Other reform groups were the Congregations of Perugia in 1436, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, in 1470, and Puglia in 1492. The Congregation of Santa Maria del Popolo had the Augustinian reform movement in Ireland affiliated with it.
of these congregations added lustre to the Order. Their excellent monastic life induced King James IV of Scotland to petition Pope Julius II in 1509 for a foundation in his kingdom. This concerned re-using a building at Manuel, West Lothian, Scotland, but it is uncertain whether an Augustinian house was or was not ever established there. Only one congregation failed and brought the Order to the brink of disaster: the Congregation of Saxony which produced Martin Luther. In Germany, Martin Luther at Erfurt was a member of an observant house of the Order of Saint Augustine. His sometimes misunderstood journey to Rome in the winter of 1510 -1511 was focused on business of the Augustinian observant houses in Germany.
The Augustinian observant congregation of Germany was seeking greater autonomy from the other houses (called "conventual" houses) of the Augustinians in Germany. The Augustinian Prior General that Luther was to meet in Rome was Giles of Viterbo O.S.A., who like Luther was a member of an observant congregation, i.e., Lecceto. Whatever the Saxon Congregation of Saxony lost for the Order was more than regained by the Observants of the Iberian peninsula. They produced Saints John of Sahagun O.S.A. and Thomas of Villanova O.S.A..
The latter initiated the great missionary work in South America from where it expanded to the Philippines, Japan and China. Reform also prepared Portugal for its missions in India especially along the Bay of Bengal. In Spain, the observant movement became so strong that the remaining houses of the Order of Saint Augustine in Spain were well in the minority. The disinclination of the observant houses in Spain to be open to directions from the Prior General in Rome was partly due to the increase in Spanish nationalism, and the awareness that in the matter of reform they had almost no equal - and did not feel that instructions from Rome were very necessary for themselves.
The friars who belonged to the Augustinian observantine congregations were sometimes considered the least learned of the Order. According to Thomas Herrera O.S.A., a medieval Augustinian friar and historian, these friars "devoted themselves more to prayer than to study." However, the definitors of the Spanish congregation - always one of the most rigid - rejected the unfavorable judgment of the conventual brethren who categorized them as "simple and unlearned".
They asserted in their chapter of 1493 that this assertion was pure calumny and without foundation. "By the grace of God almost all our priests know how to read well and can both sing and understand what they read. Further, among our brethren there are many learned men and good preachers, even though they are not concerned about degrees." An anonymous Carthusian reiterated the same basic point regarding the French Augustinians of that period. In his De religionum origine, composed c. 1475, he states that although he had met only a few Augustinians, those he knew were "venerable men and very good preachers." The same can be said of the English Augustinians (Austin Friars).
The Observance succeeded only after a long and at times bitter struggle. Provincials deeply resented the constant efforts of the Observants to wrest the largest and most substantial houses from their control. The latters' retort that the bad example of such houses in important cities was more scandalous than in small places was convincing, but the conventuals (i.e., the non-Observants) seldom credited the Observants with such noble motives. The Observants usually won out because the secular arm supported them in most instances and the populace has ever admired a strict religious life. The attitude of the Prior Generals veered from the conventuals to the observants according to their own affiliation. All the great Augustinian Prior Generals of the fifteenth century came from the Observance.
In numerical summary, it can be said that on the eve of the Protestant Reformation (and when Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. was Prior General in 1507-1517), there were at least ten observant congregations: six in Italy, two in Spain, one in Germany, and one in Ireland. The movement was so successful in the Order of Saint Augustine that it captured the office of Prior General a number of times during the fifteenth century, including one friar who was one of the greatest-ever occupants of the office of Prior General, Giles of Viterbo O.S.A.. Observant congregations sought increasing autonomy, which unavoidably cut back the unity of the whole Order and the ability of the Prior General to exercise his authority. This caused difficulties in Spain and Germany. In Spain, the matter was resolved amicably, assisted by Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. as Prior General acting with care and sensitivity.
To understand Martin Luther in the context of the complicated origins of the Protestant Reformation, it is beneficial to understand the Augustinian observant movement. This was a movement of reform within the Augustinian Order decades before Luther broadened his scope to call for broader reform within the Church generally. The first observant house designated by an Augustinian General Chapter was the eremo (hermitage) of Lecceto. It was declared thus by the Augustinian General Chapter at Gran, Hungary in 1585, and again by subsequent chapters. At the local level, an Augustinian convento (house) could be declared observant if a majority of the community desired it, and often won consent of their Augustinian Provincial (local superior) to only be assigned henceforth members who wished to adopt this more strict form of community life. Whereas observants of the Franciscan Order emphasised poverty above all else, the Augustinian observants focused on an interiority that came from Augustinian spirituality - an inner existence of prayer and meditation, supported by the following of the vita communis (community life).
This was to be achieved by an unfailing attendance together at meals and set community prayer, as well as through the removal of personal possessions and of all exemptions and dispensations. Augustinian observant houses in a geographical area then formed a unit called a Congregation, located within a standard Augustinian province yet in certain issues autonomous from it. In a nation (e.g., Italy, Spain, Germany and Ireland), therefore, there would be two bodies of Augustinians – the observants, and the conventional group, called "conventuals." Both were officially under the control of the same Prior General, yet the relationship between observant and conventual Augustinians in some nations was one of hostility rather than of Christian charity. This tension was even greater, for example, in the more numerous Franciscan Order, such that in 1517 the Franciscan observants were granted permission to become an entirely separate religious order.
The observant congregations won exemptions. These were privileges or exemptions from general law obtained over time variously from the Prior General or from the Holy See (the Pope). The impact of the observant movement on the Order of Saint Augustine is highlighted by the fact that the observant movement included the four Augustinians who were most influential before, during and after the Protestant Reformation. These were Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. (who also was Prior General for twelve years), Martin Luther O.S.A. in Germany, Girolamo Seripando O.S.A. (Italy, and also a Prior General), and (Saint) Thomas of Villanova O.S.A. (Spain). By the sixteenth century, however, its success led to its loss of spiritual tone, and this tone was partly replaced by an attitude of superiority over the greater number of conventual Augustinians. The Protestant Reformation and subsequent civil upheavals affected adversely the number of members in the Order of Saint Augustine in a number of countries (Germany, France, England, Hungary, Poland, and less so Italy and Spain). A number of observant congregations disbanded.
A step in the opposite direction happened, however, at Toledo in Spain in 1588, when a Provincial Chapter approved the formation of the Order of Augustinian Recollects, which finally was granted complete separation from the Order of Saint Augustine in 1912. Today members of the Order of Augustinian Recollects (O.A.R.) minister in nineteen nations, most of which have a Hispanic background: Spain, throughout much of Latin America, Philippines, and also in Taiwan, China, Sierra Leone, USA and England. There are presently no officially designated observant houses or congregations in the Order of Saint Augustine in an official sense.
In recent times, the Convento Sant’Agostino in San Gimignano, Italy has been recognised as a place of Augustinian pilgrimage and prayer, yet the two Augustinians there are ascribed members of the Augustinian Province of Italy in the same manner as in any other Italian convento of the Order of Saint Augustine. Another special place in Augustinian history and spiritual tradition is the Eremo (hermitage) of Lecceto. It is now occupied by Augustinian contemplative nuns.
(Continued on the next page.)
For the Augnet photo gallery on Lecceto, click here.