Yet the Prior General and his Curia seemed to be resigned to the fate of the extinction of the Order, and they sat back and awaited the end. At that time, however, Fr Augustine Ciasca O.S.A., one of the outstanding oriental scholars and linguists of the time and later a cardinal did something more than passively mourn about the condition of the Order. He conferred with two of his fellow Augustinians, Fr Luigi Sepiacci O.S.A., a consultor of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (“Propaganda Fide”), and Fr Vincent Sernenza O.S.A..
Together they brought the parlous condition of the Order to the attention of Pope Leo XIII, and asked him to provide for its existence.The Pope called the Prior General, Fr Giovanni Belluomini O.S.A., for a conference on 17 December 1880. Whether the Pope asked him to resign as head of the Order is not certain, but, at any rate, Leo chose to appoint a Commissary General, i.e., one commissioned directly by the Pope than elected by the Augustinian Order. The Commissary General would rule the Order in place of the holy but aged Fr Belluomini, who, in turn, was permitted to retain the title Prior General until death, without, however, any jurisdiction over the Order. The new General appointed by Leo XIII on 27 December 1880 was Fr Pacifico Antonio Neno, then Provincial of the Province of Saint Thomas of Villanova in the United States.Fr Neno, born at Grotte di Castro, Italy, in 1833, entered the Augustinian Order in 1850 and was ordained to the priesthood in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran at Rome in 1816. He came to the United States in 1865 to act as Regent of Studies in the ecclesiastical department of Villanova College (now Villanova University), Pennsylvania. At the Provincial Chapter of 1878 he was elected Prior Provincial of the Province of Saint Thomas of Villanova (which at that time was the sole Province for the whole United States). Neno arrived in Rome on 18th February 1881. In the next month Leo XIII named a new Curia to assist him. It included Fr Luigi Sepiacci as Procurator General, and the following as Assistants General: Fr Augustine Ciasca, Fr Luigi Mattioli, Fr Vincent Semenza and Fr Paul Haekel. (It can be noted that all three Augustinians who had first approached the Pope about the Order’s depleted and demoralized state were amongst the five friars that Leo XIII nominated to assist Neno.)
Neno immediately set out to reopen convents to be used as novitiates for candidates to the Order. The renewal of Augustinian life in Italy was felt throughout the whole Order. The Pope cooperated wholeheartedly with all the salutary acts of the Prior General. Since the Convent of St Augustine in Rome, the motherhouse of the Order, had been almost entirely taken over by the Italian Government, Fr Neno with the encouragement and permission of the Pope purchased the Palazzo Cesi, situated near the Vatican - thanks to the generosity of the provinces of the Order in Chile and the United States and to the ex-Empress of Austria, Marianna. Dedicated to Saint Monica, the new convent, besides becoming the headquarters for the General Curia, became an International College for the Augustinian Order. Then the new General began a formal visitation of the houses of the Order on the European continent.
Carpineto, the birthplace of Leo XIII, was always held in great affection by him. Having repaired and renovated the Church and Priory of St Augustine in Carpineto, Leo restored these to the Order on 12 November 1888. Two days later, in a handwritten letter, he announced that he had set aside 20,000 lire as a fund for a perpetual chaplaincy at the Augustinian Church in Carpineto, whose office it would be to offer Mass daily for the intention of the Pope, and also to provide Masses on the anniversary of his death and that of his parents. (See photo a few paragraphs above.)
Five years later, in 1893 Leo took a consequential step to secure unity of governance in the Augustinian Order. Since 13th May 1804, when Pope Pius VII issued the Bull, Inter graviores, the section of the Order in the Spanish Empire (and the same held for all the Regular Orders) was separated from the main life stream of the order at Rome. The above Bull, which was granted at the request of King Charles IV of Spain and Cardinal Bourbon, the Apostolic Visitator of Regulars in that country. It provided for rule of Regulars in Spain and the Spanish Empire by a Spanish member of the order, having the same power as the head of the order residing in Rome. Inter graviores of I804 definitely made a separation within the Order which was to last for about ninety years.
The Augustinian Order was in effect cut in two, one part under the jurisdiction of the Prior General in Rome, while the order in the Spanish Empire was under a Spanish superior. Since 1786, trouble had been brewing for the Spanish section of the order, for at that time, Pius VI, in a Brief to the Spanish Augustinians, mentioned a breakdown in the observance of the Rule due to the lack of a superior to watch over them properly, and he provided a Vicar General for Spain. When the countries of South America gained their independence from Spain, members of the order in these lands formed provinces and vice-provinces of their own, and were returned to the jurisdiction of the Prior General in Rome, for the bull Inter graviores of 1804 then no longer affected them.
The same held true for Mexico, so that by 1893 the only countries remaining under the jurisdiction of the Spanish superior were Spain, Philippine Islands with their oriental missions, and a few missions in South America. At that time (I893), a decree was issued by the sacred congregation of Bishops and Regulars, announcing that Pope Leo XIII desired and demanded that the Spanish Augustinians still separated from the jurisdiction of the prior General at Rome be reunited to the rest of the order. The papal directive was followed, even if reluctantly by some Hispanic officials within the Order. For the first time in eighty-nine years, all members of the Order were under the authority of the Prior general in Rome, who in 1893 was Fr Sebastian Martinelli O.S.A., (later in Leo XIII’s pontificate to be made a cardinal and the Apostolic Delegate to the U.S.A.).
(Continued on the next page.)