Augustinian observant reform congregations
(Following the previous pages, this second coverage of this topic is summarised from an older German Catholic Encyclopedia.)
In the fourteenth century, discipline became relaxed in the Augustinian communities (and in those of other mendicant orders as well. This was the result of various causes, such as the mitigation of the Rule of Augustine, either by permission of the pope or through a lessening of fervour, but chiefly in consequence of the Black Death (the plagues of 1348-1352 and 1361), the Avignon papacy of 1309-1378, and the Great Western Schism of 1378-1417.
In an effort to counteract the sudden decrease in numbers caused by the plague (“Black Death”), the admission standards to religious orders were lowered and a reduced quality of preparation was given to new members. And with the seventy-year embarrassment of continuously two claimants to the papacy, the Great Western Schism dramatically lowered both the respect for and the effectiveness of higher authority in the Church. In a phenomenon similar to that which struck other religious orders, there emerged a number of Augustinian reformers anxious to restore the Order to its initial fervour and spirit. These highly motivated Augustinians began several reformed congregations (i.e., regional groups of reform-seeking Augustinian communities), which received papal encouragement and recognition.
(The reform communities were called “observant congregations” because they called for a stricter observance of the Rule of Augustine, the Constitutions of the Order, and of the practical aspects of religious poverty and fasting.) By the papal recognition of their observant congregation, the members of a declared observant (reformed) convento were guaranteed that the local Augustinian Provincial (regional superior) could not henceforth transfer them to a non-observant convento. Some Augustinian Priors General actively promoted observant congregations as a vehicle for the reform of Augustinian communities. Other Priors General, however, disfavoured them out of their fear for losing the unity of the Order.
Their fear was a real one, for in 1517 the division in the Franciscan Order became so severe that the Franciscan observants succeeded in becoming a completely separate Order. These Augustinian Priors General regarded observant congregations as being a divisive movement that supported the impression that there existed separate "strict" and "lax" Augustinian communities. The Priors General thought that this could bring about reform only to limited sections of the Order, which would possibly be detrimental to the prospect of its universal reform.
Once approved by Rome, each of these regional observant movements elected its own vicar-general. Thereby generally removed from the authority of the Augustinian Provincial (regional superior), all were nevertheless ultimately under the control of the Prior General of the Order of Saint Augustine. The most important of these observant congregations was centred on the Augustinian eremo (hermitage) of Lecceto, in the Tuscan district of Siena. The Augustinian community at Lecceto was constituted as an observant congregation in 1385, and soon drew 12 participating Augustinian convents into its movement of community reform and renewal.
In chronological order, other Augustinian observant congregations in Italy were those of St. John in Carbonara (Naples) founded about 1390 and having 14 convents; of Perugia (1491), having 11; the Lombardic Congregation (1430), 56; the Congregation of the Spanish Observance (1430), which after 1505 comprised all the Castilian monasteries; of Monte Ortono near Padua (1436), having 6 convents; of the Blessed Virgin at Genoa, also called Our Lady of Consolation (c. 1470), 25; of Apulia in Italy (c. 1490), 11; the German, or Saxon, Congregation (1493) (see next paragraph); the Congregation of Zampani in Calabria (1507), 40; the Dalmatian Congregation (1510), 6; the Congregation of the Colorites, or of Monte Colorito, Calabria (1600), 11; of Centorbio in Sicily (1590), 18; of the "Little Augustinians" of Bourges, France (c. 1593), 20; and of the Spanish, Italian, and French congregations of the Augustinian Recollects (and who sometimes were called the Discalced or Barefooted Augustinians).
Among these reformed congregations, besides those of the Recollect Augustinians, the most significant was the Augustinian Observant Congregation of Saxony (in Germany). As had happened in Italy, Spain, and France, reform began as early as the fifteenth century in the four German Augustinian provinces that had existed since 1299. Johannes Zachariae O.S.A. of Eschwege, a Provincial of the Order in Saxony and a professor of theology at the University of Erfurt, began a reform in 1492. Andreas Proles O.S.A., prior of the convento of Himmelpforten near Wernigerode, strove to introduce the reforms of Father Heinrich Zolter in as many Augustinian monasteries as possible. Proles, aided by Father Simon Lindner of Nuremberg and other zealous Augustinians, worked assiduously until his death in 1503 to reform the Augustinian communities in Saxony, even calling in the assistance of the secular ruler of the region. As the result of his efforts, the German, or Saxon, Augustinian Observant (Reformed) Congregation, recognized in 1493, comprised nearly all the important convents of the Order of Saint Augustine in the four German provinces of the Order of Saint Augustine.
Johann von Staupitz O.S.A., his successor as vicar of the Augustinian observant congregation of Saxony, followed in his footsteps. Staupitz had been prior of the Augustinians at Tubingen, and then at Munich. He then had taken a prominent part in founding the University of Wittenberg in 1502, where he became a professor of theology and the first dean of that faculty. Even after the public outbreak of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 Staupitz entertained friendly sentiments towards Martin Luther O.S.A., looking upon his proceedings as not being heretical but as being directed only against ecclesiastical abuses.
By 1519, however, Staupitz gradually changed his impression of Luther and turned away from his theology. Staupitz resigned his office of vicar-general of the Augustinian German observant congregation in 1520, and soon afterwards transferred to the Order of Saint Benedict. Father Wenzel Link O.S.A., a preacher at Nuremberg and a former professor and dean of the theological faculty at Wittenberg was elected his successor.
Link, however, shortly afterwards cast his lot with Luther, whose views were endorsed at a chapter of the Augustinian Saxon province held at Wittenberg in January 1522. In 1523 Link resigned his office, and this virtually ended the German observant movement of the Order of Saint Augustine. The German Augustinian observant communities that remained faithful to Rome then affiliated with the Lombardic observant congregation of the Order in northern Italy.
For a general coverage of the effects of the Protestant Reformation upon the Augustinian Provinces in Germany, click here.
For the Augnet photo gallery on Lecceto, click here.