THE CAPUCHINS IN CAMPOBASSO
A CHRONICLE FROM THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
BY PROFESSOR MICHELANGELO ZICCARDI
Republished by Pasquale Albino
Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap
Download PDF of original Italian version of whole book
Padre Geronimo and his three companions had just arrived in the cave when the cavern next to them was lit up by a clear light. Someone who was lying on the foliage raised his head with great difficulty and spoke in a voice filled with anguish. “Is that you my father? … “The monster from hell that I am, I want to receive divine mercy. Can I have your help? … O God! Are you a prophet, an angel from heaven?” … Because anxiety had robbed him of the last bit of strength that he had [Father] Geronimo went to him compassionately. He seemed to recognise the man. “You … the man from Venafro …” He did not make him known to the others. When he had revived a little bit, the man who was lying down cried out: “I am he, my sweet father. Do not keep anything back from these pious people, because I want to make a public confession. I am the man in rags whom you saw unexpectedly at the fountain and I tried to disguise myself when asking you for alms. You said “Orazio, Orazio, I urge you to change! …” [Father] Geronimo wanted to interrupt these words; but the man continued. “Tell me father, if on that Saturday during last September God wanted me to reveal my sins to you for my salvation, why are you trying to hide his glory from them? Oh, the gifts that come from heaven are given to us, should we not cooperate with them? At the time I had just come from Rome and those few words were enough to change my heart. I have come to this hidden place not to make room for more sins but to weep and do penance for my past sins. I admit that I am guilty of many more, but how can I win back my life and honour after so many sins? I ought to be taken to the executioner if I am too afraid to offer up a plea for merit and for help to improve. It is all the same now for God has sent a devouring cancer into my breast which has brought me to the point of death. His judgement is just! How ever could a mangy dog like me by practicing lengthy penance beg so much mercy and compassion from him? There is no chance of salvation for me.” At these words the voice was cut short. He experienced great anxiety and he was seized with indescribable fear… It seemed that that he would be distressed to the point of death. [Father] Geronimo prayed for a short time. He then approached him cheerfully to comfort him and give him hope that these temptations would be cast off in the name of God and that the sincerity of his sorrow and the blood of Jesus Christ would supply for a thousand years of penance. The treasures of God’s mercy are infinite. They are great and glorious in the innocent, and breathtaking in the most putrid sinners. It is only right to solemnly extol them because they have singled out a person who was so bad and wicked. These gentle admonitions little by little calmed Orazio’s spirit and his voice and he was ready to confess.
He came from a middle-class family in D***, was educated in a seminary, taught the humanities and was an aristocrat. He knew how to ingratiate himself so well that no one was able to recognise his wickedness. His craft was treachery and lechery; his influence generated wickedness, his mouth was a chamber of iniquity, his heart a vessel of filth. He corrupted and ruined children, set young people on an evil road, prostituted virgins and brides, performed shameful services for those who were powerful. He sold justice to others. In short, he practiced vice more than anyone else, and was well advanced in deception and hypocrisy. Brigand and restless, expert flatterer, proficient infringer of every virtue, friendship or blood relationship were no obstacles to his depravity or deceitfulness. He was a person whose attitude towards pleasure, profit or revenge knew no bounds. Wanting something better he left his birthplace and fortune smiled on him. However, envy assailed him. The poisonous serpent, which is so powerless against genuine virtue, and deadly in promoting vice, tracked him down with very penetrating eyes, found the den and broke the nest. He burst with anger and jealousy and put his hand to many clear misdeeds and stampedes. In Naples he changed his name and situation and after experiencing a lot of misery and fear he met up with Fabrizio Cacciatore, who in 1580, or about that time, became the ruler of Campobasso. The new servant of the court knew how to deceive and after he had committed a thousand misdeeds in his service, he appeared to the Governor to be innocent. The people thought that he was guilty of nothing but obeying the wicked commands of the Governor. Unfortunately, he presented himself well to Giulio Prignano, the successor to Cacciatore. Munzio Villano understood him but accepted what he did. Leonardo da Vivo tolerated him very little. In spite of this on 29 December 1584 opposition finally became public. Prompted by members of the Court, the magistrate Francesco Cicciano charged him with extortion, robbery, violence and other crimes such as going around armed at night, consorting in a way that endangered everyone. He actually held the loot of thieves and ruffians, acquitted the more guilty, condemned the innocent, uttered calumny, arranged false testimony and (in a most audacious manner) personally assisted fugitives from the castle. Finally, when he saw that he was in such a confined position, he realised that escape was impossible, as they were plotting in secret and all at court had deserted him. When he was called to answer these accusations and bad times had come, he attempted to runaway but the castle was locked. To make good his escape his associates worked out a desperate plan, more out of fear than revenge, which put the final touches on his misery. He surrounded himself with a few but very skilled thieves, hired assassins and forgers whom he knew he could easily command, and they hid him. Only the most trusted knew his hiding place. A forger had always worked there. In the end the crevice swallowed him and his secrets. Then a thief who was a chatterbox came down into the cave never intending to go out again. In the twists of those caves anyone who was not an expert could not move safely by using either cleverness or strength. He came out only because it was so revolting to him to stay. His revenge on those who had persecuted him for good reason was slow and grim. The most chaste and charming young girls among the peasants were dragged with great deftness and secrecy into the trap, insulting their virginal beauty he threw them into the cave. For the rich there were no closed doors through which his cut-throats could not find entry. On the night of 20 March 1558 two assassins in disguise surprised Ruggiero de Scacchis, who was richer and nobler than anyone else, in bed. Having forced him to show them the hidden gold and other precious items, they were ready to kill him. Suddenly a trembling white shape wrapped in a sheet appeared at a hidden doorway. Those ferocious hearts that filled everyone with fear could not withstand the sight of a dead person and they took off with the rich loot. Thus, it was that Ruggiero owed his life to an old servant, who had been sick for a long time and who had been roused by the muffled cries of his master. Overcome with fear the villains did not come back again. Because the factions [crociati and trinitari] hated each other to the death, he readily hid what had happened to him by attributing it to the opposing faction, the crociati.
In the short account that he gave the sinner told the whole story in detail. Because of such precise detail it would appear that he had thought about it for some time and that he had shed tears now and again. When he had told what took place not only did tears burst from his eyes but they flowed so abundantly that it was really pitiful. At times, within the disgusting filth of a dung heap there appears a fresh lily, as if the grace of repentance had flowered in an ugly heart. This is a very great mystery of mercy! The father and his companions knelt down and prayed. Luigi prayed and wept. Leucio, the last of his companions in crime, who was a false lout, prayed and wept. However, the prior, because of his intense anxiety, felt almost nothing, not even when [Father] Geronimo got up and moved from his position. Orazio then slowly relit the lights and shone them on the saint with a look that was filled with entreating and sadness. The saint who was completely wrapped in God came back to himself and said, “It is impossible for a person who does not have faith to understand how God without betraying his justice could have mercy on a soul that was so stained and soiled with such monstrous atrocities and open the treasures of his forgiveness to him. In your case, Orazio, the world would not want the Most Holy One to forgive you because it would set up an example of conversion to the world. Hell would not want you to be forgiven so that 53 years of attention and involvement in creating turmoil would not have been wasted. Perhaps ever heaven would not want to see you forgiven so that it would not lose its appearance of being beautiful. But no, heaven would not share the shameful desire of the world or of hell so that others who are worse than you are may have access to being chosen pearls. No one enters there through their own merits but through the inestimable merits of the REDEEMER. Although it has lasted for a long time, your sorrow today cannot be compared with what is owed for your offenses. How can five and a half months be compared with 53 years. The intensity of the offence is comparable to God’s mercy. Your penance bears little resemblance to your many offenses. The five and a half months of tears and penance, the bitter acorns that you have swallowed, the sackcloth you wore, the continual beatings, the hard litter on which you lay, the pain of the very bitter wounds with which merciful God visited you, are all little in themselves, yet they are more than some think when joined to the merits of Jesus Christ. If God were to chop off your head today it would not be your fault that you had stopped doing these works. However, your torments would end and then become a thousand times bitterer and longer torments would have been prepared for you in Purgatory.” At the hope of suffering, the lights that had been extinguished relit a little for Orazio. He wanted to stammer and would have spoken if his voice had been strong. His comforter replied: “Go, my brother, revive your faith. I will go to heaven and warmly pray for you… Here is the blessed LADY to whom you turned in your sorrow, throw yourself down suppliantly at the throne of HER SON. Here are the Angels, the holy ones who wear crowns, who bow down and pray. Here are all the Saints in Paradise who are humbly prostrate at God’s feet. Already the Angel of mercy presents a golden cup to God. It contains your tears, penance and your most ardent desire to live in long rags in order to undo your misdeeds. CHRIST JESUS has already placed a drop of his priceless blood in it. The Angel of anger had already set his arrow on the bow. At a nod from the MOST MERCIFUL ONE he placed it back in the quiver that hung at his side. Rejoice then! I, an unworthy but very powerful priest, in the most holy name of THE FATHER, THE SON and THE HOLY SPIRIT absolve and free you from every sin. This is a rare but not unique instance of forgiveness so that no one will despair or presume.” At the mention of those names the cave was filled with a long repeated echo and bathed in a heavenly immortal light that overwhelmed everyone. When they came to themselves, it was not the same Orazio there his extraordinary blessing was clear on his face. [Father] Geronimo then gave the signal to leave. The prior and Leucio, who both had broken out in sweat and tears, fell to the ground asking to make their Confession immediately and to remain buried here for the rest of their lives. [Father] Geronimo replied to one of them that for penance he should make the effort to fill the passageway in the cave with solid rubble to a depth of fifteen hands, and then fill it with soil up to the entrance. He should then go to Venafro where he would hear what the will of God was. On the other he imposed that he ought to make public reparation for the scandals: “Because, O brother, we are supposed to be the light of CHRIST placed on a mountain, and what is on the mountain cannot be hidden from the city. Thus our light should shine before men so that they may glorify our FATHER who is in heaven. Let your penance be a shining mirror and you will receive consolation. The disgraced woman concerning whom God accused the rulers of Campobasso, and whom I commanded you to release about one hundred and eight days ago (1 October 1586) has left as I demanded. Therefore, return to your place, cleansed of so much ignominy and pray as much as you can for yourself and for her to obtain kind mercy from CHRIST.”
The following day, before dawn, Father Geronimo was sitting in the confessional. As the light filled the Church of the Holy Trinity, the prior appeared wearing rags and hair-cloth, covered with ashes, flogging himself cruelly and filled with an immense degree of sorrow, threw himself at the father’s feet in sorrow for his sins and accused himself of his faults. “I do not beg you, nor GOD, nor the most holy VIRGIN, but the people whom I have scandalised. GOD placed me over his people; wolves crept in to make me desert them. Instead of being a minister of holiness I turned to being a minister of prevarication. I who should have been the salt of the earth became arsenic, venom and every other kind if toxic medicine to believers. I should have been the light of the world but was a destructive meteor in the LORD’S vineyard. Where can I ever find forgiveness, if this generous people do not intercede for me? …” The he fainted weeping with grief. Then the people were moved with great compassion. At the command of [Father] Geronimo they undertook fasting and public prayer for the penitent. He too undertook very heavy penances and was discharged on Good Friday. At Easter he entered the friary at Campolieto where he lived a very holy life and died in 1619 in the arms of the pious and devout priest Salvatore Ziccardi.
In the midst of many and serious concerns Father Girolomo undertook intermittent preaching. In doing so he achieved more wonderful things day after day. It was wonderful to listen to him as throughout Lent he continually dealt with the same topic of peace. He approached it in many various ways. He used many choice methods of oratory which fell spontaneously from his lips. It is noteworthy that he adapted every sermon to the spiritual progress of the spirit in his hearers since long practice in affairs of the spirit had made him an expert in keeping the flame alive in new converts. The work of rekindling the first ardour takes more time if the trickery of vice has been longstanding and tenacious. This is not removed by the charade of early tears. However, once the iron has been heated iron can be moulded. Once its original shape has been taken away and it becomes cold the new shape will remain. To return to our subject, not all the people were impressed by the first miraculous sermon given because some were afraid of the church, others concerned with business or others could not care less. Many were held far away from the heavenly message. Because of this [Father] Geronimo tried many different approaches and divided himself into a hundred kinds of Geronimo. He did this until all the ugliness of the world was cleansed. He put all kinds of new wood on the fire. It was not only the citizens, but strangers from elsewhere from distant places who responded to the call of such wonders and confessed. It was not Father Gironimo who was speaking but the SPIRIT OF GOD through his lips. Because he loved all holy and celebrated works so much, that Lent was filled with fasting, acts of penance, reception of the sacraments, making restitution, admissions of faults, removal of scandal and similar acts of mercy. Thus in a short time the countryside took on a new appearance which was a genuine and very holy miracle that had been worked by JESUS CHRIST. The rich became generous with those who had little or who were their tenants and who had fallen on hard times and had great need. The poor who were not shown generosity became quiet and were overcome with very humble submission. Thieves were either converted or disappeared. Swindlers, those who lived off taking interest on loans and those who held office in the court began to show new thoughtfulness. Many wrong practices were changed into chaste marriages. Many who had concubines returned to their senses becoming holy and continent. Priests flourished in the splendour of the sanctuary. Public officials returned to doing the right thing. There was a change in direction and real peace.
[Brother] Luigi had no small part in these changes. His shining virtue and odour of sanctity provoked good works. Every day at the ninth hour he was assigned to go begging house to house with the preacher. His sacks were always full, and he took nothing home except a few crusts or crumbs of bread. The rest which could have fed an army as he had obtained from those who were rich, he gave to the poor. He went into one house to beg and into another to give to someone who was sick or to a widow. In this way the two Capuchins and the poor were united in charity. In order to make no distinction between the one who gave and the one who was receiving, [Brother] Luigi wore the sack humbly on his back. However, not only bread was placed in it but all kinds of thing, thanks be to God. One day, he said, this is what happened. A rich and well-dressed young man, who had recently lost his father, put a purse with some money wrapped in paper into the sack. Moved by God he immediately took it to a room on the ground floor of the little church of St. Christina where a widow with three poor children was famished with hunger and had no clothes. “Take this purse, my sister.” The woman took it and praised God. After a short time, she said: “Fra Luigi, Fra Luigi,” and she called him back inside. “There are gold coins here.” she said. “They certainly do not belong to us.” Yes, my daughter, they belong to you. Did you not have a beautiful vineyard in Vallevona? Did this man not take it from you ten years ago? You were offered not even a third of the price. Here are the other two thirds which his son has unknowingly given you. Now you are able to feed and clothe yourself. Since you knew how to endure the demands the wicked man made on you, accept the prize that the most just Remunerator has given you.” The donor returned. “This time, sweet Sir, you have given an abundant and rich gift. A copper cup was required and there is a gold one in the sack. Do not worry; the gold has gone into the hands of four poor women here below the little church. Now you have paid the debt that your father owed on the vineyard. You will find the documents in a container in the old silo. Be happy, Sir, your charity will be rewarded by GOD.” Five days later, an unknown wretch knocked on the door. It was the widow’s brother, Minco Grande. After having finished his employment with the army (finishing in Flanders), he was returning rich and distinguished after twenty years absence and could find no other relative except his sister!
[Father] Geronimo’s love for the poor was not restricted to what happened during that Lent. He wanted to guarantee it for the future. In Campobasso the Monte di Pietà had almost collapsed because of bad management. About 1580 the noble Doctor Liberatore Pistilli took over and raised the resources to 340 measures of wheat. However, on 12 September 1583 he announced that that sum and the ancient reserves had been squandered. Thus there was not enough to assist the poor. He tried to replenish this as well as to improve the administration. He was well versed in such business because as a young man he had worked in the hospital and orphanage of the Most Holy Nunziata in Naples. Thus in carrying out this work he had great devotion to the VIRGIN MARY. He remembered her title of Co-redemptrix. Thus, he had great concern for the poor, the sick and the neglected whom he wanted to help from the bottom of his heart. He urged the people to make donations to the Monte di Pietà. He gained it more respect by giving it the constitutions of the monte della Nunziate, adding more very important rubrics of his own that had not previously been heard of here. Everyone had listened to Father in Campobasso and on 28 February he issued a decree concerning the new Monte. Every wealthy person had to contribute. On 2 March, Agostino Rendina gave 1000 ducats on behalf of the University. Vincenzo Scacciato, Pietro Mariano, Cristallo Bonafiglia and Francescangiolo Prunauro were appointed as professors.
I do not want to omit the contribution [Father] Geronimo made to restoration of the losses of the Monte. The public and private contributions were restored so that what ever was fraudulent was restored and restitution made. In fact, in the church of St. Loenardo, on the night of 2nd March, all the lights were extinguished, and gifts and money were received. Restitution was made by the University, the clergy, fraternities and private citizens. Documents were furnished concerning land and houses that had been requisitioned. The power of his eloquent words had constrained usurpers.