Kerygmatic element of the Capuchin reform

Table of Contents

Von Balthasar, with his usual broad-brush strokes approach, gives a good overview of the period we are looking at in which we can begin to contextualise the Capuchin reform:

The following epoch saw the disappearance of the “complete” theologian in the above sense [Albert, Bonaventure and Thomas], the theologian who is also a saint. In fact, spiritual men were turned away from a theology which was overlaid and overloaded with secular philosophy—with the result that alongside dogmatic theology, meaning always thereby the central science which consists in the exposition of revealed truth, there came into being a new science of the “Christian life”, one derived from the mysticism of the Middle Ages and achieving independence in the devotio moderna. On this byway, of course, we continue to find saints. It is also true that, later, there were still teachers who were saints: John of the Cross was a doctor, not of dogmatic but of mystical theology; Canisius—certainly no theologian—was an interpreter of doctrine to ordinary people; Bellarmine a controversialist; Alphonsus a moralist. None of them centered his life, I do not say on dogma, but on dogmatic theology. This is true even of Francis de Sales who, as the founder of spiritualité, assured to it a recognized though never a clearly defined place among the ecclesiastical sciences.[1]

To help to contextualise the observation of Von Balthasar, as well as the above section on the contemporary analyses of the need for reform, let us read a short passage of Desiderius Erasmus, writing in 1509. Erasmus was a significant influence in both humanism and reform in the sixteenth century.

Let us read and discuss a section from his Praise of Folly.

A disconnect was occurring on the various strata of society with the traditional Latin scholastic school-style writing and preaching and those seeking to develop their personal and communal spirituality. The latter were increasingly turning to the vehicles, in the vernacular, of the likes of the mystical writings (eg. Catherine of Siena), devotio moderna, Kempis’, Imitation of Christ, The Benefit of Christ’s Death, the bible and evangelical preaching. The Crucified Christ and the benefit of his paschal mystery was the mirror of perfection once again being sought out by both individuals, groups and institutions. The modes of expressing this evangelical reform varied according to the medium, the persons, the groups and the institutions. We will sample only a minimum.

Sonnet, drawing, prose, and preaching as vehicles of evangelisation


Vittoria Colonna had a close ecclesial relationship with more than just the Capuchin, Bernardino Ochino, who had a very formative influence upon her. She protected and defended the nascent Capuchin reform at critical moments but was also being formed in her spirituality by these relationships with Capuchin friars. Colonna was also involved with others seeking to deepen their faith life; she engaged with the likes of Aloysius Gonzaga, Valdés, Cardinals Contrini, Bembo and Pole. She was considered a spiritual mentor to Michelangelo. The common denominator amongst them all was the seeking of a living faith inflamed by a spirituality situated in the Crucified Christ and his benefits, and a conviction that this living faith needed to be transmitted to others, for the common good of both the church and society.

Colonna was a poet and prose writer in her own right. Her earlier sonnets will follow the traditional Petrarchan form of dealing with the subject matter of human love and tragedy.

To take one example of a Petrarch’s romantic sonnet:[2]

Gli occhi di ch’io parlai sì caldamente,
E le braccia e le mani e i piedi e ’l viso
Che m’avean sì da me stesso diviso
E fatto singular dall’altra gente;
Le crespe chiome d’or puro lucente,
E ’l lampeggiar dell’angelico riso
Che solean far in terra un paradiso,
Poca polvere son, che nulla sente.
Ed io pur vivo; onde mi doglio e sdegno,
Rimaso senza ’l lume ch’amai tanto,
In gran fortuna e ’n disarmato legno.
Or sia qui fine al mio amoroso canto:
Secca è la vena dell’usato ingegno,
E la cetera mia rivolta in pianto.

Those eyes, ’neath which my passionate rapture rose,
The arms, hands, feet, the beauty that erewhile
Could my own soul from its own self beguile,
And in a separate world of dreams enclose,
The hair’s bright tresses, full of golden glows,
And the soft lightning of the angelic smile
That changed this earth to some celestial isle,—
Are now but dust, poor dust, that nothing knows.
And yet I live! Myself I grieve and scorn,
Left dark without the light I loved in vain,
Adrift in tempest on a bark forlorn;
Dead is the source of all my amorous strain,
Dry is the channel of my thoughts outworn,
And my sad harp can sound but notes of pain.

Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) also wrote on spiritual themes, Costanzo Cargnoni notes that St Lawrence of Brindisi was aided in his prayer life by the Petrarchan poem, “Vergine bella, di sol vestita, coronate de stelle”/Lovely Virgin, clothed with the sun, crowned with stars. Below are the intial two of the ten stanzas poem: [3]

Vergine bella, che di sol vestita,
coronata di stelle, al sommo Sole
piacesti sí, che ’n te Sua luce ascose,
amor mi spinge a dir di te parole:
ma non so ’ncominciar senza tu’ aita,
et di Colui ch’amando in te si pose.
Invoco lei che ben sempre rispose,
chi la chiamò con fede:
Vergine, s’a mercede
miseria extrema de l’humane cose
già mai ti volse, al mio prego t’inchina,
soccorri a la mia guerra,
bench’i’ sia terra, et tu del ciel regina.

Vergine saggia, et del bel numero una
de le beate vergini prudenti,
anzi la prima, et con piú chiara lampa;
o saldo scudo de l’afflicte genti
contra colpi di Morte et di Fortuna,
sotto ’l qual si trïumpha, non pur scampa;
o refrigerio al cieco ardor ch’avampa
qui fra i mortali sciocchi:
Vergine, que’ belli occhi
che vider tristi la spietata stampa
ne’ dolci membri del tuo caro figlio,
volgi al mio dubbio stato,
che sconsigliato a te vèn per consiglio.

Lovely virgin, clothed with the sun,
Crowned with stars, you so pleased
The high sun that in you he hid his own light,
Love urges me to speak a word to you;
But I cannot begin without your help,
And the help of Him who placed himself lovingly in you:
I call on her who always responds positively
To those who call on her with faith.
Virgin, if to take away
Extreme misery from the human condition
You are always willing, then incline yourself to my prayer;
Help in this my war
Though I am on earth and you are queen of heaven.

Wise virgin, one of that fine number
Of the blessed wise virgins,
Or rather the first among them, with the clearest lamp;
O solid shield of afflicted peoples
Against the blows of Death and Fate
Beneath which we triumph, not just escape;
O cooler of blind heat which flares up,
Which crackles among mortals;
Virgin, those beautiful eyes
Which saw sadly the spiteful wounds
On the sweet limbs of your dear son,
Turn them on my uncertain state,
Mine who comes to you, unadvised, for advice.

In Colonna’s case, the subject matter of her early sonnets is the chaste love of a young wife at first missing her husband who is off fighting for the Emperor, then imprisoned, and finally, dead.

As her faith enlivens, develops and matures, her sonnets and prose unfold into expressions of the love of Christ crucified, identification with his sorrowful mother, the experience of Mary Magdalen’s encounter with the mercy of the risen Christ, and the urgency to proclaim this love to others.

John Donne (1572-1631)

Before examining a few of Colonna’s spiritual sonnets, which are written in sixteenth century Italian, let us taste one classic example in English, that of John Donne’s, Death be not proud. This will give us a feel for this somewhat now neglected literary form.

Donne composes the sonnet in 1609, well after the death of Colonna (1547). However, it still serves to give expression to how the sonnet can be used as a vehicle to express a faith nourished by the death and resurrection event of Christ, the last line of the poem alluding to 1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.

Thou’art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then they stroake; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.[4]

I would recommend listening to it by Britten: Billy Budd; The Holy Sonnets of John Donne n. 9 (London Symphony Orchestra DECCA 1989) sung by Peter Pears.[5]

Donne moves death from the image of being proud, mighty and dreadful to being no more than the implied gentle slumber of 1 Corinthians 15:18: ‘those who have fallen asleep in Christ”. Implied is the victory of Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:54; 57: “Death is swallowed up in victory…. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547) and Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564)

Drawings of Michelangelo for Vittoria Colonna


Margaret Roper (1505-1544)

Margaret Roper (1505-1544) was a writer and translator in her own right; being the eldest daughter of St Thomas More (1477-1535) will always overshadow her literary competence. She is contemporary to the early years of the Capuchin reform. Erasmus is a friend of her father and has visited their family home. In 1523 Roper translates from Latin to English the Precation Dominica of Erasmus (A Devout Treatise upon the Paternoster). Erasmus dedicates his Commentary on the Christian hymn of Prudentius (1523) to her.

Thomas More, by faith and grace, lives in a domestic church. His daughter remembers and treasures in her heart the kerygmatic words announced to her by her father shortly before his execution. More dialogues with her in the language of the gospels with living faith. It is enough to read the paragraph in the letter we will read below where he remembers and identifies with the experience of Peter, both in getting out of the boat into the storm swept waters of the lake, beginning to sink and being held from drowning by Christ’s extended arm, and in Peter’s threefold denial, in being now tempted by his very own beloved daughter Margaret to renounce his faith and his overwhelming trust in the merciful gaze of Christ. The dialogue with his daughter is expressed in evangelical tones, using gospel imagery and at the centre is the passion and merits of Christ where human weakness and sin is overwhelmed by the grace and mercy of the crucified Christ.

Let us now look at this letter by which Margaret transmits this kerygma to her sister, Alice.

Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547)

Colonna’s first meditation was composed in the early 1540s and probably addressed to Bernardino Ochino.[6] It demonstrates the meditation style first practiced by the Franciscans.[7] Brundin notes the cross-pollination of imagery and style between Colonna and Michelangelo:

Michelangelo’s Pietà executed for Colonna as a personal gift. Michelangelo depicts Mary as physically strong and upright, not cowed in anguish over the body of her divine Son but rather lifting her arms towards heaven in an ambiguous gesture of intermingled suffering and celebration. In the same way the Virgin’s emotions as explored by Colonna in this short meditation are confusingly double-sided, suspending her midway between grief and jubilation, and once again reiterating the theme of the variety and complexity of her roles and emotions.[8]

Brundin goes on to note the affinity also between portrayal of the Virgin Mary here and in the preaching of Ochino as having evangelical faith and as a model for all Christians, especially in contemplating the crucified Christ. She quotes from his sermon delivered in Venice 1539:

The Virgin Mary, the holy virgin, was the one who most perfectly and better than any other creature contemplated Christ hung upon the cross with a living faith in the manner in which we too should contemplate him.

At the period when Colonna is composing the Plaint, the Protestant reform, in its loss of the full tradition is progressively eradicating the role and function of the Virgin Mary in the history of salvation. Brundin notes that “Colonna appears to be conducting a process of selection and fusion, merging elements from disparate sources both in her powerful representation of Mary and in the conscious choice to present aspects of the new theology of the reformers in the manner of earlier devotional tracts, well established by tradition.”[9] Colonna remains firmly within the tradition and so expresses a solid ecclesiology in her prose and poetry.

Let us now read and discuss a substantial part of the Plaint of the Marchesa di Pescara.

Br Bernardino d’Asti (circa 1484-1557)

Br Bernardino is highly significant to the primitive Capuchin reform. He was the leader who oversaw the writing of the 1536 Constitutions, being the leader of the friars from 1535 to 1538 and guided the friars through the first stages of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), being again in the leadership role from 1546 to 1552.

What we will look at is the first Circular Letter of a leader of the Capuchin reform written on 6th July 1548. He is concerned with the discernment of spirits. The goal of this discernment is nothing less than a spousal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, this both opens the first paragraph – “being the spouse of God, the greatest Emperor, our Lord Jesus Christ” – and closes the letter – “to enter the eternal marriage to the divine and heavenly spouse.”

In the letter he articulates the foundation of the Capuchin reform – a continuous conversion to a life of prayer, charity and poverty, with prayer being the first link in this unbreakable chain: “Therefore I exhort and beg each one of you, as far as possible, to be very concerned about humble and devout prayer, begging the Lord from your hearts to bestow and increase and advance these holy virtues, especially most holy charity and poverty which, along with prayer, are most necessary and precious ornaments of the true lesser brother.” He inseparable links the three together, as St Francis does in his salutation of the virtues: “He who possesses one and does not offend the others, possesses all; and he who offends one, possesses none and offends all; and every one [of them] confounds vices and sins”.

Let us now read and discuss  Br Bernardino d’Asti’s Circular Letter of 6th July 1548.

Battista da Faenza †1562

Battista writes a raw kerygmatic letter to his hometown. It is raw in comparison to the highly educated and cultured tone of the above letter of Margaret Roper, the above prose of Vittoria Colonna and the meditation of Br Bernardino da Montolomo that we look at in the section below on mental prayer. Battista’s tools of training before becoming a Capuchin friar were the violent use of force and the appropriate accompanying weapons, whereas Roper, Colonna and Bernardino’s tools were erudite learning and the quill.

Battista is converted in Florence in 1537 by the preaching of Bernardino Ochino. We will look at a sermon of Ochino in the section below on preaching.

His Christology reflects the early Capuchin tradition of focus on Christ crucified: “Anyone who does not know how to read Christ, the book of life, has no doctrine he can preach. Therefore, so that the preachers study Him, they are forbidden to carry many books, since everything is found in Christ” (Chapter nine of 1536 Constitutions). Similarly, Battista writes: “Michael the Archangel appeared to her [Magdalene] with a cross in his hand and said that since the cross was the true book from which to learn divine love and the wisdom of the saints, which consists in fleeing from what is evil and following what is good, always study the cross.”

We get some insight into the temperament and character of Battista from a significant autobiographical detail contained in the letter: “Thus one day I was given the honour of no longer being gazed upon by the precious eyes of my beloved Redeemer but of hearing the sound of His divine words, when, because of the great violence I felt within me from trying to control the wild beast of anger which habitually boiled up in my heart, a vein burst in my chest causing blood to spill out in abundance from my mouth…”

He was a passionate man and wrote in the same vein. Battista expresses his study of the book of the cross according to his character; the imagery is much cruder, sanguineous and violent than that of the more cultured and refined meditation on the passion of Br Bernardino da Montolomo. If we avoid allowing ourselves to be offended by the graphic violence of the description of the passion of Christ, we can discover that the underlying foundation of the letter is subtly eucharistic. It expresses immense gratitude towards Christ whom Battista spiritually experiences detaching “his right hand from the cross and showing [him] the wound in his side” and speaks to Battista of the divine love he has for him: “Once blood and water had flowed from that wound, nothing further was required of us than the water of tears and the blood of affectionate love.”

Battista is writing his letter to his hometown in preparation for his death; he is writing his profession of faith that he ardently desires to transmit to them: “Why could I not come back through the streets of Faenza with my customary cross in my hand where I would like to go about shouting the words of Saint Bonaventure:

Let us carry the memory
Of the sufferings and insults
Of Christ, the crown of thorns,
The cross, nails and lance,
and draw everyone to frequently carrying out the holy practice of meditating on Christ’s passion!”

Let us now read and discuss the letter of Br Battista to his beloved-home town of Faenza before his death in 1562.


Bernardino of Colpetrazzo, one of the early chroniclers of the primitive Capuchin reform describes both the situation of atrophied preaching in the so-called sermo modernus current at the time, and compares this with the different style and content of the Capuchin friars:

At that time the Capuchins preached the commandments of God, the Gospel and the Sacred Scripture; harshly reprimanding vices and exalting and magnifying the holy virtues. This greatly amazed all of Christianity, because it was a new preaching, done with great fervour that fired everyone with enthusiasm. Whereas at that time nothing was preached except the questions of Scotus and St Thomas, and at the beginning [the preachers] always recounted a dream, saying: “Last night it appeared to me, etc”. They preached philosophy, the fables of Aesop and always at the end sung some verses from Petrarch or Ariosto. They never mentioned the Gospel or the Sacred Scripture. That preachers from the other Orders, if they wanted to be accepted, had to adjust to this way of preaching the Sacred Scriptures, shows the fervour with which the Capuchins preached the scriptures. They produced this great fruit in the Church of God, that because of them, everyone was preaching the Scriptures.[10]

In his doctoral thesis, Camaioni[11] asks what conclusions can be drawn from the preaching of the Capuchins in the years of the leadership of Bernardino d’Asti (1536-1538) and Bernardino Ochino (1538-1542)? From analysing the limited but heterogenous documentary sources available, that do not give a balanced perspective in that they are predominantly referring to Ochino, allow for a general identification of correspondence between the early Capuchin preaching and the model indicated in the Constitutions of 1536, in relation to the following points:

• the preaching by way of “good example”, whereby the preaching from the pulpit is accompanied by a life exemplified by ascetics and the integral observance of poverty;

• the centrality of Scripture, particularly the Gospel;

• the recovery of a simple style and direct rapport with the listeners, eliminating every display of erudition that was an end in itself;

• establishing a substantive penitential aspect to the sermons, directed towards stimulating a conversion of heart of each listener and the moral reform of the community by way of promoting the social works of various types and the developing new forms of devotion, such as the “Forty Hours.”

Bernardino da Colpetrazzo in his chronicle outlines clearly the tripodic elements of the Capuchin tradition, that we are concentrating on in this course, as present in the life and activity of the early Capuchin friars:

817. It was a wonderful thing, that all Christianity woke up at their preaching. Where at first people went to Communion hardly once a year, now they began to go more often. Many associations arose, whose members gave excellent example in frequenting the most holy sacraments and dedicating themselves to works of mercy. For in that time the Christian way of life was quite run down. However, because of the preaching of the Capuchins, many lords, gentlemen and distinguished persons began to lead a spiritual life. Among the people many made restitution for past wrongs, and many were converted to the spiritual life. [IV, 193][12]

Bernardino Ochino (1487-1564)

Fr Costanzo Cargnoni writes:[13]

Bernardino Ochino was one of the most influential architects of the Capuchin Constitutions which were drafted in Rome at S. Eufemia in 1536. However, the writings that he produced before his dramatic flight to Geneva are still of great importance in defining the very dynamic influence of evangelical spirituality amongst the early Capuchins. Between 1536 and 1542 Ochino produced booklets of Dialogues and Sermons that contained various spiritual approaches within the Catholic reform movement, especially those of the group of Italian “Spirituals” who followed tendencies of “evangelism”, a “Pauline” approach and the teaching of the “benefit of Christ”. (“beneficio di Cristo”).

Even if the greater part of modern historical research tends to see in his writings many doctrinal ambiguities that anticipate the heterodox choices that Ochino made, they still remain substantially within the ambit of Catholic teaching and document many of the religious and spiritual characteristics of the early followers of the Capuchin reform.

This Lenten sermon of Ochino expresses the strong Pauline-Augstinian influences upon him, as well as his strong biblical basis, both Old and New Testament, with scripture references being used to powerful effect. What is exposed forcefully in this example of the preaching style and content of Ochino is thus Christo-centricity, especially focus on the crucified Christ. It also valuable to compare it with John Paul II’s Reconciliaitio et Paenitentia, especially in the article below:

19. In order to understand sin we have had to direct our attention to its nature as made known to us by the revelation of the economy of salvation: This is the mysterium iniquitatis. But in this economy sin is not the main principle, still less the victor. Sin fights against another active principle which-to use a beautiful and evocative expression of St. Paul-we can call the mysterium or sacramentum pietatis. Man’s sin would be the winner and in the end destructive, God’s salvific plan would remain incomplete or even totally defeated, if this mysterium pietatis were not made part of the dynamism of history in order to conquer man’s sin.[14]

Mysterium iniquitatis: “We would convert this carnal man, and therefore you must first confess your sins. The beginning of penance is the acknowledgment of sin. If you have never acknowledged your sins, you can feel no grief concerning them, and therefore cannot regret them […] the exact and deepest avowal of sin consists in this, that we regard Christ crucified for us in the mirror of pure faith and ardent love.”

Mysterium pietatis: “If you behold your image in Him, you will recognise your darkness by His light, your pride by His humility, your iniquity by His innocence, your avarice by His generosity, your presumption by His meekness, your ingratitude by His countless benefits.”

The style and content also reveals his concern for social transformation and the poor:  “… but if you examine carefully from where your property and all in your house proceeds, you may perchance discover that it comes from the blood of the poor, and belongs to others, to whom you must restore it […] give plentiful alms to the poor of this city.”

Let us now read and discuss this first Lenten sermon in Venice 1539.

What is meant by evangelising according to Bernardino Ochino and the early Capuchin reform?

Fr Costanzo Cargnoni notes[15] that in Ochino’s collection of sermons published in various volumes after his flight, Ochino will speak of “the order that should be kept in preaching” and explain “what is the preaching of the Gospel”:[16]

Evangelizing is nothing other than opening and showing the world the great goodness of God, the gifts, benefits and graces that we have from him through Christ. However, preaching the Gospel is not to preach dreams, nor visions, poems, fables or human inventions. It is not preaching the form, quiddity, haecceity and curious questions, that are useless and often pernicious. It is not preaching rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, astrology, philosophy, metaphysics or other speculative sciences. It is not preaching ethics or politics, laws, precepts, documents and moral virtues. It is not preaching decrees, decretals, councils or canons. It is not preaching the ceremonial precepts of Moses, judicial or moral. It is not preaching natural or written law, nor any given precept. It is not preaching prophecies, history and characters of the Old Testament, nor the example and writings of the saints. It is not preaching the life of Christ nor his words.

But preaching the Gospel is to preach the rich, happy, glad, glorious, heavenly, angelic and divine newness that we have received from God through Christ. It is to preach how God through Christ loves us with and infinite, continuous, eternal, perpetual stable and gratuitous love; that he is always thinking of us, holding us before his eyes; that from eternity by way of Christ he has elected us to be his children, heirs and blessed by way of every spiritual blessing in heavenly things, and everything is by means of his grace in and through Christ. [It is to preach] that the elect rest secure, that they cannot be lost, having created us and especially caring of us, in such a way that everything serves for our wellbeing. [It is to preach] that God has placed our sins in Christ, and it is he who with the greatest charity, accepted them as his own, being the most innocent one, and has satisfied by his suffering on the cross what we have merited [to suffer]; he has taken away the sins of the world, washed us with blood, given us life by his death, freed us from every evil, justified, sanctified, pacified, gratified and reconciled us with God; he has killed us and buried us to the world, resuscitated us in spirit, and taken us into heaven, illuminated, inflamed, enriched and rejoicing; it is Him who has donated to us Christ, with all his perfection, grace, virtues, gifts and treasures; He is our everything, he who worked and suffered for us for thirty-three years. He is our life, death, resurrection, ascension and glory.

Now this is to preach the Gospel, to preach this and similar riches and good news, that were already promised in various places in the Sacred Scriptures, and through Christ we have obtained them.[17]

Fr Costanzo also outlines how Ochino explains the various steps involved in the process of conversion. The preacher has first to help the sinner as though he were treating a sick patient:

• discover first the external evil being suffered, that is more obvious than the internal; “it is necessary at the beginning to preach the law” so that “we come to discover our sins, as Paul wrote,” even the most hidden, the “sad thoughts, will, sentiments, desires and inner sins” of the heart. The natural light, however, is not sufficient, and therefore we must also preach the Law of Moses, “in as much as they are moral precepts, they express that natural law in us that has been obscured by sin. Going deeper, it is necessary [the preacher] explains this [to the sinner] in the same way that Christ does, particularly in the fifth chapter of St Matthew.”

• then continue to show that “it is not enough the outside works, by which men become hypocrites. Nor are moral virtues enough, which, at most, can make a good philosopher, but not a Christian. It is necessary to beat the sinner to the ground…. and show him how bad a thing in him is vice and how beautiful is virtue” until he profoundly repents and “in desperation for himself”, because he cannot escape from it with “his own strength, commitment, prudence and works, not even with all the angels together, nor are his philosophies enough, nor the saints, not Moses or the law is enough, nor anything inferior to Christ”, to whom he needs humble himself.

• “And then” – writes Ochino – “I want the Gospel to be preached to him, the law having already done its service, and that he is shown in Christ the great bounty, mercy and charity of God, which opens to him the treasures of the divine grace that is found in the Son of God on the cross.”

On the contrary, according to Ochino, this order and “declaration” of the Gospel is not respected in the preaching of his time, because the obligation to the law and to external works and ceremonies is exaggerated, the effects of which are short-lived and non-enduring:

And so many preachers always hold up the person of Moses, without ever putting forward that of Christ. They always preach law and never grace, nor the Gospel; they always threaten, always showing those things that [the people] are obliged to do, always their sins and hell. So much so that the poor sinners despair, because they are not shown Jesus Christ, his grace, nor his Gospel, or the people truly become hypocrites and presumptuous, because they presume they have justified themselves. At certain times, if nothing else, (such as Holy Week, or at the time of death) they control themselves a little, trying to force themselves to do external things, for their own self-respect, not for love, nor for the honour of God. But they do not last, rather, with those few days passing, they return to being the same, whether with external things or internal. However, even if they did shine a little on the outside, they do not change, because they are without Christ and without lively feelings for the goodness of God. They always remain impious.

Therefore, just as Christ was first crucified and then resurrected, in the same way, it is necessary to first crucify the sinner with the law, and then resurrect him with the Gospel.[18]

Fr Costanzo notes that even if after the flight, the tone of Ochino’s sermons become strongly anti-Catholic, anti-hierarchical and anti-papal,[19] the substance remains positive.

A digression: what happened with Ochino?

Psychological, emotional and moral reasons can only be guessed at. Theologically, Ochino had a very solid, appealing Christology. It was strongly Pauline-Augustinian in emphasis. He had a very weak ecclesiology. The reforming Bishop Gian Matteo Giberti (1495–1543) of Verona could perhaps supply the key insight. Giberti was a friend of Ochino, greatly respected him as a friar and preacher, and shared mutually reformed inclined friends. Giberti could be said to have anticipated and led the way for the Tridentine reforms established at the Council. He was a member of the committee that prepared the Consilium de emendanda ecclesia. St Charles Borromeo, before initiating his own diocesan reforms in Milan, studied the reform methods of Giberti and chose one of the priests trained by Giberti as his vicar-general.[20]

Benrath notes that Bishop Giberti wrote to the Marchese del Vasto, expressing questions of the why? of Ochino’s flight: “Two things may have led our good father to the step; it may have been zeal against what seemed to him the evil government of the Church, but that is no novelty, but has been so from the beginning. Good and evil will always dwell together, and many holy and learned men, whom Ochino ought to trust, have in even worse times shown the rulers not hatred, but rather pity, and have followed the only right paths, those of private and written rebuke, and secret tears and prayers. The other motive may have been his doubts of the Pope’s good faith, but the character and former proceedings of His Holiness do not justify any such suspicion. Besides it is contradicted by the circumstance that the Pope took no steps to have Ochino arrested in the Venetian dominions, although he might very easily have done so. Nor did the Governatore of Bologna receive any order to secure him.”[21]

Unlike the similar reformer Giberti, Ochino could not differentiate between the office and the man. It is true that there was significant moral corruption amongst members of the hierarchy. The above section on Contemporary analyses of the need for reform has already made that clear. Ochino was robust on examining and following one’s conscience, apparent from looking at just the three references found in the above Lenten sermon. John Petrikovic notes in his essay on Evangelical Freedom and Disobedience”: “The role of individual conscience and its exercise is perhaps the most provocative characteristics of the early Capuchins still in need of study.”(cf. last section: The choice is singular). Where was the ultimate authority for one’s conscience? Christ is the sacrament of the Father. The Church is the sacrament of Christ. Where is the measure for the conscience found? Christ surely, but he chose not to operate in a vacuum, but by means of the incarnation. The Church is the means to Christ. If Ochino will say the scriptures, then the usual questions of where lies the authority arise: where did the scripture come from? who/what decided the canon of scripture? who/what is the arbitrator in differing interpretations of scripture? etc, etc. If it is prayerfully searching in the depth of one’s conscience in dialogue with Christ in the Spirit, ultimately, we are still left in subjectivity if the Church as sacrament is bypassed. Ochino writes to Vittoria Colonna justifying his flight.[22] She does not write back and sends the second letter on to the Church authorities.[23] It is obvious from this letter that once Ochino has made this decision he has to reject, re-interpret and rewrite his own history. He will go on to denigrate religious life, which he had lived for nearly 40 years, needing to mention it specifically by way of rejection and small-mindedness in his tract on how a Christian should make a last will and testament.[24] In the end, Ochino dies searching for a community he can call home for himself and his children.

Lawrence of Brindisi (1559-1619)

With Lawrence of Brindisi, and the same applies to Mattia da Salò, who we will look at next, we enter a new phase of Capuchin reform, that of the implementation of the reforms of the Council of Trent. What is in continuity and discontinuity with the above sermon sample of Ochino we have explored?

Continuity is in the richness of scriptural content. The preaching is substantially founded in the Sacred Scriptures and the Gospel. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross remains the centre of the Christology expressed, while acknowledging Lawrence has a broader incarnational appreciation. He sits strongly in the tradition of the likes of Origen and Jerome who see numerous types in the Old Testament fulfilled in various aspects of the life of Christ. Lawrence does not ‘limit’ salvation to the crucifixion event, as is the tendency in Ochino.

The discontinuity is in the concern of Lawrence to deal with the pastoral, devotional, liturgical and sacrament questions raised by the Protestant reformation. As footnote 19 of the sermon we will look at indicates, he is using the theology of the Council of Trent, especially in upholding the presence of Christ in all seven of the sacraments, and the real and unique presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. The Mass is a making present of the paschal event.

The port of Brindisi opens the Italian peninsula up to the East. This influence is found in the preaching of Lawrence, especially when he makes the connection, several times in the homily, between the crucified Christ, the most holy Sacrament, and the new life of resurrection, deification to use the language coming from the Eastern influence. At the end of 6246 in the sermon we will look at below the Old Testament sacrifices established by Moses are “almost deified” as a type, in in 6250 “this most divine sacrament of the most holy Eucharist deifies us and unites us with God, transforms us into God and makes us many gods.” The final paragraph of the sermon begins with our justification by Christ paying the price of the cross: “I would also say that it is a fact that in paying the price he rescued us from being slaves of the devil and of sin, by feeding us he restored us to life and deified us as his members.” We could parallel this with the final line of the sermon section of Ochino quoted above: Therefore, just as Christ was first crucified and then resurrected, in the same way, it is necessary to first crucify the sinner with the law, and then resurrect him with the Gospel. The Gospel, and its incarnation in the sacraments, opens Lawrence to a much richer Christological and ecclesiological expression compared to Ochino, even during his Catholic phase. Perhaps this could be called – to state a later stage in tradition and rightly be challenged as being anachronistic – the development of doctrine, as would be described by John Henry Newman, brought forth from the theological tensions of the sixteenth century.

Let us now read and discuss his sermon concerning the most holy sacrament of the altar probably delivered in Venice somewhere between 1582-1584 on the Feast of Sts Simon and Jude.

Mattia da Salò (1535-1611)

Mattia di Salò also provides us with a post-Tridentine Lenten course sermon. He preached in Milan in 1597. The Council of Trent closed in 1563. The friars are now working at implementing the council reforms.

Mattia di Salò is one of the early chroniclers of the Capuchin reform. In his chronicle he describes the common form of the early Capuchin preachers. He notes[25] that preaching itself has been improved greatly by the style of the Capuchins. While preaching they do not raise useless questions which are understood by few. Mattia is contrasting with the atrophied tradition of preaching in Latin on obscure questions of philosophy and theology noted above. The Capuchins preach the Gospel and the overcoming of the vices that hold sway amongst the people listening. To give added force to their preaching, they introduced holding up the Holy Crucifix in their hand as they preached from the pulpit.

We will read and discuss together only the first of the three Lenten sermons provided. Just to note a few things before we do this.

The style of Mattia, in keeping with the spirit of the time, that is moving towards the Baroque period, is very lyrical, tending to be extravagant, to the point of being verbose. Fr Costanzo in his introduction to the sermons mentions that it was noted at his eulogy that just a few months before his death, Mattia preached on Good Friday continuously for six hours. Perhaps an exaggeration by the friar recounting the episode, or perhaps it felt like six hours to the friars! Consequently, even this homily we will look at below, Fr Costanzo has made the editorial decision to cut sections out.

Leaving aside the baroque tendencies in the homily, it portrays a rich knowledge and use of the Sacred Scriptures, both Old and New Testament. As with Lawrence of Brindisi, the allegorical use of scripture is in the vein of the likes of Origen and Jerome.

At [6052] Mattia demonstrates how the teaching of the Council of Trent is being implemented at the pastoral level through the homily, explaining efficacious foundation of the sacraments, situating it in passion of Christ through his bodily presence. Another example of the implementation of the Council is in the second sermon (which we will not look at together) at 6066 at footnote 44, where he makes reference to the various versions of the Bible, the Hebrew, the Septuagint and “Our version”, which is the Latina Vulgate, which has only recently been published in 1594, less than three years before this Lenten sermon series.

Also in the same sermon (which we are not looking at) Mattia counteracts the claims of the Protestant reformers in regard to justification alone, without works: [6064] The bed is the cross. The flowers are the ornaments on it. Christ said to the spouse, this flower-filled bed is ours, Milan, did you think that the cross belonged to Christ alone? Did you think, as the heretics think and dream, that once he had suffered that there was nothing left for us to do? This bed is shared. It belongs to Christ and to the Church. Loving spouses do not have two beds, one for one and the other for the other. The Church and every soul that wants to be saved ought to lie down on Christ’s bed.

At 6056, Mattia invites the listeners to read the book of life which is Christ’s death. Here we have echoes of chapter nine of the 1536 Constitutions, dealing with preaching: “Anyone who does not know how to read Christ, the book of life, has no doctrine he can preach.” Mattia appeals to and challenges both the well-educated and the uneducated that all can read this book of life: What height of genius, skill of study, knowledge of literature is needed to contemplate a man hanging on a cross, brought before judges, flogged, ridiculed, condemned and carrying a cross?

Let us now read and discuss this Lenten sermon on the sufferings of Christ: One should think about Christ’s Passion especially about his suffering.

We will now move into looking at the second key element of the Capuchin reform, that of social transformation. To conclude this section on the kerygmatic element, and as a way to make the connection between preaching and social transformation let us finish by looking at a quote from the chronicle of Bernardino of Colpetrazzo:[26]

824. The fruit Giovanni da Fano produced by divine mercy in the two cities of Bergamo and Brescia was wonderful. In Brescia, with the holy lord Girolamo Miani, founder of the Somaschini, he set up the orphanage for boys (orfanelli) called “Mercy.” He got some of them together and had them stay in the choir while he preached. At the right moment he had them cry out, “Mercy!” to move the people to show mercy to them. The plan worked well, for the city was moved so much that a house was given to them near the gate of Saint John, and they have been there ever since.

Later the orphanage for girls (orfanelle) was located near the hospital for the incurable, founded by Brother Francesco of Milan. He was a most learned and fruitful preacher in his time, and because of his sermons, some noblemen were converted to lead a spiritual life. They became the instigators of many good works done in that city. Milan used to be distinguished by enmities and factions, but is now illustrious by the holy works done there, started by those first nobles.

With the preaching of the Capuchins around the year 1570, the ringing of the bell for evening prayer began. When it rang, families gathered together in their homes to pray to God. The Capuchin preacher who preached this and introduced it into Brescia, did the same in Milan under the very holy Archbishop, Cardinal Charles Borromeo. [V, 218]

  1. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Word Made Flesh, vol. I, Explorations in Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 187.
  2. From Fifteen Sonnets of Petrarch, selected and translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Houghton Mifflin & Co., Boston and New York, 1903, sonnet VII, pp. 14-15.
  3. Cf. Costanzo Cargnoni, Il significato storico, teologico e spirituale del titolo “ Doctor Apostolicus” conferito a San Lorenzo da Brindisi, nel cinquantesimo anniversario (1959-2009) in Italia Francescana 85 (2010) p. 288. The poem can be found online: Francesco Petrarca, Canzoniere, 366: with an English translation available at:
  4. Herbert J. C. Grierson M.A., The Poems of John Donne, Vol. I, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1921. p. 326.
  5. Currently available on Youtube: Death be not proud
  6. Brundin, Vittoria Colonna and the spiritual poetics of the Italian reformation, p. 134.
  7. Ibid., p. 135.
  8. Ibid., p. 139.
  9. Ibid., p. 145.
  10. My translation of Colpetrazzo, MHOC IV, pp. 159-160. Also found in FC II, pp. 1217-1218. This quote was found in Michele Camaioni, «DE HOMINI CARNALI FARE SPIRITUALI» Bernardino Ochino e le origini dei cappuccini nella crisi religiosa del Cinquecento p. 221, as of 3/1/2019 available at
  11. Camaioni, Ibid, pp. 241-242.
  12. The Capuchin Reform. A Franciscan Renaissance, text chosen and arranged by Fr. Melchior of Poblandura OFM Cap & translated by Paul Hanbridge OFM Cap, 2003, Media House, Delhi, p. 337.
  13. P. Costanzo Cargnoni O.F.M. Cap. In I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze dell primo secolo, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol III/1, pp.46. Translation by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap at
  14. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1984).
  15. This section is taken from Costanzo Cargnoni, I Frati Cappuccini, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, 1991, III/1, pp. 1797-1801. Translation of sermon sections of Bernardino Ochino are mine.
  16. These are the sermons 23 and 24 of La seconda parte delle prediche di mess. Bernardino Ochino Senese, [Ginevra 1562], n.n .; but there are also previous editions.
  17. Cf. pred. XXIV: ibid., f. nn-nn2.
  18. Pred. 23. ibid f mm 5/1rv.
  19. We have not here, of course, given the harsh antiromanical applications, characteristics of his Protestant preaching.
  20. Gian Matteo Giberti in Catholic Encyclopedia @
  21. Karl Benrath, Bernardino Ochino, of Siena: A Contribution towards the history of the Reformation, translated by Helen Zimmern, London, James Nisbet & Co., 1876, p. 121. Can also be accessed at CapDox.
  22. Ibid,. pp. 106-19.
  23. Ibid., p. 131.
  24. Ibid., p. 213.
  25. «Il predicare stesso ha preso in tutti i predicatori miglior forma, perché ove non si predicavano se non questioni inutile e da pochi intese, uscendo i cappuccini, si posero a predicare l’Evangelio et a riprendere i vitij, havendone una infinita materia et causa nel popolo ascoltante, per le pessime corruttele e sceleratezze che regnavano ne’ credenti. Et per dar forza alle parole di Dio, introdussero di tener sul pergamo il santo crucifisso». SALÒ, MHOMC V, p. 416. This is taken from M. Camaioni, «DE HOMINI CARNALI FARE SPIRITUALI» Bernardino Ochino e le origini dei cappuccini nella crisi religiosa del Cinquecento p. 221, as of 3/1/2019 available at
  26. The Capuchin Reform. A Franciscan Renaissance, text chosen and arranged by Fr. Melchior of Poblandura OFM Cap & translated by Paul Hanbridge OFM Cap, 2003, Media House, Delhi, p. 341-342.