When they were founded, many religious orders had to wait some time for their constitutions and statutes to be formulated and given papal approval, but this was not the case with the amalgamation of the Tuscan hermits at the Little Union of 1244. For a number of reasons, that first chapter meeting was able to formulate and agree on constitutions before they departed.One of the reasons that made such rapid progress possible was the presidency of the chapter by Cardinal Richard Annibaldi. He was one of the most influential churchmen in the Roman Curia (the official governance of the Catholic Church) at that time. Appointed by the Pope to convoke and conduct the Little Union, Annibaldi knew what the pope would require of the new Tuscan grouping, and furthermore had easy access to ensure that the Constitutions were promulgated by the pope.
Some sections of the Constitutions were approved by the papal bull, Pia desideria, of 31st March 1244, which was the same month in which the Chapter took place. Other parts of the Constitutions covered matters that the Pope had approved before the Chapter gathered. For example, his bull Incumbit nobis of 1243 granted the Rule of Saint Augustine as the way of life of all who became part of the new Tuscan grouping of 1244, regardless of what community rule they had followed previously.
The meeting called the Little Union may have ended before 23rd March 1244, because on that day the papal bull Vota devotorum approved the wish of the Chapter that Augustinians who were priests about their permission to hear sacramental confessions. Papal concern that the new Order be protected in its infancy was demonstrated by a rapid succession of papal favours. On 23rd March 1244 the pope gave the amalgamated Tuscan hermits the faculty to preach and administer the Sacrament of reconciliation, and other rights and privileges three and five days later. On 26th April 1244 the bull, Religiosam vitam eligentibus, which was common to all new religious orders, gave them exempt status in church law.
This placed the amalgamated Tuscan hermits directly under the authority of the Holy See, and freed them from all diocesan tithes and taxes. Henceforth they depended upon the local bishop only for the ceremony of ordination and for local permission to open a new house (convento) in his diocese. It forbade "every bishop and any other person" to bring to trial any of these religious, to enter their houses, to interfere in their free election of their superiors, or to require any payment "under the pretext of custom or any other reason, for the consecration of churches or altars, or for the holy oils or any other sacrament of the church, because all these things a diocesan bishop is obliged to bestow gratis."
By the same papal bull, the amalgamated Tuscan hermits were empowered to retain their property without the payment of church taxes; to receive into the Order all who requested admission, whether clerics or lay persons; to absolve those persons of any censures they may have incurred; to prevent the founding of oratories or chapels within the confines of their parishes "without your consent and that of the diocesan bishop"; and to grant burial in their churches to those faithful who could be shown to have made this specific request of a religious order in their last will and testament.
With Richard Annibaldi, one of the most powerful cardinals of the Roman Curia, as their official "supervisor and legal guide", the new Order was going to be directed into apostolic activity, as had been the case with the Dominicans and Franciscans, founded as much as forty years previously. They began to exercise pastoral care of the people in their vicinity, but still maintained their contemplative character. In 1250 Annibaldi gave their Siena Province the charge of the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, and initially their General Chapter was celebrated there each year. By 1253 they had houses outside of Italy, beyond the Alps.
By 1255 the Tuscan hermits had an estimated sixty-one houses, of which only fifteen actually were hermitages; nevertheless their other communities, although occupying houses located in towns and cities, were still called hermitages at that particular point in time. The amalgamated Tuscan hermits were one of four distinct religious congregations that took part in the Grand Union of the Order of Saint Augustine in the year 1256, which was the major step in the foundation of the actual Order of Saint Augustine that still exists today. These Tuscan hermits of 1244 had only a brief period of twelve years before the Grand Union drew them into being among the foundation members in 1256 of the Order of Saint Augustine. What experience they developed between the time of their own Little Union in 1244 and of the Grand Union of the Order of Saint Augustine in 1256 is thus significant.
It would be interesting to know the immediate causes, discussions and difficulties connected with the Little Union of 1244. Pope Innocent IV shed little light upon his reasons for directing the Little Union by his statement: “We did not want you to be any longer like erring sheep without shepherds, which roam behind the tracks made by the flock,” but only seems to have indicated their former lack of organization. Whether the above sentence conveyed a great deal more is now unknown, but the assembled hermits knew and obeyed, although some of them agreed to the union only under special conditions.
Thus Aldobrandinus, prior of the hermitage St Matthew's in Lepori (Florence), became affiliated under the condition that he should remain superior of his foundation for life and receive a regular income, a condition which led to problems after the Grand Union of 1256, when the newly-constituted Order of St Augustine accepted absolute poverty. Dissatisfaction with the new superiors arose in the hermitage St Mary's of Lupocavo, and in 1248 received papal permission that for the time being it could not be forced to the “reception, visitation and financial control of the priors and visitors of the Tuscan Congregation of the Order of St Augustine.”
Only three superiors general of the Tuscan Congregation are known by name: friar Matthew directed the Order in 1250, friar Aiutus in 1252 and Philip (Dexter) of Parma ruled immediately before 1256. With the completion of their union the Tuscans quickly grew in stature through the multitude of privileges which they had obtained through Cardinal Richard Annibaldi, and which constituted them a full-fledged religious Order. In 1244 they received the important and much coveted favours contained in the constitution Religiosam vitam eligentibus which placed them directly under Holy See, freed them from all tithes and taxes, gave them the right to elect their own superior general, and bury in their cemetery not only their own members but also laypeople. They depended upon the bishops only for conducting priestly ordinations and for permission to establishm new houses.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet photo gallery on the Church of S. Maria del Popolo in Rome (including the above two pictures), click here.