In 1992 an eminent medieval historian, the late Professor Francis Xavier Martin O.S.A. stated that the Order of Saint Augustine has never adequately investigated the history of its observant movement during the times before, during and after the Protestant Reformation. He attributed this partly to a degree of Augustinian shame about Martin Luther, who was a member of the observant movement throughout his life as an Augustinian. The Order of Saint Augustine was not far past its Grand Union of the year 1256 when yearnings for its hermit (eremitical) origins of the previous two centuries led to corresponding steps being taken by the leaders of the Order.
The title, Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine, was in fact a misnomer, yet it truthfully reflected the origins of many of the groups that were drawn into the Order at the Grand Union of 1256. Persons looking back at the traditional hermit (eremitical) origins of the Augustinians were often members who were seeking a greater spiritual intensity in Augustinian life. They sometimes feared that the call by the Church for apostolic activity within the newer mendicant movement had the potential to reduce the quality of spiritual and community life.
There was a similar sense in those called the "spirituals" amongst the Franciscans in Umbria, whereas the Augustinian hermit (eremitical) tradition was strongest in Tuscany. In both the Franciscan and Augustinian Orders particularly, communities seeking this presumsed "original" intensity of spirituality, penitence and a more strict observance of the spirit of Francis and Augustine were said to be part of an observant movement.
The observant movement was strong among the Augustinians in Tuscany partially because of a tradition that was later proved to be historically incorrect. They had thought that Augustine had lived in - or even possibly instituted - a hermitage in Tuscany at some time between his conversion and baptism in Milan in 387 AD and his return to Africa and the community at Thagaste in 388 AD. (In fact, it is certain from Augustine's Confessions that he spent that time in Rome.)
This inaccuracy was compounded by a document later proved to be spurious, the so-called Sermones ad Fratres in Eremo ("Sermons [of Augustine] to the Brothers in the Hermitage"). From 1320 onwards, the unfounded claim was made about an unidentified Italian hermitage named Centumcellae in which Augustine was said to have resided and handed over his Rule, and another claim that he had visited the Eremo di Lecceto. These claims were actively believed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Because at this time members of the Order wished to believe that Augustine had literally founded their Order, Centumcellae was proclaimed to have been the very first house of the Order of Saint Augustine – established by Augustine himself 868 years before the Grand Union. As previously stated, any lingering desire for and idealizing of the eremitical (hermit) style of life that had existed before the Grand Union would have resonated in spirit with many more friars who only desired that their current mendicant lifestyle was lived by them more authentically.
With the passage of time, the simplicity and especially the severity involved in their religious life was being eroded by the granting of privileges and the promulgation of dispensations and exceptions, and sometime also by the poor implementation of regulations and the bad example of lax discipline. There was the destructive force of endless exceptions to the Rule and the ruination caused by the neglect of true poverty. A spirit of selfishness which sought personal comfort and individualism was gaining strength within the Augustinian Order, whose ideal was the common good.
In 1422, with the end of the Great Western Schism, the call from the Council of Basel was for “a renovation in the head and members of the Church.” The assembled prelates sought to solve the problem by legislation, but if renewal is to be true and permanent it must come from within. For this to occur within a religious order, some members must arise whose spotless lives and high ideals bring about a voluntary reform; whose steady courage and persuasive powers will carry along the average religious. The Augustinians had many such men.
Reform-minded Augustinians emerged in every nation where the Order was present, except in France, which however had a belated, violent reform movement in the seventeenth century. Good religious chafed under this lawlessness but could do nothing because, in one sense, lawlessness had become legalized. In an era when not every Pope or Prior General was resistant to the granting of documents authorizing privileges and dispensations, these documents usually contained strictest orders to lower superiors not to interfere with the process.
"The Observance" (as it was called) hoped to effect change by means of a return to the exact observance of the Augustinian vows and Constitutions. The Reform Congregations within the Order of St Augustine abolished every personal privilege and every exception to the Rule. Above all they bound themselves to practice perfect common life in which no one called anything his own. Frequently this strict new way of life was bitterly attacked, and the reformers found that the best solution was to unite their followers in houses from which non-observant members were excluded. They protected themselves against the interference of antagonistic provincials by the union of observant houses into new governmental groupings.
These new governmental groupings were called Congregations to distinguish them from the already-established geographical Augustiunian Provinces, and were placed directly under the Prior General. This admittedly, created, mini-orders within the Augustinian Order, but the only other practical alternative was the breaking up of the original order into parallel but completely autonomous sections. (This outcome won the day in the Franciscan Order, resulting in three Orders that still exist today.) This call for a return to the original spirit of the Gospels as seen in the writings of St Augustine was especially acute in various quarters of the Augustinian Order 1385, which was 121 years after the Grand Union. The Order had begun to decline in numbers, and materialism and decadence in the Church was a cause.
The scandal of the Avignon Papacy (1309-1378), the reduction of Augustinian numbers through the Black Death (1348-1352 and 1361), and the Great Western Schism (1387-1417) accellerated the call for reform. The Eremo (hermitage) of Lecceto was accepted as a touchstone with Augustine by people in medieval times because they firmly believed (incorrectly!) that Augustine had visited an eremo (hermitage) there.
Within the Order of Saint Augustine, Lecceto was a regarded as a living expression of the desire for its spiritual reform and renewal. Already by the middle of the fourteenth century the eremo at Lecceto was famous as a centre of mystical piety. Saint Catherine of Siena, who died in 1380, found one of her spiritual directors there. And so it was that, at the Augustinian General Chapter at Gran, Hungary in 1385 Lecceto was set aside as the first designated Augustinian house (convento) of strict observance mandated from above. (Previously in 1357 the Augustinian convento at Pavia in Italy had been taken from the Lombard Province and placed directly under the authority of the Prior General, but this had been a local initiative.)
It thus became the official model for the Augustinian observant (or observantine) movement. This was reinforced by repeated decrees at the General Chapters of 1394, 1397 and 1400. Lecceto was taken from the Province of Siena, and placed directly under the Prior General in a special way. The observant (or observantine) movement in the Order of Saint Augustine had officially begun. The eremo (hermitage) of Lecceto, which was dedicated to San Salvador ("the Holy Saviour"), was to be the good example of Augustinian community living that hopefully other communities would then strive to copy.
The plan was at least successful to the extent that Lecceto gave excellent example of Augustinian life. As already stated, the Observant Congregation of Lecceto began after the Augustinian General Chapter at Gran, Hungary in 1385. Its congregation remained small never exceeding more than twelve houses. Even so, from it came some of the most famous Augustinians of this period, for example Charles Sforza of Attendola O.S.A., a brother to the duke of Milan who was Archbishop of Milan; and Mariano of Genazzano O.S.A., the well-known humanist and opponent of Girolamo Savanarola. Another was the famous cardinal, Giles of Viterbo O.S.A..
It was followed by the large Congregation of Lombardy which grew from the reform of Matthew de Introduce O.S.A.. In 1540 it comprised almost eighty houses but had an unfortunate tendency towards complete independence from the Prior General. The reform came to southern Italy through the Carbonaria of Naples which was approved in 1421. Its greatest son was Cardinal Jerome Seripando O.S.A., papal legate to the Council of Trent.
Images (at right)Picture 1: Observant friar, St Thomas of Villanova O.S.A., painted by Bartolmé Esteban Murillo. Picture 2: Observant friar, Cardinal Girolomo Seripando O.S.A.
Simonetus of Camerino O.S.A.brought observance to the northeast section of Italy in 1436. His Congregation of Monte Ortone remained the smallest, its houses never numbering more than five. It gave the Order Blessed Gratis a Cattaro O.S.A. (Yugoslavia), a lay brother of extraordinary holiness. The north-western part of Italy was reformed by the Congregation of Genoa, approved in 1473.(Continued on the next page.)Photo Gallery
For the Augnet photo gallery on Lecceto, click here.