William of Cremona became Prior General during the second decade of the Avignon Papacy (1309 - 1378). Born about 1270, he gave many years of exemplary and well-documented work to the Augustinian Order and to the Church. Little is known about his life before he achieved the degree of magister (“Doctor”) of theology at the Augustinian studium generale in Paris in 1320.
William defended the authority of Pope John XXII against the attacks of theologians about papal superiority to the rights of kings, and against the imperialist claims of Emperor Louis (Ludwig) of Bavaria in this regard. In about 1326 he produced his main polemical work in response to Defensor Pacis (“Defender of Peace”) of Marsilius of Padua and other secularists. For this purpose, William wrote his tract, Reprobatio sex errorum (“The Refutation of six errors”). He prepared it at either the request or the order of Pope John XXII.
In this tract, he repeated the extreme views of Giles of Rome O.S.A. (Prior General 1292 - 1295) on the relationship of temporal and spiritual power, on dominion and ownership. There is surprisingly little of the thought of St Augustine or other Church Fathers in the tract, and much of Aristotle and Canon Law dressed in theological language. It was a polemical and political tract. He lit a time-fuse when here he proposed that a person could not legitimately hold power unless in the state of grace. William of Cremona O.S.A. (and Giles of Rome O.S.A. before him) had been thinking here of temporal rulers, but two centuries later Martin Luther in 1520 used this argument to deny the legitimacy of the spiritual leadership of the Popes. Even before this it was also used against the Church by John Wyclif in England and John Hus in Bohemia.
Elected Prior General at the General Chapter in Florence in 1326, William of Cremona was then repeatedly re-elected at the General Chapters held in northern Italy and France in 1329, 1332, 1335, 1338 and 1341. Sixteen years of his generalate coincided with the politico-religious struggles between Emperor Louis of Bavaria and two successive Popes (both Frenchmen, living in Avignon), and in 1327 the Emperor’s briefly invading Italy. Previously in 1319, during the term of office as Prior General of William’s predecessor, Alexander of St Elphido O.S.A., John XXII had already shown his appreciation for the support of the Augustinian Order in the challenge to his authority from secular rulers.
At that time John XXII permanently granted the Order of Saint Augustine three privileges of filling three high offices in the papal court: papal sacristan, papal librarian and confessor to the Pope – the first of which was the last of the three privilege to be abolished, done late last century by Pope John Paul II.
Photos (at right)The Augustinian Director (Principal) and some students of the Real Colegio (a High School) de Alfonso XII in the Escorial (Madrid).
Immediately after William of Cremona became Prior General, John XXII granted the Order a privilege it greatly sought, i.e., the co-custody of the church in Pavia, Italy that contained the tomb of St Augustine. This was contained in the papal bull, Veneranda sanctorum patrum of 20th January 1327. Hitherto the tomb had been in the care of the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine. A feud between these two religious orders was the almost inevitable result of this action by the Pope, until eventually the Order of Saint Augustine obtained sole custody.
Copies still exist of a circular letter that William wrote to all Augustinian Provincials soon after his election as Prior General in 1326. The document was named Ordinationes pro reparatione Ordinis (“Directives for the Renewal of the Order”). In general terms, William of Cremona complained that the Order, which was meant to be the third column in the house of God, had spiritually collapsed and had deviated from the observance of the old traditions and the Augustinian Constitutions. He blamed the Superiors for their negligence, by allowing a life of worldliness and vanity to creep into the Order under the guise of the religious habit. William's first concern was, therefore, to have good Superiors appointed at the Provincial Chapters.
His Vicar who presided over those Chapters was commanded, by virtue of the vow of obedience, to make a thorough investigation about the character of the candidates to be elected to the offices of Provincial, Definitors, and Priors, whether they had by any illegal machinations, directly or indirectly, procured their own election to those offices. The other efforts of the Prior General were chiefly directed towards a strict observance of the Constitutions, the education of novices, the care of the sick brethren, the performance of the religious exercises, and the restoration of the Order's monastic discipline as a remedy against the spiritual decay of the Order.
Besides his vigilant care for the whole Order, William of Cremona paid special attention to the studium generale (Augustinian house of studies) at Paris. In a letter, dated April 1328, William revoked the numerous regulations and ordinances made by his predecessors for that house, in order to preclude perplexity and the danger of non-observance. His new regulations stressed especially the performance of the religious and community exercises and the observance of regular discipline which appears to have suffered greatly at Paris. He was not reluctant to declare that a decline in religious observance and the increase of materialism within the Order was principally the fault of religious superiors. He listed practices that the Provincials should eradicate, and others that they should restore.
Local superiors were to read the Augustinian Constitutions frequently to their communities, and to discipline strictly anyone who failed to amend his ways. William was as strict upon himself as he expected superiors to be upon the members of their community. His Augustinian contemporaries wrote that William was “a careful, upright and pious man” who “governed the Order admirably.” The effectiveness of his call for more strict discipline actually is difficult to ascertain. Discipline was urgently needed soon after the conclusion of his term of office in 1342, for three years later the decimation caused by the Black Death and its destabilising effects on society, the Church and the Augustinian Order caused weaknesses in religious life to be greatly multiplied.
Photos (above)The Augustinian Director (Principal) and some students of the Real Colegio de Alfonso XII in the Escorial (Madrid).
But even before the Black Death struck, other tumultuous events impacting on European society, the Church and the Augustinian Order. William had been elected Prior General at the General Chapter in Florence in 1326, and then re-elected at the General Chapters in northern Italy and France in 1329, 1332, 1335, 1338 and 1341. The sixteen years of his generalate coincided with the struggles between Emperor Louis of Bavaria and two successive Popes (both Frenchmen, living in Avignon), and in 1327 the Emperor’s invading.
Firstly, William was Prior General throughout the brief pontificate of Pope Benedict XII (1334-1342). His successor, Clement VI, was elected three weeks later on 7th May 1342. William was Prior General throughout the brief pontificate of Pope Benedict XII (1334-1342). On 17th July 1342 Clement appointed William as Bishop of Novara in Lombardy, Italy, and later in the year also selected other Augustinians for the episcopacy. At the General Chapter held in Milan in 1343, an Italian, Denis of Modena was elected Prior General into the position that William of Cremona had vacated. He died a year later, and a new General Chapter met at Paris in 1345. For the first time in the Order’s history, the list of Priors General was to include a non-Italian - the German theologian, William of Strasbourg.
As Bishop of Novara for thirteen years (1342-1356), William of Cremona exercised the same skills and diligence that he had displayed previously as Augustinian Prior General for sixteen years. In 1347 he ordered all his clergy to submit a listing of all goods pertaining to the benefices. He paid attention to the delivery of ministry by his diocesan clergy in the way that he had as Prior General show concern for the ministry of Augustinians. The Augustinian historian Jordan of Saxony O.S.A. had recorded that, like Saint Augustine had done when appointed to the office of bishop, William continued to live in community.
William arranged for some Augustinians from their Priory in Novara to live in the bishop’s house, and joined them in prayer day and night, even for the Office of Matins in the middle of the night. He insisted that visitors to the Novara Priory also come and share hospitality with his group by dining at the bishop’s house. William was especially generous to the Augustinian Priory beside Augustine’s tomb in the Church of S. Pietro in Ciel d’Oro at Pavia, which Augustinian presence he had himself successfully obtained papal approval in 1327. He was Bishop of Novara from 1342 until his death on 29th January 1356.
Photos (at right) Picture 1: The sanctuary of St Augustine's Church, Hammersmith (London) Picture 2: Priest and people, Augustinian Parish of Hammersmith. Picture 3: Pascal candle and side altar, Hammersmith.
For further images of Augustinian ministries in England, click here.For further images of Augustinian ministries at the Escorial Monaserty in Spain, click here. (Under construction)