For Giles of Viterbo the concept of reform embraced the whole outlook of life, and not merely the return to the conscious observance of necessary rules and regulations. He was highly intelligent, decisive, and knew his own mind. For example, in a letter to a fellow Augustinian in 1505, even before he became Prior General, he described the state of the Church in the most depressing terms.
He stated that the Church had lost the gift of divine charity and was so near extinction that he could actually hear the death rattle. With bitter words he depicted the Rome of the previous Pope - Alexander VI, Roderigo Borgia - (Pope in 1492-1503), as a city in which gold, force, and the lack of sexual morals reigned supreme. On more than one occasion he told his correspondent that day and night his only thought was of how to promote the reform of the Order of Saint Augustine. Giles said that the reform of the Order of Saint Augustine was, except for his own destiny after death, his greatest concern here on earth.
He wrote that he was willing solemnly to swear this before God and the angels on the great Day of Judgment. As soon as he was elected Prior General in May 1507, Giles published a program of reform that would help shape the Augustinian Order during the pain and turmoil of the following thirty years of Protestant Reformation and the inching towards Counter-Reformation. The main tenet of the program was that, rather than anything revolutionary, the Order needed to return to the spirit and letter of the Rule of St Augustine. As a product of humanism and the Renaissnce, Giles looked back, not forward – or at least thought that he did. In fact, he was very much a child of the Renaissance, as well as an intellectual prodigy. In his estimation, however, all culture was secondary to the love and honour of God. Within the Rule of St Augustine, he saw vita communis (community life) as the lynch-pin, and stated that unquestionably the observance of high-quality community life was the Augustinian way to spiritual perfection.
Perfect community life meant the renunciation of private property, full participation in community prayer, attendance at meals in common, a careful administration of community property, and a greater degree of fraternal charity in community. That he message would be repeatedly read and remembered, Giles turned to the relatively-new technology of the printing press. In November 1508 he arranged the first printed version of the Constitutions of the Order. Into this book he also placed the Rule of Augustine, and the most-read commentary of the Rule at that time, i.e., the one by Hugo of St Victor. Another section of Giles’ book contained Augustinian ceremonial and spiritual materials, including liturgical music. The final section of the book contained copies of papal bulls and privileges granted to the Order.
Giles reserved the last words of the book to himself, in the form of a letter from him to all members of the Order. In the letter, he reminded all Augustinian friars of the Order’s indebtedness to the papacy, and of the duty of the Order to reform itself so as in fact to be fitting spiritual sons of Augustine of Hippo. It was his capacity of being Prior General of the Augustinians that Giles received Martin Luther at Convento S. Agostino in Rome during the winter of 1510-1511. Giles impressed Luther favourably, and won Luther to his position on the matter that Luther had been sent to Rome to discuss.
Giles remained in the position of Prior General for twelve years, although during that time he was simultaneously called to undertake various tasks for the Pope. He was an excellent administrator, and was among the greatest resource that the Order of Saint Augustine had for carrying out a reform of itself.
The history of both the Order and the Church may have been different had he been allowed to focus fully on the task of being a Prior General to the full extent of his ability. Unfortunately, Pope Julius II was more focused on his failing military efforts to preserve possession of the territory belonging to the Pope in central Italy. And this was while Martin Luther was growing anxious about the condition of the church and the Order in Germany. As a scholar himself, Giles promoted the building up of libraries in each Augustinian community.
Around this time libraries were expanding rapidly, in both the houses of princes and in religious houses. The amarium of the Middle Ages, which held fifteen or twenty manuscripts in a small religious house (convento) but hundreds of titles in a larger house, now developed rapidly because of the perfection of printing. (The first Bible was printed in 1455.) In 1518, for example, the library in the Augustinian headquarters in Rome at Convento S. Agostino (where Giles lived as Prior General), had 1,500 manuscripts and printed works, and then by 1626 had 22,000 items when the collection became the Angelica Library.
Some of the writings of Giles of Viterbo concerned Hebrew literature. With Hebrew the original language of the Old Testament of the Bible. Christian scholars at Rome and elsewhere in Europe were fascinated by the Cabalistic usage of some Jewish commentators on the Bible. Giles believed as much as did any rabbi that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet concealed a deep theology that still had to be discovered. In a voluminous treatise dedicated to Pope Clement VII that he wrote between 1528 and 1531 called the Scechinah - a Hebrew expression meaning the presence of God among humanity - Giles attempted to introduce kabbalah into the world of Christian humanism.
As the sixteenth century progressed, however, detailed knowledge of the real languages and cultures of the Near East grew, and facts began to displace myths such as this. This treatise by Giles was soon only of historical interest. On less esoteric administrative matters, Giles as Prior General stressed that Augustinians proceeding to become priests must be well educated. He much opposed the practice, particularly of diocesan clergy in rural areas, or having "priests for the Mass", i.e., men who were only trained enough to celebrate the Mass in the Latin language. These men were taught to read Latin, and did not necessarily comprehend all that they were reading. They were not given a full education for the exercise of other duties of the priest. Even though not common among the Augustinians or most religious orders, this practice, however, was not completely absent from the Order.
Even so, Giles was working on the reformation of the Augustinian Order, and had been chosen by the Pope with that in mind. His work of reform, however, was confined to correspondence and the sending of his delegates as visitators. Giles himself did not travel outside of Italy before 1512, and until 1517 necessarily stayed close to Rome as one of the council members of the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517).
During the Italian Wars the French at the Battle of Ravenna on 11th April 1512 defeated an alliance of Swiss, Spanish, Venetian and papal forces. Following the battle, the city of Ravenna in the territory possessed by the Pope was seized by the French, but was soon recaptured. The Fifth Lateran Council solemnly held its first session at Rome in the Lateran residence on 10th May 1512. At this session, at the request of Pope Julius II, Giles made an elaborate inaugural address. In its purity of style and vocabulary, the discourse is reminiscent of Cicero:
"Hear ye most illustrious Princes of the Apostles, protectors and defenders of the city of Rome, the supplication of all the peoples of Christendom, prostrate at your feet. The Pope unites with the Fathers, the Senate and the whole world to implore our assistance for himself, for the Church, the City of Rome, these temples, these altars which enshrine your sacred relics this Council which is taking up arms with the support of the Holy Ghost for the salvation of Christendom..."
Giles did not hold back on his words in front of Pope Julius II, who twenty days earlier had been with his army in their defeat at the Battle of Ravenna. To a belligerent pope still hurting from a loss on the battlefield, Giles was not gentle. He proclaimed that the evils afflicting the Church could not be remedied by force of arms, but rather with the weapons of the Holy Spirit. He said, "Our arms are holy living, religion, prayers, vows, 'the defence offered by faith and the armour of light'… With these arms we shall be superior to any foe." He also proclaimed there his famous norm about reform, "People must be changed by religion, not religion by people."
Giles called for personal renewal as the way toward institutional reform. The norm for reform which Giles of Viterbo enunciated for the Fifth Lateran Council in 1512 discloses something of what he expected this great effort at Christian renewal to bring about. He insisted that people must be changed by religion and not religion by people - a reference to the agents of the Protestant Reformation. He was appointed as a papal legate to visit the court of the Emperor Maximillian at Augsburg, Germany in the winter of 1515-1516. This gave Giles the opportunity to visit some of the Augustinian communities in northern Italy, Austria and Germany, and to exhort them towards a more strict observance of Augustinian community life and practices.
Giles presided as Prior General at the Augustinian General Chapter of 1515, which was held at Rimini. Surprising as it may now seem, he was involved in this Chapter's arranging with the Pope for the sale by the Order of a plenary indulgence as means of raising funds for the Augustinian Order. Half of any income raised was to go to the costs of building St Peter's Basilica in Rome, and the other half to the Augustinian Order. (More surprising again, another plenary indulgence was sought by and granted to the Augustinian General Chapter of 1526 - after the Protestant Reformation had erupted.)
The secretary to the gathering was Giralomo Seripando O.S.A., who was to become the next shining light in the Order of Saint Augustine after Giles of Viterbo.(Continued on the next page.)Photo GalleryThe three photos on this page show the Augustinian Order in Poland. For Augnet's gallery on Poland, click here.AN4385