The Grand Union promulgated
The bull Licet Ecclesiae Catholicae issued by Pope Alexander IV on 9th April 1256 is the most important single document in the history of the Order of Saint Augustine. In that it promulgated the Grand Union of the Augustinian Order, it is just as important to the Order as is the Magna Carta to the history of England or the Declaration of Independence to the history of the U.S.A.
This document established the Order in its modern form, and marks the time of its official birth. It is also a singular document in the history of Church Law because it established principles for which its authors had no precedent. For the first time, it legitimised the imposition of a certain rule of life upon different religious community groupings, bringing them over from previous rules they had variously been adopting.
It made its changes with some sensitivity, because it recognised the struggle between old and new forms of community life, and also the balancing act of the Roman Curia in clinging to the establishing forms of monasticism without quashing the new vigour evident in the more loosely-structured mendicant movement. Licet Ecclesiae did not precede the Great Union (the first Augustinian General Chapter) of 1256, but followed it. It is the only official report of the Grand Union that is extant. It gives the reasons why the Pope wanted the Grand Union, and the ways and means that the Grand Union successfully achieved the papal intentions. Most of all, Licet Ecclesiae confirmed the decisions of the Grand Union and gave them the binding force of Church Law.
The Pope’s reasons for desiring the Grand Union form the unusually lengthy preamble of Licet Ecclesiae. The reasons for issuing such a papal bull are not usually provided within the document. The bull justified the Grand Union as an initiative to eliminate the fear (whose fear?) of “confusion” expressed by the Fourth Lateran Council about the great proliferation of new non-monastic religious groups. The bull states that the integrity of the body of the Church is not handicapped by the diversity of its members as long as the various parts fit harmoniously into the whole; each part, however, must be easily distinguishable from the others, and must have an orderly arrangement of its own.
It continues by noting that, somewhat contrary to the above ideal, the religious groups bearing the name of Hermits follow substantially the same way of life yet, even so, are called by many different names and wear many different religious habits. The Pope means to provide for the better adornment of Christ’s spouse (i.e., the Church – for whom each Order is like a beautiful garment), as well as for the greater spiritual power of the Hermits themselves. The original copy of Licet Ecclesiae still exists in the possession of the Augustinian Curia of the Order in Rome. Its parchment is 480 mm by 640 mm in size. The pendant lead bull has been cut off, but its red and yellow silken threads remain attached to the parchment.
The Little Union and the Grand Union contrasted
The so-called Little Union (sometimes also called the Petite Union or the Minor Union) took place in 1244, and the Grand Union in 1256. Both were authorised and ratified by the respective popes of the day.
The Little Union
It united under the Rule of Augustine various unaffiliated groups of hermits in Tuscany. The members were given - and accepted - the Rule of Augustine. There is no evidence that any of them were living previously; however, the lack of any surviving evidence certainly does not mean they may not have followed the Rule previously.
The Little Union did not involve the Hermits of John the Good, who were founded six years previously and were living in Tuscany according to the Rule of Augustine. This group joined the new Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine that was founded by the Grand Union in 1256.
The amalgamated Tuscan hermits, formed at the Little Union of 1244, brought about sixty or seventy houses into the Grand Union of 1256, most of them in or near Tuscany in Italy but a few of them were elsewhere "beyond the Alps." The Little Union took place in Rome, but exactly at what precise location it convened is now unknown. This amalgamation of 1244 only came to be called "the Little Union" subsequently, in comparison with the Grand Union of 1256.
Cardinal Richard Annibaldi was the papal agent presiding at both of these Unions and the Tuscan Hermits were involved in both Unions. Even with these two common factors, the papal bulls associated with these Unions does not support for the tempting thought that a single Order of Saint Augustine began at a "small size" in 1244 and attained its "full stature" after the Grand Union of 1256.
The Little Union was not a "pre-Grand Union." In that basically four different religious groupings came together at the Grand Union of 1256 to begin the new Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine, the pre-1256 formation of any one of these four religious groupings was really of no greater significance upon the occurrence of the Grand Union of 1256 than was the formation of the other three groupings - the Tuscan Hermits included.
The Grand Union
The Grand Union was more possible because previously there had been a number of "little unions" of groupings that could be coalesced in 1256 to begin the new Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine. On 15 July 1255 Pope Alexander IV issued the bull, Cum quaedam salubria, to command a number of religious groupings to gather for the purpose of being amalgamated into a new Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine.
One of the groups, the Williamites, withdrew a decade later and took up once more its previous separate identity, although some of its houses in Hungary, Germany and Bohemia remained with the newly-founded Augustinian Order.
The Grand Union created a new religious order that began thereby with between 150 and 200 communities, mainly in Italy but also in Germany, England, France, Spain and Hungary. (See the previous page.) As well, the relevant papal bulls specifically legislated for and then actually propelled the pace of change of the members of the new Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine from their traditional eremitical (isolated) influences to that of an apostolic community within the mendicant tradition. This was further influenced by the spirit of the Rule of Augustine itself, and the fact that nations beyond northern Italy had not necessarily as strong an experience of the eremitical (hermit) tradition.
The name, Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine, spoke of the past origin (the eremitical tradition) of its members, and not of the Order's intended mendicant lifestyle. The word hermit also distinguished the new Order from the Canons Regular of St Augustine. (Only since the Vatican Council over fifty years ago has the name of the Order been officially changed to simply the Order of Saint Augustine.)(Continued on the next page)
For further reading
Cardinal Richard Annibaldi. By Francis Roth O.S.A. A long article that appeared in English in successive issues of the scholarly historical periodical, Augustiniana, of the Augustinian Historical Institute of Louvain, Belgium in 1952-1954. The second section of this article, dealing with the details above, appeared in Augustiniana in August 1952, pp, 108-149.
The Foundation of the OESA: A Reconsideration. This scholarly article written by Professor Eric Saak Ph.D. is available on Augnet. Click here.