Girolamo Seripando (1492-1563) was the great Augustinian theologian at the Council of Trent. He was for a time a protégé of Giles, and there is reason to believe that the influence of Giles on Seripando was considerable. He was back in Rome by April 1516 because some of the bishops at the Fifth Lateran Council were proposing to strip some privileges of exemption from religious orders. His influence and that of the Prior General of the Dominicans was sufficient to preserve the exemption of religious orders except in two matters that are still observed right to this present day.
These were, firstly, that a bishop could officially inspect any church conducted by religious orders in his diocese that had been entrusted with the care of souls, i.e., churches that were public places of worship, and, secondly, that the consent of the bishop was required by any religious priest before he could publicly preach or be a confessor within that diocese. Giles informed the Order of Saint Augustine of its dire need for reform (and this only a year before Martin Luther published his theses).
Giles saw three options. The first was to give the reform of the Order over to the Pope, as the Franciscans had done. The second option was to make all communities become house of strict observance, as the Dominicans had done. And the third option was for the Order to attempt to reform itself, which is what Giles favoured. He moved towards implementing the third option, when on 1st July 1517 he was virtually withdrawn from the task when the Pope insisted that he had greater need for Giles in service of the general church.
Giles was made a cardinal and appointed as papal legate to the Spanish Court. This was exactly four months before Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) posted his challenge to a debate ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on 31st October 1517. He continued to lend his influence to the reform of the Order. He was back from Spain in time to attend the Augustinian General Chapter that convened in Venice in 1519. He came in triumph, for on behalf of the Pope he had just convinced the King of Spain to pledge support for a Crusade against the Turks - a crusade that did not eventuate. At the General Chapter he supported the reform agenda that called for all the basics of religious life and discipline to be firmly adhered to, in spite of the conflagration that Luther had begun in the Church in 1517. To a large extent, the legislative initiatives of the General Chapter were akin to an attempt to replace the cork in a champagne bottle that had previously been opened.
For Giles, reform meant the returning to ways of the past by removing the barnacles that had progressively accumulated through inattention, weak behaviour or bad deeds. The image of attempting to replace the cork back into the neck of the champagne bottle was here an image that had been consciously chosen. For our present purposes, it is enough simply to point out that thinking of Giles about the Church and its reform was conservative in its intent. For Giles, the sacred traditions of religion were a constant. And it was to them that humanity must try to conform his own instability and variability. The famous norm for reform of Giles was: "People must be changed by religion, not religion by people." In matters of liturgical rubric and religious discipline, therefore, Giles took a strong stand against all innovation. For him, the reform of the Augustinian Order had to consist in a return to the observance of its original charters.
Admittedly, this looking to the past to seek solutions for the present was consistent with the membership of Giles in the Augustinian observant movement, and his residence at the Eremo di Lecceto for four years, until he was called to become Prior General. For this reason Giles instigated a search in houses of the order for all documents which showed the old truths. He was a sworn enemy of all innovation in dogma and doctrine. In this instance, also, Giles voiced ideas and assumptions that were commonplace in his age. No matter what the content of a given reform program might be, it was almost without exception introduced under the respectable claim of a reaffirmation of the values of the past.
These were values that presumably had been obscured or totally lost in the present degenerate condition of Christian society. (The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s also called for numerous changes that were in fact a revival of lost practices of the past.)
Giles was bishop of his native city of Viterbo from 1523 until his death in 1532, and administrator of several other dioceses that he governed through vicars. He received from Pope Clement VII the honorary distinction of the title, Patriarch of Constantinople. As Bishop of Viterbo he himself demonstrated pastoral care for the people, he preached effectively, and witnessed to an exemplary daily life.He issued and enforced statutes to improve discipline amongst his clergy, he required that a cleric receiving an ecclesiastical benefice (income) had to reside in the place that the fulfilment of the benefice stipulated and required (i.e., they could not avoid the obligation that came with the income.) Giles used his diplomatic skills to bring peace amongst feuding factions in Viterbo, but not even his considerable talents on every occasion broke through positions that were firmly held.
His decade as Bishop of Viterbo included some of the most troubled and noisy years in the history of the territory in central Italy that was controlled by the Pope as a civil ruler. He is said to have commented, "I have never desired anything else so much as the health of my troubled Church." If he in fact did not say this, the words nevertheless capture the attitude to serving the church that he ably demonstrated throughout his life. Giles as a cardinal of the church was eligible for another task; he was able to be appointed as the Cardinal Protector of a religious order. This position became vacant in 1521 in relation to the Order of Saint Augustine, and Giles was appointed. One challenge for Giles in this role came from King Henry VIII of England. The king wanted the Pope to declare void his first marriage. John Clark, the English ambassador in Rome, approached Giles to persuade the reluctant Pope to accede to the request of Henry for an annulment. Clark tried to impress Giles with the theological treatise by Henry that was called, On Defence of the Seven Sacraments.
This flattery would even have missed its target if there were truth in the strong rumour that the treatise had been "ghost written" for Henry VIII by Bernard Andre, an Augustinian in Toulouse, France. Clark then tried to bribe Giles with money. When this also failed, he threatened Giles that Henry could suppress every house (convento) of the English Province of the Order. "Let him do with the houses whatever he wills," was Giles' reply. The conscience and the allegiance of Giles to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V were both unable to be moved. (Emperor Charles V was also King Charles I of Spain, and a nephew of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife that Henry VIII had removed).
During the years that he was a cardinal, Giles voted in two papal conclaves (i.e., the election of the Pope). He first did this in January 1523, when Adrian IV was appointed, and two years later when Clement VII came to office. On the first occasion, Giles was highly rated as a candidate for the papacy, as the Italian families of de'Medici and Farnese promoted their candidates. The chances of Giles stood high because he led an unblemished life, was noted as a reformer, and was outside of the political intrigues of these major Italian families. A letter to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1473 - 1530) in England stated that Giles was exceedingly learned, skilled in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic; "a wise man of no faction... He is of no great family, and has few dependents, and finally amongst us has no spot, except that he is a friar." That final phrase suggested that Giles would not be a popular choice with the voting cardinals because - unlike the vast majority of them - he was a member of a religious order. Because Giles lacked attachment to any particular ecclesiastical faction in Rome, he had no voting bloc supporting him.
In the election the Medici and Farnese families successfully counteracted each other, and a Dutchman was elected - for which result the disappointed Roman citizens for some reason blamed Giles! Another colourful incident happened for Giles in 1527, while he was Bishop of Viterbo. The city of Rome was sacked by imperial troops, and the Pope was surrounded in the Castel Sant'Angelo, the fortress that still exists across the Tiber from the Vatican. An army of 15,000 was gathering nine miles away in order to rescue the Pope. Giles in Viterbo gathered 2,000 mercenaries to join the larger army. It would have been a great conclusion to the story if the matter had continued, but soon after the arrival of Giles at the front of his troops the army simply dispersed, and Giles returned to Viterbo. At least Giles could add leader of an army of 2,000 undefeated soldiers to his curriculum vitae - unlike any other Augustinian Prior General before him or after him. Giles died on 11 November 1532.
(Continued on the next page.)Photo GalleryThe three photos on this page show the Augustinian Order in Prague. For Augnet's gallery more broadly on the Czech Republic, click here. AN4386